Report from the Vinyl Nation

A record collector reviews a movie about record collecting

More than 25 years after my first record purchase, I watched Vinyl Nation, a movie about record collectors like me and how the vinyl resurgence of the 2010s vindicated our favorite hobby. The film discusses how the medium roared back to prominence–it’s currently the most popular physical music product on the market–and reveals the diverse community supporting it. Directors Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone don’t tell a story, but provide a list of reasons to be happy (and maybe a little anxious)about the record industry. People of all types talk about why they love records, and notable players in the record industry pointing out all the benefits of vinyl’s return.

Vinyl Nation is the happy ending that the documentary I Need That Record didn’t see coming. When I Need That Record came out over a decade ago, record stores looked to be in serious trouble. Major labels making deals with big box store chains like Walmart and the early, pirate-friendly days of the Internet seriously crippled independent record stores. For every record store that closed back then, that community lost a crucial space for gathering and distributing culture.

Record Store Day, for better and worse

Thankfully, many independent stores survived those lean years to see a resurrection sparked by Record Store Day. The holiday, created by a couple of record store owners, brought more attention to the business, but more importantly injected the industry with lots of the kind of product it needed: reissues and collectibles. It gave folks a reason to line up at the record store again.

Vinyl Nation praises RSD but doesn’t go into the negatives too deeply. Because RSD makes so much money, the majors came in after a few years and took over the few working pressing plants to produce their special RSD releases. This resulted in the majors almost completely boxing out smaller independent labels from pressing records not just for RSD, but for any time of the year. Worst of all, the majors then use their iron grip on the plants to make crap that stores don’t really need like reissues of Aerosmith records that already take up too much space in the racks.

Not surprisingly, some record collectors shit on Record Store Day. Their criticism? “Every day should be Record Store Day.” I bet every record store owner agrees, because if they made Record Store Day money every day, they wouldn’t worry about shutting down anytime soon. While I understood this kind of thinking when I was a teenager, railing against bands that “sold out,” it seems ridiculous now.

Vinyl Nation explains how Record Store Day didn’t ruin record stores, it expanded their base. And to really drive old record collectors like myself nuts, the film even credits Urban Outfitters selling albums and Crosley turntables for bringing more women into the record-collecting fold. Now when I mention this to my friends who work at record stores, they tell me stories of preppy-looking sellers with little patience bringing in stacks of unopened records that were clearly impulse purchases. But anything that brings more women into this male-dominated pastime is worth supporting.

In all, vinyl’s revival improved record store sales and that good tiding spread to other businesses. Vinyl Nation shows that the recent trend created new pressing plants, provided more work for print shows and will probably lead to a new type of platter format that will be better for the environment.

Endangered vinyl

While Vinyl Nation succeeds in capturing an uplifting moment in the record industry, that moment feels fleeting. Fast forward a year and the coronavirus pandemic begins. Now stores sit empty, except for one or two people at a time, diminishing their roles as gathering places and cultural centers. United States Postal Service delays have hurt processing and delivery times, crippling mail order, a lifeline for struggling record stores.

Vinyl Nation

Yet record stores were already hurting before COVID-19 arrived. Midway through 2019, all three major labels–Warner Brothers, Sony and Universal Music Group–decided to drop their distribution branches and use one company, called Direct Shot. That company was not prepared for the workload and customers started noticing its failings right away. Record stores all over the nation didn’t see orders arrive until weeks or months after they ordered, and most of the times the orders were messed up. Stores reported palettes that should’ve been full but only carrying a single box of CDs. One store reported receiving a canoe instead of the albums they ordered.

When Direct Shot was sending record store owners into a tizzy, many of them worried that the labels were trying to burn everything down again. If you think about it, dealing with physical products adds a lot to a business’s bottom line, from labor costs to manufacturing and packaging. Now that the majority of the world streams their music, it could make financial sense to drop selling physical products all together.

And that would be too perfect. One more example of record labels shitting on the stores, despite brick-and-mortar being the reason those labels had success in the first place. Right in the middle of Vinyl Nation, musician Kelley Stoltz talks about how the music industry could screw everything up again, and that was before Direct Shot. Stoltz knew labels could ruin a good thing, no matter how dumb that sounds to a normal, reasonable person.

The high-water mark of vinyl

I started my useless, idiotic and financially-devastating habit of buying records when I was 13. It was 1994, CDs dominated the music world, and right away I embraced what made records so “obsolete.” If I wanted to hear them, I couldn’t throw them into my Discman and go finish my chores. I had to go through the ritual of carefully pulling them out of their sleeves, placing them onto the player and dropping the needle. Hearing the song was the reward. When I played 45s, I couldn’t do much else before the song finished and I had to flip the record. I found myself learning all I could from liner notes and playing lots of air guitar. It made me appreciate spending time with myself.

Records became a massive part of my identity and they still are. I currently own about 2,000 records, though I’ve probably sold twice as many within the past decade because I’m constantly buying records. There were many times when I bought records with money I didn’t have. Thankfully my wife’s a collector too. She’s a former record store employee and one of the many reasons I fell in love with her was because her record collection was better than mine.

Even though Vinyl Nation doesn’t tell my story, or any record-collector’s story, it does document an undeniably positive moment in time. So if it all falls apart, and the record-buying world becomes worse than 2008, at least we can throw on Vinyl Nation and think about what could’ve been. It will be the “high water-mark” to quote Hunter S. Thompson, “that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Vinyl Nation premiered Aug. 28 on www.vinylnationfilm.com. Tickets are $12 for a 72 hour rental and can be purchased through one of 100 ticketing partners (movie theatres and record stores mostly). The the directors and their ticketing partners split the proceeds after Vimeo gets its cut.

Kevin L. Jones

Kevin L. Jones is a freelance writer and audio producer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can see more of his work at kevinljones.com.

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