Owner Rich Wagner holds vinyl merchandise sold at Rediscover Records on East Chicago Street in downtown Elgin. The store sells older records and new releases. January 3, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 9, 2013 6:09AM
ELGIN — Phonograph records on vinyl. LPs. 45s. Hi fi. Stereos.
They sound like dinosaur technologies from the dim past. In this digital-download MP3 age when even the compact disc seems old-fashioned in some quarters, surely the vinyl record is as dead as the wire recorder, the eight-track tape or the cassette deck.
Or is it? The nationwide sales figures for music recordings on vinyl tell a slightly different story:
1.1 million in 1996, when CDs finally reigned triumphant.
Just 900,000 a decade later, in 2006. Obviously, just a few diehards were still hanging on.
But wait: 2.8 million vinyl records were sold in 2010, up more than threefold in just four years.
Then 3.9 million in 2011, up as much in one year as the total number of sales five years before.
And up again last year, to what is expected to total 4 million-plus.
With new vinyl still accounting for less than 2 percent of all music sales, LPs aren’t about to reclaim their throne as the dominant way to play music. But while CD sales are plummeting, MP3 downloads are falling, and lots of music is just plain getting stolen off the Internet, vinyl sales are going up every year.
The turnaround is great yet not unexpected news for Elgin vinyl enthusiasts such as Rich Wagner and Curtis Evans — one who makes his living selling vinyl records and the other who gets his enjoyment listening to and collecting both old and new vinyl albums.
The 46-year-old Wagner, whose family owns the legendary Chick-N-Dip restaurant in Hampshire, stopped working there in 2010 so he could open a shop called Rediscover Records at 207 E. Chicago St. in Elgin. He shares that downtown space with a couple antique dealers under the overall store name “Two Doors Down” and attracts customers from as far away as Crystal Lake and Chicago.
The racks in his store — red-painted wood cut out of his aunt’s barn in Marengo — hold about 6,000 groove-on-disc recordings. About 80 percent are used records from as far back as the 1930s. The other 20 percent are brand new releases.
Some of Wagner’s customers grew up playing 33¹/3 revolutions-per-minute long-playing vinyl albums and 45 rpm single-shot discs, which had a hit song on one side and a filler “flip side” song on the other. They can remember buying them in the ’50s and ’60s at other Elgin record stores, such s Splittgerber’s on Douglas Avenue and Apple Tree on Larkin Avenue. They can remember culling through the newly released 45s and picking up the latest “Silver Dollar Survey” list of that week’s top-selling 45s, published by WLS Radio.
Today, Wagner says, Rediscover Records is one of just two stores in the Fox Valley that specialize in vinyl. The other is Kiss the Sky in Batavia.
‘A new generation’
“A new generation is discovering vinyl,” Wagner said. “I get baby boomers who are revisiting the music of their youth. But most of my customers are under 35, even under 30, who did not grow up on vinyl. A lot who come in are in high school or just out of high school. But they appreciate the richer sound of vinyl, and they appreciate the physical aspects of being able to hold something in your hand and look at the cover pictures and read the liner notes.”
Evans, a professional musician and songwriter who lives in the new Elgin ArtSpace artists colony building downtown, is part of that new generation.
“Vinyl delivers a natural low-end (tone) that digital doesn’t quite have,” Evans said as he browsed through Rediscover’s latest offerings.
“Plus, a vinyl record is physical. You have the art work,” Evans said. “And with vinyl, you tend to listen to the whole album. You find some good songs you might never have run into if you just listened to the hits.”
Wagner buys used records from customers and picks up other inventory at garage sales, flea markets and record shows.
“We’re a little selective, but we’ll look at what you have and its condition,” Wagner said. “But when somebody brings in a pile and says that ‘these used to belong to my grandma,’ I cringe.”
New, old and re-newed
Some of the “new” items in Rediscover’s racks are re-releases of classics that originally came out on 33¹/3 rpm vinyl. Bob Dylan has gone back to “Highway 61 Revisited” with a new vinyl edition. Just two months ago, the keepers of the Beatles music reissued the Fab Four’s entire life product on vinyl LPs, with the original album covers and notes. And if you’re a true aficionado, Wagner will sell you a box set containing every reissued Beatles album plus a 250-page collector’s-item Beatles book for a mere $398.98. (Evans already has bought it.)
But many of the new vinyl albums in Rediscover‘s bins come from hot current artists. When Taylor Swift released her album “Red” a few months ago, it came out on vinyl as well as CD and MP3.
Also simultaneously releasing new albums on vinyl have been the likes of Katie Perry, Aimee Mann and Wilco.
“Almost every new release on vinyl comes with a certificate for a free download of the digital version,” Wagner notes. “So you get the best of both worlds. You have the liner notes and the gatefold and the printed lyrics and the vinyl album to play at home. But you can also have the music in your iPod to enjoy while you’re jogging or driving in your car.”
New albums at Rediscover go for about $20 to $30, most used ones from $5 to $15. But a lot of the more routine and worn used ones are priced at $1. And some rare collector’s items fetch more. The most expensive used recording in the store is a $189 album by Incubus recorded in 2001. The band wanted to co-release it on vinyl, Wagner says. But with vinyl then being totally eclipsed by CD sales, only 1,000 copies were pressed.
A 50-year-old-plus jazz album by Miles Davis named “Someday My Prince Will Come” is priced at $95.
Not all the new stuff consists of entire “albums.” New 45s are still not very common. But a number of 7-inch mini-records are released each year. One popular one at Rediscover was made for fans of the AMC TV series “Mad Men.” For $9.98, you can hear actress Jessica Paré, who plays hero Don Draper’s French-Canadian wife, singing the ear-wormy French pop song “Zou Bisou Bisou,” plus an orchestral rendition of the series’ haunting theme song.
Even most “Mad Men” maniacs probably never realized that theme is titled “A Beautiful Mine.”
One kind of novelty available from yore is the picture disc. For example, Rediscover has LPs of music from the movie “Return of the Jedi” with the entire face of the record painted to look like Luke Skywalker ($20) or like an Ewok ($39.98). A picture disc from Bon Jovi goes for $18.99.
Tapes no, 78s yes
Unlike resurging vinyl, the two media that came between the record and the digital era — cassette tapes and eight-track tapes — have “died,” Wagner said. With neither the superior packaging of vinyl nor the convenience of MP3, these now have few friends and little demand on the market. “We do have a couple of eight tracks as a conversation piece, priced at $1,” he said.
But the shop does still stock dozens of examples of the vinyl record’s predecessor — the 78 rpm record, manufactured in the 1930s and 1940s when most records held only one or two songs on each side and would shatter into a thousand pieces if you dropped them. One is titled “Crosby Sings” by, of course, Bing Crosby.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the thin, relatively unbreakable “long-playing” record at 33¹/3 was considered a major breakthrough, referred to as a “long-playing record,” or LP. Early ones were issued in both mono and stereo versions.
Wagner’s shop also sells all the equipment you need to enjoy vinyl. He has record players (yes, in stereo) and even those little yellow inserts you have to put into the big middle hole in a 45 before it will fit the spindle on most turntables.
And where else could you find “Around the World with Steve Allen and His Orchestra,” “Songs, Themes and Laughs From the Andy Griffith Show” or a spoken-word album featuring speeches from Hitler and Churchill?