Waco: Remember LPs? They’re back

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(KWTX) Dust off that old turntable and wipe down those LPs because vinyl records are making a comeback all across the country.

LP sales are brisk in Central Texas and it’s no surprise. Vinyl records are on pace to outsell CDs for the first time in more than three decades. (MGN/file)

Today long-playing vinyl records are making an amazing comeback.

High-quality digital recordings on compact discs were introduced in 1982 and almost immediately the vinyl record industry began to shrink.

CD sales have outpaced the sale of LPs since 1986, but change is in the wind.

Big brand stores like Best Buy are shying away from the CD sales market and opting to revive vinyl in their stores.

Best Buy, in fact, has announced come next June it won’t sell CDs at all.

Jim Blasé, co-owner of a record shop that specializes in vinyl, has been watching the vinyl revival for the past five years and he says "The vinyl albums have been selling a little bit more and a little bit more, and now it's kind of steamrolled.

“It's probably two-thirds of what we sell now," he said.

And surprise, he says, millennials make up the biggest vinyl buyers, buying new releases from alternative bands like Imagine Dragons and The Killers and rap artists like Kendrick Lamar, even though they are streaming those same musicians on Spotify and Pandora.

”If we let this music disappear, it will be tragic”

Baylor University is home to the largest collection of vinyl recordings on the planet, bigger than the Library of Congress, much of it due to the efforts of Journalism Professor Robert Darden, who for many years has been researching and cataloging the history of gospel music.

He’s written 25 books on the topic, many of them considered the best in print, and oversees the largest digital collections of gospel songs, and now sermons, on earth.

“If we let this music disappear, it will be tragic for mankind,” Darden said recently during an interview in his campus office.

Darden began the project in earnest in 2005 after he penned an editorial in the New York Times.

Businessman Charles Royce read it and called to offer Darden $370,000 to get the project started.

Darden had been researching black spirituals and gospel music for some time and grew frustrated that he’d learn of songs and not be able to find a single recording available for sale and, in some cases, could find no recording at all.

So Darden began collecting the gems, himself, and on the way was able to assemble a team of engineers and researchers who today use the finest digitization and recording equipment that money can buy.

He estimated the library currently contains some 14,000 digitized songs, and 60-percent of that number are the single copy in existence.

Darden has a staff of several, including a couple of engineers who make the digital recordings and that’s where the vinyl comes in.

There’s a special vinyl record cleaner, of the 1950s vintage, “that’s the best automatic record cleaner that’s ever been made,” Travis Taylor, one of the engineers, said.

Once clean, Taylor takes the vinyl, replays it in his studio sound lab and turns it into data.

That data is stored in 110-terabytes on seven different mega computers across the country.

Not that there haven’t been problems.

Darden pointed out when the state-of-the-art digitization lab was installed “there was an obvious rumble in the playback.

“Everybody thought I was nuts but I could hear it,” Darden said.

The fix involved installing four inches of rubber under the room’s floor to further insulate it from vibration that was caused by trains rolling down the tracks in downtown Waco some eight blocks away.

Another issue, Darden said, is there is no discography of black gospel music.

“We know every, or almost every, jazz song ever recorded, every popular song, every rock tune, because they all have a very distinct and complete discography, but in this we don’t have any.”

It’s a labor of love, without question, and one that seems to have no end.

“I hope this goes on long after I’m gone,” Darden said.

”I’ve got a bunch of Beatles stuff”

Vinyl records always have been a market driven by young people.

Bell County Chief Deputy Chuck Cox discovered them when he was a kid growing up in Grand Prairie in the 1950s and today, he’s still hooked.

“My first record player was handed off from my older sister, just a box with a speaker on the front, a turntable and a tonearm,” he said.

“I found this fine stereo in one of the stores downtown and it was 42-bucks,” he said, “I dropped by to see it every time I was downtown.

“It had two speakers that folded out, a dropdown turntable and a tonearm with a real diamond needle.

“I mowed yards and cut hay for a long time, but when I raised that $42, it was mine,” Cox remembered fondly.

Cox loves the Beatles and has a collection to prove it.

“I have a copy of seven of them and I’m looking for the other six,” Cox said, explaining the group released a total of 13 studio albums in the U.S.

“I’ve got a bunch of Beatles stuff.”

The four lads from Liverpool who changed the world actually released more than 13 albums, but only 13 were actually recorded in a sound studio.

Cox said he has many of the others, too, but the studio collection is the prize.

In their native United Kingdom, between 1962 and 1970, the band released 12 studio albums, but released 13 worldwide, a Beatles discography website says, then adds to that 22 LPs and 22 singles.

The website goes on to say: “However, the band's international discography is complicated, due to different versions of their albums sometimes being released in other countries, particularly during their early years on Capitol Records.

“The Beatles' discography was originally released on the vinyl format, with full-length LPs, shorter EPs (extended plays) and singles,” the discography website says.

But the British invasion into the U.S. very quickly became about much more than music and records.

There were movies, toys, dolls, games, buttons and pins, stationery, greeting cards, clothing … almost anything one could imagine being saleable.

