Richmond and the vinyl resurgence

illustration courtesy of Yewei Wang.


illustration courtesy of
Yewei Wang.

Richmond-native Arnold Brown settled in Washington D.C. in 1989 due to what he described as a “consequence of jobs and familial obligations.”

“When I was a teenager in (Jackson) Ward we would sit around a stoop at a neighbor’s house and listen to the newest records,” Brown said. “It was like a party every weekend.”

People from an older generation were raised to value vinyl (LP’s) not only as platform for creating and listening to music, but as a means to facilitate bonds with the community in good times and bad. For them, Brown said, vinyl is a necessary component of experiencing the power of music.

In modern times, records may not be as popular as they were during Brown’s childhood in Jackson Ward, but it’s hard to deny the resurgence of classic LP’s in Richmond. Record stores can be found around the city from the The Fan to Downtown to Carytown.

The resurgence of vinyl isn’t a Richmond phenomenon alone — it’s a national one. If statistics are anything to go by, it’s a phenomenon that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The first commercial CD was created in Hanover, Germany on Aug. 17, 1982, sparking a decline in the use and sale of vinyl records. Since 1991, Nielsen SoundScan has tracked audio sales in a highly anticipated annual report that analyzes global music sale trends.

From 1991 to 2009, there was a relatively consistent pattern: an increase in the purchase of digital downloads, a steady but stable decrease in the sale of CD’s and a complete drop in the sale of the age-old vinyl record.

Fast forward to 2016 and the Nielsen report found that what had, at one point, seemed like a random vinyl resurgence fueled by nostalgia is now a legitimate and viable market. LP sales in the United States steadily increased over the sales of CDs.

Deloitte found that, by end of 2016, record sales increased by 53 percent from 2015 and sales nearly reached the $1 billion benchmark — a record high that hasn’t been seen since 1981. 2016 was also the first year that spending on vinyl outstripped digital downloads.

While streaming remains the largest means by which to listen to music, the fact that vinyl sales are resurging is as impressive as it surprising.

In many ways, Richmond’s plethora of successful record stores, such as Plan 9 Records, Steady Sounds and Vinyl Conflict fits into the narrative of the River City being a beacon for the “hipster millennial,” but it also harkens to a more historical narrative of the city. To a Richmond that was once the “Harlem of the South,” and the center of the Civil Rights movement. A city where Black and southern culture, and the music which was the product of those cultures, had an overwhelming influence on folk, jazz and later, hip-hop.

Not everyone was surprised by this renewed interest, however. Jay Leavitt, owner and founder of Deep Groove Records in Richmond, said he noticed vinyl was becoming a potential market years before the trend reflected in sales while he worked as general manager at another local vinyl store, Plan 9 Records.

“It was probably 12 years ago I said something is going on about records, regulars who bought CDs were suddenly buying vinyls,” Leavitt said. “That was part of the reason why I opened the store eight and half years ago — because I could see that it could be a viable business just selling records.”

Leavitt’s interactions with his customers and more than 20 years of experience in the industry has led him to think customers enjoy vinyl because of their tangibility.

“People who stick with records and listen to records and probably will always buy records as long as they are around really love music,” Leavitt said. “You have something tangible versus something that it’s in the air. You have the records, you hold it, you read the liner notes, you look at the beautiful artwork. It’s a more active or involved experience. You have to put the needle in the groove. You have to decide if you want to listen to he side again, do you wanna flip it, do I wanna flip it or do I wanna quit listening.”

Like most businesses, the industry is not without its challenges.

“On any given month we’re general 60 to 65 percent new record to 40 to 45 percent used records,” Leavitt said. “It’s all dependent on if you got good used records and that’s the toughest part of the business because you got not control. You’re at mercy of what people bring in.”

Leavitt is sure CD’s will never make a resurgence similar to vinyl, and he is just as sure that vinyl will hold a place of importance in Richmond and beyond. A hundred miles away, back in D.C., Brown mulls over the question and answers without doubt that the appeal of vinyl is that it brings people home.

“I may live in D.C. now but when I think of those vinyls and how important they were to my life, I’m not sure that anything can quite replace that feeling,” Brown said. “I feel like I’m always part of Richmond.”

*Last name has been changed at request of individual.

Siona Peterous, Spectrum Editor

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