By: Chelsea Pineda
It’s a rainy Thursday afternoon when I venture down the narrow, concrete steps that lead into New Brunswick’s sole vinyl record store. Raindrops are hitting the pavement and cars whir by at the intersection of Somerset and Easton as the stairway leads me past the gold lettering of the sign that reads, “Spina Records || Vinyl Antiques Vintage.” I’m stopped at a door donning a vinyl record with the word “OPEN” hand-painted in red and yellow paint. I take the cue from the circular sign and open the door, stepping into the shop. Closing the entrance behind me, I am instantly immersed into this stormless musical refuge – a place completely opposite of the bustling world outside of it.
A small space tucked away in a pocket of this east coast college city; there are iconic records, band posters and quirky antiques lining the rose red walls of Spina Records. Christmas lights wrap around the pipes overhead and crates full of top-condition records are seen in every direction I turn as Al Green’s falsetto croons throughout the room from an old record player in the corner spinning the 1973 album, “Call Me.” In another corner against a white wall brightly lit by an incandescent lamp sits the founder, owner and sole employee of Spina Records, Drew Spina. The young, black-bearded man hangs his head heavily as he hunches over his desk, sifting through a thin stack of records to be added to the 10-month-old store’s growing inventory. His hands swiftly yet carefully take records in and out of album sleeves as the lid of his faded black cap shadows his eyes, which are heavily concentrated on the task at hand.
Spina has carried this same eye-piercing focus since the idea of opening his own record store first came about. The Rutgers University alumnus tells me the idea for a vinyl store in New Brunswick was self-evident due to the college town location and its very prominent and historical underground music scene. “New Brunswick’s been a town that’s attracted a lot of young, creative people for a long time and has a very independent streak in it…There’s a lack of established music venues and because of that, it’s forced people to take shows into their own hands and to have shows in people’s homes, which has created more of a personal music experience and music scene for people.” According to the storeowner, this DIY music culture has been going on for at least 30 years, which coincidentally, started at around the same time vinyl sales began to decline.
"[Vinyl] didn't quite disappear altogether. It was just
kind of hibernating."
“I think you really saw the explosion from the ‘50s to the ‘70s – that’s when vinyl had its sort of Golden Era,” Spina said. “As the ‘80s progressed and technology changed, there was a big run up to the conversion of everything to digital. The industry said, ‘Throw out your records! Throw out your turntables! They’ll be obsolete!’ Vinyl almost disappeared in the ‘90s but it didn’t quite disappear altogether. It was just kind of hibernating.”
If vinyl was an animal that was simply sleeping, it is evident that the beast is now waking up and hungry to take on today’s digitally focused music industry. Nielsen Soundscan, a U.S. and Canada information and music sales tracking system, reported a total of 9.2 million in vinyl records sales in 2014, an increase of 52 percent from 2013. According to Consequence of Sound, the best selling vinyl album of 2014 was Jack White’s sophomore LP, Lazaretto, which sold 75,700 copies on vinyl. It’s the highest selling release in the vinyl format since Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy in 1994.
The former White Stripes front man is a prominent vinyl advocate in the ever-evolving digital era. White’s independent record label, Third Man Records, was founded in 2001 and now has a physical location in Nashville, Tenn., which contains a record store, record label offices, photo studio, dark room and live venue with analog recording booth. “Almost all of our records are recorded, printed and pressed in Nashville, TN and produced by Jack White,” the label’s official website reads. “In this fashion TMR strives to bring a spontaneous and tangible aesthetic back into the record business.”
If the mainstream music industry model revolves around digital Internet downloads and fast-paced technological advances, then vinyl is a symbol of the counterculture to that model. It requires you to slow down and be conscious of the album you want to buy, instead of searching for it on Spotify. It spurs more active listening, as opposed to skipping a song on Pandora. Listening to LPs on a record player engages not only auditory, but also tactile senses as you remove the record from its sleeve and carefully place the needle on the record once it’s laid on the turntable, which is an experience that lacks with mp3s. As Spina describes, “I like the experience of turning it over and anticipating when it’s coming up to an end. It makes you pay attention.”
In a New York Times interview, White describes the unique magic of the vinyl listening experience. “Watching [the record] spin, you get a real mechanical sense of music being reproduced. I think there’s a romance to that.”
"All of it is very visceral. It's an experience unlike
any other form of music."
Rutgers University graduate student, Larry McAllister II, has been listening to vinyl since he was a child, listening to his parents’ Stevie Wonder and Nat King Cole records play throughout his childhood home. He had rediscovered his passion for vinyl in the past year and a half, realizing how unique the entire listening experience is. “The way it’s packaged, the way it’s produced, the way it feels in your hands – all of it is very visceral. It’s an experience unlike any other form of music,” McAllister explains fervidly. “You can’t really touch an mp3, but with vinyl, you can feel the grooves. You have to take it out of its case first, and put the needle in the right place. There’s more of a ritual to it and that’s what’s really exciting about interacting with vinyl.”
The Master of Communication and Information Studies student describes the way vinyl records act as a passage, connecting the listener to the past. “There’s something transportational about listening to music in a format that had seemingly disappeared…It takes you to a different time, a different place. It puts you in a different mindset, which I think is really the great part about it. It has this old feel to it that takes you away from the ‘I’m just connecting to another computer device to listen to music’ form of musical listening.”
The revival of vinyl in this technological age seems to be driven by young consumers who were not even raised on the format. “I think the resurgence is due to younger generations and younger kids coming to appreciate the older format of vinyl and the qualities that it brings,” Spina says. “I don’t think digital is going anywhere but I think younger kids are adapting to both.”
"There's something transportational about listening to music in a format that had seemingly disappeared...It takes you to a different
time, a different place."
Sonically, vinyl provides a fuller sound that digital recordings lack. Spina explains that with digital, the listener doesn’t get the same sound effect because the music is usually listened to through computer speakers or headphones, and it has been repeatedly compressed and decompressed, changing the overall quality and experience. But when the music is listened to on the original format that it was recorded, without that interference, it produces a much warmer sound that people respond to better.
McAllister noticed the sonic differences in quality when listening to music through various formats. “A song would sound one way listening to it on my phone and another way listening to it on a CD,” he says. “I learned more about how production works and how mp3 recordings were actually stripping data out, which causes production to sound different.”
"For [the younger generation], vinyl is something that's a little more defining of what their tastes are..."
So is this vinyl revival here to stay or is it a fleeting trend that makes millenials look “cooler”? Spina fixes his hat and thinks for a moment as our conversation nears the end. “I think maybe it’s part nostalgia. Maybe it’s part cool factor right now, but I think from what I’ve seen with younger kids who are interested in it, for them, vinyl is something that’s a little more defining of what their tastes are…There’s all those sort of feelings and nostalgia and appreciations that go with [listening to vinyl], so maybe we’re seeing a more permanent resurgence of vinyl now that the digital revolution has changed things, although maybe not for the better as far as consumption of music.”
With this upward trend of vinyl records sales, and the devotion music enthusiasts, both young and old, have to the format; it’s clear that vinyl provides something that is deeper and more fundamental to music. It provides that distinctive personal experience an individual has with listening to a record. Having grown up in the midst of these digital days of the Internet and advancing technology, music consumption has clearly changed at the same rapid pace. So to have a format that allows you to slow down, to pay attention, and to be transported to a different place, it’s as if the vinyl experience has become a stormless musical refuge – an experience completely opposite from the bustling world outside of it.