For classical music, vinyl is slow to revive

Despite classical music’s poor performance in vinyl sales, purveyors of classical records insist that the format is rewarding


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George Vosburgh, principal trumpet of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, recently counted his vinyl collection – in feet. All 15 of them, most of it classical and opera.

Jim Rodgers, the PSO’s principal contrabassoonist, started collecting when he was 12.

“Whenever I got money, I thought of it in terms of how many records I could buy and how many [bassoon] reeds I could buy,” he said.

Are classical music albums making a comeback?

Fran Verri talks about the classical music records in Jerry's Records collection in Squirrel Hill. (Video by Nate Guidry; 8/3/2014)

Vinyl collections create strange measurement systems.

Audiophiles like Mr. Vosburgh and Mr. Rodgers prefer the sound of vinyl and, perhaps as important, the ritual of listening to it. Records require extra time to set up and space to store in an age when pocket-sized music is available at the click of a finger.

Digital technology has dealt a blow to every music format except for vinyl, which in recent years has seen unprecedented growth in a phenomenon known as the “vinyl revival.”

Retro may be cool, but one old genre hasn’t ridden analog’s wave of success – classical music.

Still purveyors of classical LPs insist that the format is rewarding for reasons that go beyond the music. 

The vinyl revival

While it is a small share of the industry, vinyl is the only music format that is growing, said David Bakula, senior vice president of industry insights for Nielsen Entertainment.

As of June, 6 percent of unit sales of physical music are vinyl, according to industry tracker Nielsen SoundScan. But audiophiles prefer rock to Rachmaninoff.

New vinyl represents just 0.4 percent of unit sales of physical classical music. While that figure is up from 0.1 percent a year earlier, it is still small compared to other genres, such as rock music or dance and electronic music. 

Classical music already makes up a thin slice of music sales. On top of that – or perhaps because of it – little new classical vinyl is being produced.

“Every time you see more products becoming available in the other genres, the sales go up tremendously,” Mr. Bakula said. “The content providers are [maybe] not thinking that’s a viable format for classical.”

Classical music fans have stuck with physical formats at a higher rate than other genres, such as rock, which has migrated more to digital. One advantage is that CDs have better sound quality than digital files but, unlike vinyl, don’t require the record-flipping that can interrupt a large symphony or opera. 

“I think the classical consumer, while they might not be the stereotypical audiophile, they may be more concerned with sound quality than the other genres are,” Mr. Bakula said.

This spring, Jerry’s Records in Squirrel Hill offered a student sale on classical vinyl, but only 20 percent or 25 people used it, owner Jerry Weber said. “That never took off. I guess young people are just set in their ways,” he said. He might hold a similar sale at the Murray Avenue shop in the fall.

The genre fares the worst in a store where rock, jazz and soul thrive. Still, Mr. Weber, who describes himself as “a clean hoarder,” never turns down classical records in decent shape and may have one of the largest collections of classical music in the eastern United States. His collection has come from sources such as WQED, college libraries and estate sales, where it otherwise might be discarded.

“That gives me cold chills, thinking about good classical music going in the dumpster,” Mr. Weber said.

He buys thousands more every year than he sells; he has an estimated 150 copies of Puccini’s “La Boheme” alone. As he pointed out, opera fans can now watch productions on DVD, offering visuals and extras that vinyl lacks.

There are a few bright spots. Dealers from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China come into the store and purchase hundreds of classical records at a time. “Those guys keep me going,” he said. Some heavy hitters – the Beethovens, the George Gershwins, the Glenn Goulds, the Yo-Yo Mas – are popular within the section. And an aisle in the main room features 20th-century classical and electronic music, with composers such as John Cage and Steve Reich drawing customers interested in cutting-edge music regardless of genre.

Andrew Soffietti, who works in the store’s classical and opera areas, said the section attracts older classical fans and young musicians interested in learning about the compositional and improvisational techniques of early composers.

“Bach was writing jazz probably, what, 200 years before anybody had the idea,” Mr. Soffietti said.

Most of Jerry’s 100,000-plus classical and opera records are out of print. An additional 10,000 or 12,000 records are sold at Whistlin’ Willie’s 78s, a wing inside Jerry’s that is run by Mr. Weber’s son. Whistlin’ Willie’s has Enrico Caruso 78s going back to 1902, Mr. Weber said.

High-fidelity

For Mr. Vosburgh, the PSO trumpeter, vinyl is about high fidelity — in terms of both sound and loyalty to a mode of listening that requires extra effort.

“You get to tinker with it a little bit before it happens,” said Mr. Vosburgh, who has played on hundreds of albums, including one Grammy Award winner.

Because digital recordings assemble pieces of music, they lack musical information present in the analog format, he said. (One way to think of it is that digital music is assembled like the frames of a movie.) That becomes a problem with orchestras – with a larger ensemble, he said, more of the music is lost.

“From the sheer artistic standpoint, there is no question that analog is a better artistic experience than digital,” said Mr. Vosburgh, 56.

From the 1960s to 1980s, he attended listening parties where friends would gather around a stereo to listen and comment on the artist. “There was a social aspect to it that was no longer there” with digital music, he said. Later, he would conduct listening tests to compare the same recordings on vinyl and CD, and analog would always win.

When acquiring records, he considers labels first — ones that feature thick, high-quality vinyl and deep, wide grooves, such as Deutsche Grammophon. He’ll purchase multiple copies of favorite albums, “so I figured I’m covered for the rest of my life,” and only opts for inferior labels that have a performance he particularly wants. 

Mr. Rodgers, the contrabassoonist, seeks out specific orchestras and labels, such as RCA records with shaded dogs on their covers. He also looks for rare recordings and PSO performances.

Growing up in California, Mr. Rodgers, now 46, would spend hours browsing through LPs while his mother ran errands. “I learned so much music history by going to Tower Records and reading the backs of records,” said Mr. Rodgers, who, along with his wife, owns several hundred classical records and three turntables.

Vinyl’s appeal to Mr. Rodgers goes beyond the music. First, there is the tactile, even laborious ceremony: slipping a record out of its cover, laying it on a turntable, feathering the needle onto its edge just-so. “It was almost reverent, the way you were holding it,” he said.

Because listening to records satisfies myriad dimensions – visual, tactile, musical, historical – it incubates another: memory. “There are certain memories I have of certain recordings,” Mr. Rodgers said. One of his favorites – a Deutsche Grammophon recording of three bassoon concertos by Mozart, Weber and Kozeluch – also happens to be the first he acquired.

And while Mr. Vosburgh has stopped actively collecting, he occasionally buys records when the PSO goes on international concert tours. Because his wife is the orchestra’s principal librarian, they look for PSO recordings, but adding to that 15-foot stack can be an issue. 

“I’ve got 2 feet in my locker that she doesn’t even know I have,” Mr. Vosburgh said.

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750


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