My Ode to Vinyl and CDs

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Just some of the collection.

Tom at Home
Tom relaxes at home.

The other day I was shopping at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, which as a seasoned music buyer, I have to say is undeniably the best record store in the world. Better than many of the stores I used to frequent over the past decades: Music Odyssey, Licorice Pizza, Wherehouse, Music Plus, Penny Lane…you remember.

My record shopping obsession got off to an early start, about as soon as I was able to drive down to Crane’s or Sam’s on Adams Boulevard in LA to buy the latest jazz sides, often in mono because those were cheaper. I did love Rhino Records, though…Aron’s Records less. To me, Amoeba towers (excuse the pun) above the rest, with its immense collection, featuring both new and used vinyl. They don’t churn on rare LPs, unlike some of the other record stores that used to reserve the rare stuff by not putting it out on the floor until parking lot or auction sales. Not so for Amoeba.

On this recent visit to Amoeba, I struck gold with two CD reissues of choice, rare Brazilian records by the great Moacir Santos. Both were Japanese imports.

I confess that I love records so much that iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and the other digital music services will never work for me. I’m old school; for my KCRW shows, I only play actual vinyl or CDs. It’s only on the rarest of occasions that I, under the most dire circumstances, will sneak a MP3 into my set. At a time when the music industry is re-shifting its entire focus toward digital music sales and streaming services, I find myself reveling even more so in the tangible pleasures of vinyl and CDs!

Naturally, I was heartened to read the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s IFPI Digital Music Report for 2014 statistics, indicating that physical music sales still make up 51.4% of global industry revenues, despite the growing trend towards digital. Nielsen SoundScan shows that in 2013, US vinyl sales increased by 33.5%. And in Japan, the world’s second largest music market, CD sales still make up 85% of their music revenues.

In fact, Tower Records is still alive and well in Japan, with 85 outlets across the country. Tokyo’s flagship store in the fashionable Shibuya shopping district is still the go-to place for music. It’s a full nine stories tall with exterior signage that proclaims: “No Music, No Life.” Their marketing strategy: appeal to legions of eager patrons by bundling CD purchases with in-store signing appearances, free concert tickets, exclusive merch, and other collectible goodies. Yes, please!

This hesitancy to embrace the digital music wave seems ironic, in light of the fact that Japan has always been technologically ahead of the curve—some of the first PCM (Pulse-Code Modulation) LPs I got were from Japan. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto had the first MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) studio in the world. The Walkman, the first portable (albeit clunky) music player (for anyone too young to remember) was introduced by Sony in the 1980s, ushering in this new era of music-on-the-go.

A recent Fortune article cites several factors responsible for the slow spread of digital music and streaming services in Japan. For one thing, iTunes didn’t acquire the rights to feature Sony Music Japan’s artist titles till 2012 (although iTunes made its debut there in 2005, four years after the US). Meanwhile, the Japanese record industry and global streaming services like Spotify and Deezer have been deadlocked in contractual disagreements. Piracy has also long been an issue, as CD rentals remain popular practice there. And with Japan having the world’s highest median age, it’s only natural that this demographic continues to purchase vinyl and CDs, as they’ve always done. My sense is that these consumers are a lot like me, in that they truly appreciate the experience of well-designed packaging and presentation. By contrast to the rest of the world, Japanese digital sales have been on the decline for a number of years now, from $1 billion in 2009 to $400 million in 2013.

Now it may only be a matter of time before streaming services replace record stores completely, but put down that smart phone for just a moment and try to remember the sheer anticipation and heightened sense of reward you once felt perusing your local record stores to find your favorite artists–or discover new ones! It wasn’t so long ago that we all kept stashes of tapes, CDs, and vinyl in our homes and cars. Tapping one’s screen will never be a substitute for handling your newfound treasures (after struggling in the car with that damned shrink wrap). Honestly, there’s nothing like the intimacy of studying the album art work and lyrics in the comforts of your own home or car, while listening to the first few tracks of your latest purchase. Nothing compares.

Tom Schnabel's Rhythm Planet