Analog Corner #15

Analogue Productions' new vinyl releases are welcome—but how many audiophiles will buy them?

(Originally published in Stereophile, October 12th, 1996)

I've never called "The Psychic Hotline," though I am a certified Dionne Warwick fan. Don't get me wrong: I believe in psychic phenomena. It's just that I'm psychic enough without having to pay some phoney a buck a minute to feed me truisms that sound "just like me!" Of course they do. They sound just like you, too. Amazing.

No, I believe in these strange invisible connections. They're as real as the air we breathe—we just can't see them. We can't usually see the air, either, but we keep breathing it. For instance, the couple who won the Stereophile/WNYC HI-FI '96 contest—see September '96, p.57—could have come from anyplace in the gigantic New York metropolitan area, but ended up living a few blocks from my house. That was meant to be.

Or last week, when I returned from the vintage Saab convention in Lake Placid and took red and blue highways instead of the Interstate. I wasn't planning to stop until I got to my next destination, which, unfortunately, I swore I'd not write about—so, being a man of my word, I won't. All I can tell you is that it had something to do with records.

Anyway, I'm tooling down this two-lane road when I see a quaint little store with a sign reading $Bold books. Old books? How about old records? I stopped. "Got any old records?" "No, came the proprietor's reply. "But—," she exclaimed, spying my car out the front door, "I have two Saab 96s." Not one, but two not particularly common classic cars. That's a psychic connection.

A few minutes of banter and out popped another: the owner and her husband were old friends (had lived in the same 1969ל hippie crash pad, no less) of Stereophile's former music editor, Richard Lehnert. Now, you tell me the odds. What made me stop? A feeling—you know, something the measurement crowd doesn't acknowledge exists. Can't be measured.

What's more, when I got home and checked my e-mail, there was a message from an old Boston friend I hadn't heard from in years. He'd gotten the vibe to contact me over that weekend, and had used his "search engine" to see if I was on the Net. We'd met in 1969, when I'd picked him up hitching on the Mass. 'Pike. Where was he going? Boston. Where? His apartment. Where was that? Three doors down from mine. Where was he coming from? New York City. Where in NYC? Long Island. Where in Long Island? Queens. Where in Queens? Half a mile from my parent's house, which I'd just left. Another psychic connection.

So there was his e-mail with a phone number. I called. Where was he living? Oh, within spitting distance of where I'd been that weekend on the blue highway driving back from the vintage Saab convention. Vintage Saabs? Why, what a coincidence—his lawyer owned two Saab Sonnetts. Two? Do you know how many of those were made in total? Fewer than the number of stores still selling vinyl, I bet. And his lawyer had two of them.

Well, he must have been at the convention, I figured. I asked my friend his lawyer's name. Not only had the guy been there, he'd organized and hosted the convention. Do I need to call "The Psychic Hotline''? Hell, no.

What does this have to do with vinyl?
Well, there is a connection, and it's psychic. I'm sensitive to vibes, and right now my vibe on this so-called "analog revival" is not very good. I'm starting to worry about the future viability of the whole thing. Sorry to be a downer; I wish it weren't so, but it is. It has nothing to do with sound: even the least expensive "serious" turntable I've auditioned here sounds more like real live music to my ears than the most expensive digital gear (oh, that's gonna tick off the CompuServe CEAUDIO folks...).

The problem is accessibility. Finding new vinyl is still next to impossible if you don't know where to look. There's still the perception "out there" that "they don't make records anymore." We can't do anything about people who don't want to get involved, but we've got a situation today where they don't have a choice because records are still invisible. Everyone knows about the Bose "Acoustiwave" radio, but hardly anyone knows records are alive and barely well. They don't know about high-quality audio, either, but that's another story.

The only way the "analog revival" can continue and grow is for it to surface, with the emphasis on face—as in "in your." Yet look what's happening: in August (p.67) I reported on the well-stocked vinyl section at Virgin's Times Square MegaStore. I went back a few weeks ago and the section was decimated. None of the new vinyl I knew to be available from major and minor labels was there.

