This year the major labels get back on board with analog technology in a big way.
In 2014, it’s safe to say, the major Canadian music labels will release more music on vinyl than they have since the heyday of the format more than 30 years ago.
But — and, when it comes to the nostalgia-drenched narrative about the resurrection of vinyl, there is always a but — that fact could stand a little context.
“To paraphrase Mark Twain, the resurrection of vinyl records has been greatly exaggerated,” says Steve Kane, president of Warner Music Canada.
“Vinyl sales account for a low single-digit contribution to our gross sales and will probably remain a niche product,” he adds, “but it will be a very active and passionate niche.”
“It will never be the dominant configuration,” agrees Ivar Hamilton, VP of catalogue marketing for Universal Music Canada, “but it’s important enough now in many instances that supply keeping up with demand has become a challenge.”
One of the more interesting developments isn’t that vinyl, through years of steady growth, has clawed its way back to represent more than a rounding error in the pie chart of music sales. It’s that the niche it occupies has become promising enough to make it worthwhile for the big companies to start paying serious attention to it.
Independent labels, of course, have embraced the configuration for years. As Jeffrey Remedios, co-founder of the Arts & Crafts label, points out, “We started vinyl pressings with our very first release, AC001 — Broken Social Scene — You Forgot It in People.” That was in 2003.
But in the context of Canada’s major labels — Universal, Warner, Sony (which didn’t answer our emailed questions) — exact metrics can be hard to come by.
“We seem to be adding titles at a rate of about 25 per cent year to year,” Warner’s Kane wrote in an email. “My best guess is we did between 150 and 200 titles last year. Add to that special Record Store Day and Black Friday (releases), we’re probably looking at 500 titles a year encompassing all genres.”
That spike in supply is partly due to a rise in the number of outlets.
“More retail is stocking vinyl,” says Universal’s Hamilton.
“Amazon is into marketing their selections, HMV is back in the game in many locations, you can now even order (records) from the Walmart online site.”
In fact, says Kane, “For me the real significance of the vinyl market is that it has prolonged the life of the record retailer, especially the independent retailer. It’s 2014 and people are opening record shops. After more than a decade of closures, bankruptcies, shrinking floor space in the big-box stores, it’s incredible to see the return of the local record shop.”
The evidence of his claim is easy to spot in downtown Toronto, where new independentshopsexclusivelysellingvinyl have indeed proliferated.
“At Warner we now sell directly to over 100 independent shops across the country, shops we would have at one point sent to a One Stop or other middleman,” Kane says.
So, what’s in the vinyl pipeline for 2014?
The single biggest event may turn out to be the return of Led Zeppelin’s albums on high-quality vinyl.
The broader trend might be the proliferation of vinyl in other genres. In jazz, for instance, 2014 happens to be the 75th Anniversary of Blue Note Records, which will bring a burst of reissued classics on record.
Universal also plans to bring back some notable ’70s reggae albums from the Virgin Front Line label.
“And watch for some rarities making their way back from the original era of hip hop,” says Hamilton. (Coincidentally, this is the 30th anniversary of Def Jam, the label co-founded by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons.)
But talk to any vinyl enthusiast — and both Kane and Hamilton qualified as that long before they attained their current job titles — and the common element at the heart of their affection is a tirelessly referenced but elusive description: “warm.”
But what, exactly, are we talking about when we say that vinyl sounds warm?
“The bottom line? As humans listening, we do not like square waves,” says renowned producer/mastering engineer Peter J. Moore, known for his legendary one-microphone recording of the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions.
OK, so in layman’s terms, what is a square wave?
“It’s when you go from absolutely quiet to super loud with no time at all,” says Moore, who has also worked with everyone from Holly Cole to Neil Young.
Sensing, shall we say, a lack of comprehension on the other end of the line, Moore gamely tries to illustrate his point without the benefit of diagrams or hand gestures. (Any perceived ambiguity in his explanation is our fault, not his.)
“If I slap two pieces of wood right beside your ear, that’s about the only time in the real world that you would feel a square wave,” he says. “That would make you jump out of your skin.
“Digital, especially MP3s, reproduce square waves like crazy. That actually upsets people! You’re triggering your fear, which also triggers fatigue. It’s unnatural.
“Now, if I was across the room and slapped two sticks together, it would take time for that wave to travel to you and by then the square wave has rounded off.”
And what does that have to do with vinyl?
“A turntable playing a vinyl record could not reproduce a square wave if it tried.”
Why can’t it?
“If I have a wire that’s one-inch long, it takes no time for sound to travel over that wire. But in the coil in a turntable cartridge, that wire is very long and it’s wrapped around a magnet. So it takes a lot of time to get through that magnet and come out the other side. By the time it comes out, the sharpness, the ugliness has been rounded.
“That,” says Moore, “is what people mean by warm.”