“I have a Beatles button. The kind of button you’d pin on your shirt or jacket. My sister won it in one of those penny gum ball machines at a grocery store in Grand Prairie. It’s really one of my favorites,” Cox said.

“My (older) sister is into Elvis and she’s as bad about him as I am about the Beatles. That’s how I got started.”

Cox said he keeps the special albums and their covers stored separately to save wear-and-tear on the covers.

One album cover, “Yesterday and Today” released in June 1966 depicted the Beatles in the studio in a series of pictures of the group dressed in butcher smocks and draped with pieces of meat and body parts from plastic baby dolls.

Although not originally intended as an album cover, the Beatles submitted photographs from the session for their promotional materials and it was Paul McCartney who pushed strongly for the photo's use as, McCartney said, “our comment on the Vietnam War.”

The album quickly became known as the “Butcher Cover”

Reaction was immediate and harsh in the U.S. and Capitol Records started receiving complaints from some dealers, so much so that the album was recalled under orders from the chairman of Capitol's parent company EMI and all copies were ordered shipped back to the record label, which is why it’s so sought after by collectors today.

The original art was covered with a paste-over picture of the four band members posed around an open trunk.

“I found out that if you’re really careful, you can get one of those paste-over copies and remove the picture and lots of people try to do that,” Cox said.

“I find stuff all the time at antique stores and flea markets … I’m always looking,” he said.

“And some of the rare stuff can demand a bunch of money today.”

He said John Lenon’s personal copy of the butcher album recently sold at auction for $230,000.

He said he plans to frame album covers and hang them in his Beatles Mania room, when he gets around to fixing that up.

”Vinyl never completely went away”

David Spriggs has been selling vinyl records in and around Killeen for nearly 44 years and he says the vinyl revival really isn’t surprising at all.

He opened Renaissance Records in Killeen in 1976 and today still is selling vinyl at a shop in Salado and wherever else he can, he says.

He got into the business because “there was a revival in the record business back then,” he said.

Then came the CDs.

“Everything moved to CDs,” Spriggs said, but “vinyl never completely went away.”

“Spriggs sold CDs, cassette tapes and vinyl, which he said at one point got kind of hard to get.

“There was an underground market for a time,” Spriggs said, and when CDs and Cassettes got big, “the big record companies gave you a chance to get music on vinyl, but you had to order it at release and it never was available again.”

A major motivator for customers to buy vinyl these days is “they’re rebuilding their record collections from years ago,” Spriggs said, and, he said, his customers seem to be pretty evenly divided when it comes to age.

In the beginning there was Thomas Edison

In the beginning it was all Thomas Edison’s doing when he invented his phonograph, which, he claimed, was the first device ever to record, and therefore preserve a human voice.

The device he created recorded and played back sound on tinfoil-coated cylinders.

Ten years later, the gramophone record was developed, and although Edison is often referred to as the inventor of the gramophone record, actually it was German-born inventor Emil Berliner who patented his system in November 1887 and introduced the device in 1888.

Berliner’s first flat disk, or record, was made of glass and was only 12.5 cm in diameter, just half a centimeter larger than the compact disc that was to be introduced 95 years later.

Berliner used shellac as the material for his records, which LP manufacturers used for 78 r.p.m. records until the introduction of the Long-Playing album in 1948.

“Customers who purchased one of Berliner’s first record players were able to enjoy recordings of popular numbers such as 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' and 'Our Father', which they received free with their players,” Wikipedia says.

And then there was the CD

Berliner’s original recording disc, however, had a playing time of barely one minute and CDs can hold around 80 minutes of music.

Sony, Corp. introduced the CDP-101, the world's first commercially released compact disc player on Oct. 1, 1982.

The first model sold for about $730 in the U.S.

The CD is a “digital optical disc data storage format that was co-developed by Philips and Sony and released in 1982,” the online encyclopedia Wikipedia says.

The first CD played on BBC Radio Scotland in October 1982.

Blasé maintains vinyl is better because "It gives you a much warmer sound. I just prefer it to the digital way," Blase said.

Darden fully agreed.

“It’s the depth, the roundness of the bass sounds that can’t be discerned otherwise.”

Blaise says there's “just something” about vinyl -- the look, the feel, and most especially the album’s cover art -- that consumers just don’t get from a CD and certainly not from streaming.

"It's a piece of art," he said. "Bands and artists will fight over what the cover looks like, more than the songs."

Darden said the art, especially that on old gospel albums, is not replaceable.

His researchers, after about three years’ investigation, identified one cover artist known only as “Harvey” for more than 60 years, who penned hundreds of covers.

"You know, kids as young as 10- and 12-years old are into it," Blase said.

"So, I think it's going to last for quite a while."

In January of 2015, the CD was honored as the most valued Philips innovation, voted by readers of the Eindhovens Dagblad and listeners of Omroep Brabant, as well as by Philips Research employees, the Philips Corp. webpage says.

Both the public and the research employees were unanimous in voting for the CD as the winner.

As 2019 draws to a close, however, streaming services are the main source for recorded music.

In 2018 revenues for the paid subscription format totaled $4.7 billion and represented 47.3 percent of the $9.8 billion spent on recorded music, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

LP and CD sales combined totaled just more than $1.1 billion.