You can look at the numbers many different ways. In 2010, overall album sales were down 13 percent, according to a January report from Nielsen SoundScan -- but sales of vinyl records were up 14 percent. That's the best sales record for the classic LP since 1991.
Then again, vinyl counts for less than one percent of that overall annual figure. Plus, vinyl's increase was 89 percent in 2008, and 33 percent in 2009 -- so the resurgence is losing steam.
The cresting wave, though, is enough to keep the lights on and the turntables spinning at Chicago record shops, many of which now focus sales on vinyl records rather than CDs -- and most of which are hosting special sales and events this Saturday on the occasion of an annual hipster holiday, Record Store Day.
Record Store Day began in 2007 as a way to champion local, independent record shops. Many artists now issue limited-edition titles or box sets for the occasion -- chiefly on vinyl -- and this Saturday shops in Chicago will feature in-store entertainment and other events.
If you haven't been to a brick-and-mortar record store lately, many of them have become record stores again -- not CD stores. Check out Laurie's Planet of Sound, 4639 N. Lincoln, for instance. The floor used to be all CD bins, and the vinyl was shoved in the corner. About a year ago, that layout was reversed.
"That's pretty much because CDs just stopped selling," says the shop's owner and namesake, John Laurie. "I've always hoped this would happen, really. I'd been one of those making the rallying cry for vinyl. From day one we've always sold vinyl, and people have always sworn by it, that it sounds better than CDs. Younger people aren't even hearing CDs anymore. They've only heard compressed digital files, so when they hear a record and the presence it brings, they're amazed. We're selling turntables like crazy."
The uptick has been enough to inspire new specialty shops around the city, such as Morry Barak's upcoming Favorite Records, 1535 W. Division (opening in mid-May), a shop featuring guest DJs and bins full of more than 40,000 records -- most of them collectible 45 rpm singles.
"The 45 is one of the longest-lived mediums in music," Barak says. "They were introduced in the late '40s and are still being made. It was the teen medium when rock 'n' roll was growing in the '50s and '60s. We've got some of these special cases with musical notes on them, or this one with a very modern '60s circular design -- it's like the record equivalent of the Marina Towers. They're super-collectible, almost like toys. But they're real records, and they have devotees in all genres. I mean, what punk band hasn't put out a 45?"
Only they refer to them as "a 7-inch" -- size, not speed.
Record Store Day vinyl to look for
In fact, most of the Record Store Day releases newly available on Saturday are 7-inches and special-edition vinyl LPs. A full list of the day's releases can be found at recordstoreday.com/specialreleases; here are some of the most interesting platters to look for:
Eric Clapton & John Mayall, "Lonely Years" b/w "Bernard Jenkins"
(7-inch, black vinyl)
Previously issued on a mail-order-only label, these two rare performances find the modern blues pioneers swapping songs (the A-side is Mayall's, the B-side instrumental is Clapton's). Recordings are sourced from the original mono from October 1965.
The dB's, "Picture Sleeve" b/w "Write Back"
(7-inch, black vinyl)
Power pop fans, rejoice! The dB's original lineup has reconvened -- a new album is due next year -- and these are their first new songs in nearly 25 years. "Picture Sleeve" is written by Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple; the B-side is by Will Rigby.
Flaming Lips, "Heady Nuggs: The First Five Warner Bros. Records (1992-2002)"
(12-inch LPs, 140-gram vinyl)
A handsome, limited-edition set of the Oklahoma band's heady creative peak, including the albums "Hit to Death in the Future Head," "Transmissions From the Satellite Heart," "Clouds Taste Metallic," "The Soft Bulletin" and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." (Oops, they left out 1997's "Zaireeka"!)
Foo Fighters, "Medium Rare"
(12-inch LP, 120-gram black vinyl)
On the heels of their new album, "Wasting Light," Dave Grohl & Co. throw out this set of 13 covers for RSD, featuring the hard rockers ripping through Paul McCartney's "Band on the Run," Joe Walsh's "Life of Illusion," Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues," Prince's "Darling Nikki," Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar" and more.
Green Day and Husker Du, "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely"
(7-inch, colored vinyl)
The A-side features Husker Du's original, from the 1986 album "Candy Apple Grey," while the B-side has Green Day's cover of the same song recorded in the '90s.
Mumford & Sons with Laura Marling, "Dharohar Project"
The first physical release of this EP features the acclaimed indie-folk band Mumford & Sons with Laura Marling and a collective of Rajasthani folk musicians at a school in Delhi during a 2009 tour of India. It includes creative new versions of M&S's "To Darkness" and Marling's "Devil's Spoke."
(12-inch EP, black vinyl, 4,000 available)
This EP was sold during the iconic band's 1992 tours of Australia and Japan. It features two originals ("Aneurysm," "Even in His Youth") plus some covers (Devo's "Turnaround," the Wipers' "D-7," the Vaselines' "Molly's Lips" and "Son of a Gun").
Various Artists, "No Peace/War"
(7-inch, clear blue vinyl, 135 available)
This special issue, exclusive to Chicago's Reckless Records, is a short compilation curated by Dwid Van Hellion of the hardcore band Integrity, a set of Western hardcore bands (Integrity, Cape of Bats, Rot in Hell, Gehenna, more) covering favorite tracks by Japanese hardcore bands. It's a project that's been shelved for 17 years and is just now seeing the light of day.