It's no secret that the music industry is struggling. Illegal music downloads have put record sales in a tailspin from which the business is only beginning to recover. In spite of this, vinyl records have been maintaining their same small niche for more than a decade now.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, total music sales leveled at $12 billion after plunging from over $14.5 billion in 1999. Now with legalized digital downloads, the industry is beginning to find its footing at the expense of compact discs. IPods have replaced portable CD players and young people - generally the trendsetters in audio revolutions - are collecting MP3s instead of full-length albums. CDs, which accounted for 90 percent of all music sales in 2002, now hover around the mid-80s; and their share has been decreasing as the pace of digital downloads increase.
It would be presumptive to say CDs are endangered in the same way as cassettes and eight-tracks, but CDs eventually will be marginalized by the next new technology, whether it's mini-discs, Super Audio CDs, or downloading. Digital sound is consistently updating itself. But what about analog, such as vinyl records?
Audiophiles won over by analog's superior sound quality were less affected by the downloading movement. More importantly, the vinyl record market seems to be growing.
``Vinyl has a small niche, but it continues to grow everywhere,'' said Abey Fonn, controller of Chatsworth, Calif.-based vinyl distributor Cisco Music.
For a long time, Cisco concentrated on the export business and sent most of its products to Japan. Recently, the company completed a domestic research project and found that, as of March 31, vinyl sales were up 64 percent from the previous 12 months and 87 percent for the three months that ended June 30. Consequently Cisco will be focusing more on the domestic market.
Cisco's research took into account turntable sales, major label distribution of LPs, the overall sales of its vinyl record manufacturer/supplier, and its own increased sales.
Most encouraging, Cisco discovered that teens and young adults are driving the movement. Hip-hop fans wanting to become disc jockeys and music lovers discovering the fuller sound of their parents' records are snapping up new music in an old medium.
``It's the younger generation driving this,'' Fonn said. ``For them, it's new.''
Audiophiles tout analog because for music to be digitized, one must clip the extreme high and low ends of the sound wave. That means digital music, while crisp, is incomplete. Vinyl does not have that impediment. It can play the full sound spectrum without distortion. Of course, this all assumes one has a quality turntable that will not skip.
Vinyl records are compression molded and Cisco outsources its manufacturing to Record Technology Inc. in Camarillo, Calif.,
Unformed vinyl is stamped ``with a lot of heat, a lot of pressure, and then cooled,'' said RTI engineer Rick Hashimoto. The pressure reaches 1,500-1,800 pounds per square inch and the temperature hits 300° F before cooling. One record takes 25-40 seconds to make, he said, but ``there are high-speed dies that have 18-20 second cycles.''
The weight of a record can vary from 90-200 grams (roughly 3-7 ounces). Hashimoto recommends heavier albums. ``The 180-gram records are top-notch,'' he added.
Cisco distributes heavier albums, and Fonn explained the choice: ``The records are thicker so they have deeper grooves. The deeper the grooves, the better the sound.''
The booming market of vinyl must be kept in perspective. Though sales are increasing, albums account for less than 1 percent of all music sold. What makes this small sect noteworthy is that it is not waning, like cassettes, eight-tracks, and now CDs.
Vinyl listeners, whether they are audiophile jazz fans or hip-hop heads, are dedicated to their medium and each new listener is another convert.