Worse, a publicist for a major reissue label told me she'd visited there recently and found none of her records in the store—when they'd all been on the shelves when the store opened. What had happened? The store had sold out within weeks. But did it reorder? No. Why not? Partly plain old chain-retailing sloth, and partly fear. Of what? Well the store had taken a chance and won. Had the records not sold, it might have been stuck with them. There are no returns on some labels' vinyl. Having sold out, the store is loath to roll the dice a second time on the same title. On to the next! So how can a title do better than 1000 or 1500? I wonder how many CD stores would be stocking if there were no returns on them?

It's like my local Tower in Paramus, New Jersey. Yeah, they stocked the Impulse! jazz reissues in ones and twos, and guess what? They sold them. But did they reorder? No. That store's vinyl section was starting to grow, but no more. Now it's all but useless. I called the other day about Neil Young's newest, Broken Arrow, which is a two-LP set—all analog this time—and they didn't have it, nor did they know if they'd be getting it. Great. Now I have to drive into Manhattan just to get Broken Arrow on vinyl.

True phone conversation with local Tower (after long hold):
Fremer:: Can you tell me if you've finally gotten Neil Young's Broken Arrow on vinyl?
Clerk: Let me switch you to CDs.
Fremer:: The &*# you will! [long hold]
CD Dept. Clerk: Can I help you?
Fremer:: Do you have Neil Young's Broken Arrow on vinyl?
Clerk: The soundtrack to Broken Arrow?
Fremer:: No, Neil Young's new album with Crazy Horse on vinyl.
Clerk: Hold on. [long hold] No. We just have the CD and cassette. And it's not on the computer, so I guess we're not planning on carrying it.
Fremer:: What happened to your vinyl section? It was almost getting decent for a while.
Clerk: Different buyer, I guess.
Fremer:: Well, here's a record that has one song not on the CD or cassette, and another track that has a different mix. Neil Young fans know this, and would buy it if you'd bother to stock it. Tell the buyer for me he sucks!
Clerk: Thank you. Have a nice day.

The message Impulse! (MCA) got from their foray into jazz vinyl was, "No one wants it." And that includes both consumers and retailers. Try being a marketer at a major label attempting to sell vinyl to chain stores—you could sell sides of beef in India more easily. MCA couldn't even get the chains to take their Heavy Vinyl edition of Who's Next. How can you ask a major label to get involved when the numbers nationwide don't add up to more than 1000?

Every day, it seems, I get e-mails from analog fans telling me that their local chain store, which once had a decent vinyl selection, has given up or cut way back—and it's not because the records haven't sold.

The major labels press titles on vinyl, but their ads don't mention it. They say, "Available on Warner Brothers CD and cassette," even though there's vinyl. I got Elvis Costello's All This Useless Beauty on domestic vinyl, but you wouldn't know it existed from the ads, not to mention from a perusal of the bins at most stores.

Call the publicity departments at the majors and ask about vinyl. Most of them don't know that anything on their label is available on vinyl. They'll deny it, in fact. I can be sitting there with the record in my hand and they'll tell me it doesn't exist. Titles come out on vinyl and I don't know about it. Not to toot my own horn, but if I'm not finding out, who is? Did you know that George Benson's new GRP album is out of 200-gram vinyl? I found out by accident. Will you ever see it? accident.

And yet I keep reading in the mainstream audio press about how the record companies and the retailers didn't kill vinyl, it died from "lack of interest." Well, now there's interest, and if it dies again it will be because of lack of availability and lack of coherent retail marketing.

Who's buying?
But there's another problem. The more I examine this so-called revival, the more I worry about the numbers. 1000 of a title? 1500 copies? That's considered pretty good in today's vinyl market.

