Business

Surprising turn of events for vinyl

PORTLAND – It was a fortuitous typo for the Fred Meyer retail chain.

This spring, an employee intending to order a special CD-DVD edition of R.E.M.’s latest release “Accelerate” inadvertently entered the “LP” code instead. Soon boxes of the big, vinyl discs showed up at several stores.

Some sent them back. But a handful put them on the shelves, and 20 LPs sold the first day.

The Portland-based company, owned by The Kroger Co., realized the error might not be so bad after all. Fred Meyer is now testing vinyl sales at 60 of its stores in Oregon, California, Washington and Alaska.

Other mainstream retailers are giving vinyl a spin, too. Best Buy is testing sales at some stores. And online music giant Amazon.com, which has sold vinyl for most of the 13 years it has been in business online, created a special vinyl-only section last fall.

The best-seller so far at Fred Meyer is The Beatles album “Abbey Road.” But musicians from the White Stripes and the Foo Fighters to Metallica and Pink Floyd are selling well, the company says.

“It’s not just a nostalgia thing,” said Melinda Merrill, spokeswoman for Fred Meyer. “The response from customers has just been that they like it, they feel like it has a better sound.”

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, manufacturers’ shipments of LPs jumped more than 36 percent from 2006 to 2007 to more than 1.3 million. Shipments of CDs dropped more than 17 percent during the same period to 511 million, as they lost some ground to digital formats.

The resurgence of vinyl centers on a long-standing debate over analog versus digital sound. Digital recordings capture samples of sound and place them very close together as a complete package that sounds nearly identical to continuous sound.

Analog recordings on most LPs are continuous, which produces a truer sound – though, paradoxically, some new LP releases are being recorded and mixed digitally but delivered analog.

Some purists also argue that the compression required to allow loudness in some digital formats weakens the quality as well.

But it’s not just about the sound. Audiophiles say they also want the format’s overall experience – the sensory experience of putting the needle on the record, the feeling of side A and side B and the joy of lingering over the liner notes.

“I think music products should be more than just music,” said Isaac Hudson, a 28-year-old vinyl fan standing outside one of Portland’s larger independent music stores.

The interest seems to be catching on. Turntable sales are picking up and the few remaining record pressers say business is booming.

Many major artists – Elvis Costello, the Raconteurs and others – are issuing LPs and encouraging fans to check out their albums on vinyl. On Amazon.com, one of the best-selling LPs is Madonna’s latest album, “Hard Candy.”

But the LP isn’t going to muscle out CDs or iPod soon.

Nearly 450 million CDs were sold last year, versus just less than 1 million LPs, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Based on the first three months of this year, Nielsen says vinyl album sales could reach 1.6 million in 2008.



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