On Wednesday, the words of Tom Petty’s album “Wildflowers & All the Rest” permeated the air of Mark Kriebaum’s Washington home. The works of this late rock ‘n’ roll crooner — who is heralded as one of the most iconic voices of his generation — are just some of the hundreds of records in Kriebaum’s self-described “Vinyl Room.”
Visitors to this personal collection are likely to find a variety of music genres represented. The vinyl records range from albums produced by The Clash to Bruce Springsteen to Hot Tuna, an American blues band.
Kriebaum is one of several Washington area residents who are delighted with the resurgence of a music medium that was once thought to be nearly extinct.
Since the mid to late 2000s, vinyl record sales have soared in the U.S. By 2018, Nielsen Music was reporting that vinyl sales were up more than 20-fold compared to 2006. The year 2019 saw 18.8 million LPs sold in the U.S. alone, which accounted for 17 percent of total album sales that year.
Chris Brough, owner of River City Music in Washington, said he’s seen all these trends reflected in his store since it started selling vinyl in 2017. He usually keeps 400 to 500 albums stocked and said he sells some every day year round.
“People want the experience of holding it,” said Brough, who opened River City Music in 2008 in the former home of Music Biz. “I think people like the idea of records. It has come full circle from when I was a teenager in the ’80s.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, vinyl sales were up 45 percent nationally from 2019, which was the 14th straight year of growth, according to Nielsen Music’s annual industry report. The trend is locally driven. The same report showed that independent stores like Brough’s accounted for half of all U.S. vinyl sales in 2014.
Even amid COVID-19, vinyl LP sales ended the first half of the year with 9.2 million units sold compared to 8.3 million in the first half of 2019, an 11.2 percent increase. And in September 2020, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that vinyl sales had overtaken CD sales for the first time in 34 years, accounting for $232.1 million compared to the $129.9 million brought in by CDs.
The artists fueling the growth have not changed much. In 2018, Nielsen reported that The Beatles, Pink Floyd and David Bowie were the top three best-selling artists on vinyl in the U.S. Also in the top 10 were Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix.
“Growing up in the’70s, that was a big thing on Saturdays to stack the turntable while we did stuff around the house,” Brough said. “I’ve always been passionate about music and bought records through the ‘70s and ’80s, so when I saw the interest in that again I thought, ‘Gosh, I’ve got some room. I’m just going to do it.’ ”
Brough has gotten to know several regular customers who come in once a week looking for albums to add to their collections, some as young as 10 years old. A few of them have amassed libraries of more than 1,000 pieces.
We Will Rock You
Bill Soete, New Haven, remembers starting his collection about a decade ago and being able to find the classic ’70s and ’80s rock of his youth at Goodwill for 50 cents per record. He later found River City Music, which he said is now where he shops almost exclusively, as the new popularity of vinyl means his days of finding a diamond in the rough at Goodwill are all but over.
“I got Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ there for 50 cents. I felt like I was robbing them blind. They just didn’t know what they had. ... Five years ago I could find (albums) easily, but now it’s really hard to find an original album unless you buy from River City or something like that,” Soete said. “I think everybody’s jumped on the bandwagon.”
His 1,000-piece collection is categorized by genre and decade, and includes everything from classic rock albums like Rush and Led Zeppelin to live recordings to movie soundtracks. The library’s crowning jewel is Soete’s set of every original Beatles album.
For him, the treasure trove of records he keeps in his basement is not only a music collection, but also an art collection and a scrapbook of memories from when he was a kid and young adult.
“I just enjoy listening to music on vinyl because the crackles and pops sound like it did back when I was growing up,” he said. “Sometimes I buy an album just for how cool the album cover is.”
For Kriebaum, the vinyls in his library don’t just remind him of the ones he played growing up. In many cases, they are the exact same pieces.
“When CDs came out, I didn’t get rid of my vinyl collection like a lot of people did. I just kept it all stored away in my basement,” Kriebaum said. “Now that vinyl has come back, I got a new turntable and a new receiver.”
Kriebaum’s favorites to spin also include classics of his childhood such as Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and Steppenwolf.
“(I had) basically all those early bands they played on KSHE 94.7,” he recalled fondly. “We would listen to KSHE and then go out and buy the records, then have a party and invite friends and play all these albums.”