It's not very good at all. Certainly not good enough to keep the major labels interested for long. When Pearl Jam's next album comes out on vinyl (with, I'm told, very elaborate packaging) a month or so before the CD, it will sell +50,000 copies. Now that's not great, but it's pretty good.

So why does Pearl Jam do those numbers while hardly anyone else does? For one thing, that's a record most of the stores, even the ones that don't normally carry vinyl, will stock. Why? Because they know Epic will promote the vinyl as an "event," it will sell, and it will bring warm bodies into the store. Once there, the warm bodies will buy some CDs.

Now, if the labels could be convinced people would buy other titles on vinyl if offered in advance and promoted, we might have a real revival. But I don't think the majors are really interested in doing the work.

Eddie Vedder loves vinyl (as do most of the industry people I speak with—off the record, of course). Once Pearl Jam did big numbers on CD, he had leverage to insist the albums got released on vinyl. When VS. was issued on vinyl before the CD and sold well, I'm sure Epic was pleasantly surprised. They did it again with Vitalogy—once again, impressive numbers on vinyl. But has the label tried the same tack with another big group? (Are there any other really big groups?) Not that I know of.

The indie labels, the great ones like Sub Pop and Drag City, are issuing incredible music on vinyl, beautifully packaged, but how much of it have you heard? And how would you know about it—much less have an opportunity to buy it—unless you're lucky enough to have a "progressive" record retailer nearby? The "audiophile" mail-order dealers don't stock any of this challenging, extremely well-recorded music. Have you heard of Gastr del Sol? Palace Music? The Spinanes? Gastr del Sol's latest is a two-record gatefold set: one disc is pressed at 45, one at 33.

Why does an obscure group playing a combination of avant-garde noise, ambient, and folk guitar issue vinyl—complete with a full-size poster insert printed on the kind of high-quality stock records used to come with on a regular basis? Because they care to send out the very best. As with the music, the packaging and formatting are pure idealism. Yes, such young people still exist. But who's receiving? And where are they getting it?

Audiophile labels
Who knows how many copies Classic Records sells of its $30 LPs? Or Analogue Productions? Mobile Fidelity? DCC Compact Classics? I hope they all sell enough of the worthwhile titles to make some money so these outstanding reissues can continue. How many can you afford to buy at $30 a pop? Fewer, I'll bet, than you could if they were priced at $20 each. I don't pore over these companies' balance sheets, so I don't know how many of each title they sell, or how many they have to sell and at what price, to show a profit—or to even break even. But at $30 apiece, it's no wonder buyers tend to go for known titles. At $30 each, who can afford to experiment? That's why Analogue Productions' new "Analogue Revival Series" of adventurous $17 vinyl reissues is both exciting and very smart.

I keep hearing from older folks telling me how they could kick themselves for not buying those RCAs, Mercurys, EMIs, and Deccas when they first came out and were priced at five and six bucks each. Well, guess what? These wonderful reissues aren't going to be around forever, either. Neither—if you don't buy their LPs—will those companies who've stuck their financial necks out to bring them to you.

So if you're procrastinating, stop. I've written it before, but when I heard that Mosaic had only sold about 1000 copies worldwide of Miles Davis's The Complete Plugged Nickel Sessions 10-LP boxed set, I was shocked. Musically and sonically, the set is a treasure. I'm afraid to ask how many sets Columbia sold on CD, but I know it sold out, and I promise you Columbia didn't manufacture only a few thousand copies. If something as musically and historically crucial—and as sonically superb—as the Davis set has only done 1000 units on vinyl, where's the future for analog?

Every time I see an expensive 180- or 200-gram reissue that I know won't sell because the choice of title was dumb (must I name names?), it hurts. As one audiophile-label exec said to me, "We've made an investment in vinyl—when does the bleeding stop?" It stops when labels stop releasing stupid titles, and when supposed analog devotees start bellying up to the bar.

