A Vinyl Renaissance


Smashed Plastic Record Pressings’ John Lombardo (left), Steve Polutnik and Andy Weber

(Photo: Adam Jason Cohen)

According to Nielsen Soundscan, 16.8 million LPs were sold last year, up from 14.6 million the year before, and marking the 13th consecutive year of growth for vinyl sales—a figure doubly impressive in an industry that generally has seen declines in sales. Overall, LPs counted for 12 percent of album sales last year, an astonishing figure considering that the format widely was considered to be nearly extinct at the turn of the century.

More significantly, jazz recordings accounted for 4.3 percent of sales of new vinyl recordings last year. That might not seem much on the face of it, but according to the Record Industry Association of America, jazz’s share of the album market (CDs, LPs, downloads, etc.) last year was a mere 1.1 percent, a figure that suggests that jazz is hitting well above its weight in the vinyl market.

But that’s only based on sales of new recordings. As Forbes pointed out earlier this year, the vinyl market is even bigger if used album sales are included. Of course, the RIAA doesn’t bother to do that, because, as the magazine’s Bill Rosenblatt pointed out, “no revenue from used sales goes to record labels, artists or songwriters.” But using data provided by eBay and online retailer Discogs, plus estimates based on indie retailers and specialty stores like Urban Outfitters, Hastings and Hot Topic, the financial magazine estimated that the actual sales figures for vinyl are “about 2.5 times what the RIAA reports.”

Jazz’s share of that figure also likely is underrepresented.

“Jazz sells extraordinarily well,” said Blair Whatmore, an assistant manager and vinyl buyer for the Toronto record store Sonic Boom. “We sell an insane amount of used vinyl at this store. We put out 200 used records every single day of the year into our ‘Recent Arrivals’ bins, so there are constantly people hunting for gems from the past.”

And, he said, the demand for jazz is unquenchably strong: “If we could get our hands on more jazz records, we would see more sales. There is a bit of, ‘you can only get so much of it in.’”

Impressively, this sales surge isn’t driven solely by collectors’ hankerings for classic vinyl, but also by fans looking for new albums or newly reissued rarities. Nor are the hottest titles always the obvious titles.

“There were a bunch of Japanese jazz reissues that came out last year—really obscure records that were impossible to find here for years,” Whatmore said. “And all sorts of people were really excited to get pre-orders in for them.”

But why?

“A lot of that success is based on context,” said Steve Lowenthal, whose Black Editions imprint released those Japanese jazz albums, as well as a run of heavy psych reissues by folks like High Rise and Keiji Haino. As he explains it, when listeners develop a sense of trust for a label with a clear aesthetic, they’re more likely to take a chance on a new release.

“We just released a record by a guy named Makoto Kawashima, who’s a contemporary saxophone improviser from Japan,” Lowenthal said. “He’s a fairly unknown player in the world of improvised jazz, but we were able to run through our first pressing almost immediately, based on the context of it being in Black Edition, and being placed in the context of Japanese underground music in general.”

As Lowenthal sees it, part of that interest stems from there being a desire in “rediscovering a lot of 20th century culture that wasn’t celebrated the first time around. Like, if you had told me five years ago that Alice Coltrane would be the biggest thing of 2018, I wouldn’t have been able to make that call. But here we are, and the Alice Coltrane catalog is like the hippest thing going.”

It also helps that the manufacturing standards for vinyl are much higher now than they were in the pre-CD era. Back then, record companies were focused on mass-production and cost-cutting. These days, the industry is full of small boutique plants that take an almost artisanal approach to pressing vinyl LPs.

“The amount of care that everybody’s putting in right now is so much different from what it was,” says Andy Weber, one of the co-founders of Smashed Plastic, a vinyl pressing company that opened in late 2018 on Chicago’s West Side. “The consumer’s demanding it. Vinyl, in our day and age, is a way for someone to slow down. It’s, ‘I’m going to sit here and listen to this record for the next 45 minutes.’ So, you want to make sure that what’s coming out of my plant, or any other plant in the country, is going to sound good, and is going to have that thickness to add longevity to the product.”

From the musician’s side of things, there’s a generation of players who, until recently, were denied the opportunity to cut LPs.

“I grew up on vinyl,” said saxophonist Gregory Tardy. “My parents were both opera singers, and so our house was always filled with the sounds of Bizet, Puccini and Saint-Saëns. But we’re also a black family, so I also heard plenty of James Brown, Otis Redding, anything that was on Stax records. When I became a jazz fan/musician, my record collection became filled with Monk, Trane, Stitt and all the greats.” But his own output has been mostly digital. “I’ve heard a rumor that there is a vinyl copy of my Impulse! release Serendipity, only available in Europe,” he said. “But I have never seen one myself.”

Things are about to change, however, thanks to an album he recorded with Bill Frisell for the vinyl-only subscription label Newvelle. Frisell was booked for a performance with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, and because Tardy had played in the guitarist’s band years ago, they arranged for a duo recording, which went exceptionally well.

“Since Bill knew the folks at Newvelle, he introduced me to Elan Mehler, and it came together very quickly,” Tardy said. “The fact that this was going to be on vinyl made me even more excited, because I wanted to make an emotionally deep and heartfelt project. I knew the vinyl would help take it there.”

How so?

“I have always felt that vinyl sounds deeper, more dynamic and warmer than digital,” he said. “I know that scientifically digital is supposed to be better, and digital definitely is clearer. But I have always felt that vinyl has more of a vibe, and that vibe makes the music sound more soulful to me. That’s not just for jazz, but for music in general.”

Tardy isn’t alone in thinking that: “The analog experience in general is what listeners use to separate the wheat from the chaff, in terms of whether you’re a serious listener or a casual listener,” Lowenthal said. “It’s also about collecting culture, and about tangible items in the digital world. With digital music and streaming, there’s such an ephemerality to it. Hard drives crash, passwords get reset, and all of a sudden you could be locked out of everything.

“That’s not an issue when it comes to records. It’s simpler in a lot of ways.” DB

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