While Kriebaum said he enjoys having his original copies for sentimental reasons, he has been replacing many of his old discs with the newer re-releases that have steadily become more common as the vinyl industry grows. The prominence of re-releases and vinyls of newly released albums has led to some disagreements in the record collecting community over which is better — new or old.
The Times They Are a-Changin’
Nearly all records pressed up until the early 1990s create their sounds with analog recordings, which means each disc contains grooves uniquely carved to mirror the shape of the soundwaves the original sound created. This means the audio output is as exact as possible, but it also means any damage to or dirt on the disc creates static noises that can overpower the music or ruin the stylus of the turntable. By contrast, a digital recording takes snapshots of the analog signal — for CDs it’s 44,100 snapshots per second — and uses the information to approximate the shape of the soundwave.
When vinyl records became popular again so suddenly, many of the original analog master tracks that had been used to create classic albums were inaccessible or had been damaged by time. Thousands of them were lost in a 2008 fire at Universal Studios in Hollywood. So to meet the growing consumer demand, records were recreated using digital masters. Some of the digital masters used were high quality, while others were lower quality than CD recordings. This led to a perception that the new records being mass produced were of no better quality despite costing $15 to $50 each.
In 2017, the Vinyl Factory magazine and record label wrote that the distinction between analog and digital matters less than the distinction between the condition of the specific analog and the quality of the specific digital recording. Brough, who sells both analog and digital records at River City Music, would agree.
“I’ve told people the past couple years that it’s fun to buy the original, but it can be a lifelong quest to find one you’re comfortable putting on your turntable,” he said. “We see so many (analog) records come in that we have to pitch because they’re so damaged. Sometimes having a brand new clean copy can save you a lot of time.”
When Kriebaum has a record that he wants to get rid of, he often lists it on eBay and uses the money to purchase a record he does want. By doing so, he is participating in a huge swath of the vinyl industry that is rarely reported in the official industry stats: used records. The music marketplace site Discogs lists more than 40 million LPs and Singles for sale, and an eBay search for “vinyl records” will return 6.4 million results. Industry statistics don’t include used vinyls purchased at secondhand stores, garage sales, estate sales or online marketplaces, and few agencies track these numbers at all.
What also goes untracked is the number of vinyls traded or gifted each year. Soete said he enjoys trading the records he no longer wants with other collectors in the area.
“It’s like trading baseball cards,” Soete said. “I’m not in it to make money. I just like to collect them and play them.”
Teach Your Children
Another force propelling vinyl sales into the millions is people who were almost all born after CDs surpassed vinyl in popularity in the late 1980s. International Creative Management (ICM) reported in 2016 that nearly half of vinyl customers were 35 and younger. In 2014, the largest physical retailer of vinyl records was Urban Outfitters, an international chain of clothing and lifestyle stores targeted toward youth and young adults. The stores captured 8.1 percent of the market share that year, second only to Amazon’s 12.3 percent, according to Billboard.
Brough said he also has seen this reflected in the vinyl customers in his store.
“It’s fun reliving my past through the customers and seeing kids getting into it,” he said. “When we talk about (music) we find that we have more common ground than we realize sometimes.”
Eli Sullentrup, 18, is a regular at River City who started collecting in middle school when his dad gave him some of his old favorites, including Queen, Steve Miller Band and Foreigner.
“That’s what really ignited my interest in seeing the record spin,” the Washington resident said. Since then, he’s acquired two peach crates full of vinyls and hopes to one day have a library as expansive as Brough’s, Soete’s or Kriebaum’s.
“When I see a really big collection in one place, I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said. “I’m fascinated by people’s collections.”
Another young adult getting a head start on his collection with his dad’s help is Soete’s son, Will. His Christmas gift this year included three vinyl albums.
“He’s into Pearl Jam and likes Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin,” Soete said of his son. “I just think it’s so cool that kids are still listening to old music and getting into collecting vinyl.”
Sullentrup started working at Target last month, which recently started carrying more vinyls and fewer CDs nationwide. He said he loves seeing the look people of all ages get when they hold the albums in their hands.
“Seeing other people pick up the albums -— I love their excitement, like ‘Oh my gosh! This is “Nevermind” by Nirvana!’ — It’s just an experience you can’t replicate,” Sullentrup said. “It’s an art form that cannot be replicated.”