Uncle Larry to the rescue
A few columns ago I suggested an advertising cooperative to tout analog outside the small circle of audiophile friends who know and love it. Nothing has happened, of course, except that a few zillion more people have read about and unfortunately purchased the well-publicized Bose radio—and I've gotten some letters suggesting that Stereophile's publisher, Larry Archibald, organize the cooperative and hold everyone's hand. Well, he's got enough to do. I was also "volunteered" by a few letter-writers. Sorry—I can't do it either.

The hardware guys are in competition with each other, but I know they talk among themselves sometimes. Same with the software people, though there's some animosity. Swim together or sink separately, folks. Somebody's gotta pick up the phone and get started. Playboy's doing a piece on the "analog renaissance''; so is Spin. Too bad that analog ad won't be in either magazine.

Wish list
What would you like to see reissued on vinyl? I don't understand the thinking behind much of what's coming out lately. I don't have to see the balance sheet to know what's selling and what's not: Nirvana's Nevermind is doing well, I'm sure. If not, soon we'll all be spinning CDs only. I bet The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann is doing well too. And Pet Sounds, Sonny Rollins's The Bridge, and Art Pepper's Smack Up and Meets The Rhythm Section. I won't list the dogs (or the Cats).

I'll tell you 10 pop/rock/folk records I'd like to see (and hear) reissued on vinyl, consonant with what's possible (ie, original labels willing to license) and what might sell well enough to turn a profit: John Hiatt's Stolen Moments and Slow Turning, Bobby King & Terry Evans's Live and Let Live!, Marti Jones's Used Guitars, Love's Forever Changes, John Renbourn's Sir John Alot Of..., The Band's The Band, Brian Eno's Another Green World, Jeff Beck's Truth, and Paul Simon's Graceland.

Yeah, many of us want the Stones and the Beatles properly done on CD and LP, and Roxy Music's Avalon, too; but those are really pie in the sky. What would you like to see reissued? Send your suggestions (any musical genre) to me c/o Stereophile, and we'll publish them.

Another one bites the dust
No, I'm not suggesting more Queen reissues. What happens when your favorite moving-coil cartridge bites the dust and the manufacturer's gone the way of all analog, or is no longer imported into your country? Let's say your beloved Koetsu gets tired or you snap the cantilever. Are you out of luck? No. In fact, you have two choices that I know of. One is a service offered by van den Hul through Stanalog Audio Imports' US dealer network (Footnote 1), and the other is Expert Stylus Repair in England (Footnote 2).

I have had no experience with either, but I did recommend Expert to a friend in the industry whose Koetsu had gone down (this was before I knew van den Hul offered a similar service). When he got his cartridge back, he was thrilled: the Koetsu had been returned to physical and sonic "as new" condition in short order, and for a very reasonable price. In fact, my friend said, the Koetsu, while maintaining the performance and personality that had attracted him to it in the first place, actually sounded better than new.

According to a price sheet I received from Stanalog, estimated prices for van del Hul's service are anywhere from $350 for a new stylus and new aluminum cantilever to $500 for a new stylus and new Boron cantilever. Repair time including shipping is 6–8 weeks, and the work is guaranteed for two years under strictly specified conditions.

But before I proceeded with a retip or rebuild from either service, I'd inquire about the replacement parts—are they identical or similar to the original parts? I'd be less concerned with a retip than I would be about a total rebuild, in terms of changed sonics, though I'd want to know if the stylus geometry of the new tip would resemble the old. I'd also ask whether the rebuild includes refurbished damping material if necessary, and how closely it would match the original. In other words, you don't want to send in a Koetsu and get back a van del Hul (or whatever Expert uses) in Koetsu clothing.

Footnote 1: van den Hul, Stanalog Audio Imports, Inc., P.O. Box 671, Hagaman, NY 12086. Tel/Fax: (518) 843-3070.

Footnote 2: Expert Stylus Repair, P.O. Box 3, Ashtead, Surrey, Kent, England. Tel: (44) 1372-276604. Fax: (44) 1372-276147.