From a dimly lit shop in Echo Park emerge music lovers, not with CDs in hand or iPods peeking out of pockets, but with an all-but-extinct music medium under arm—vinyl.
Large music stores across America have struggled to keep their businesses afloat amid the rise of digital music sold online. But long-time friends Neil Schield and Sean Stentz did not let that stop them from taking a risk in April 2009 when they opened Origami Vinyl in Echo Park.
More than a year and a half later, the vinyl boutique is not only open seven days a week, but also remarkably busy seven days a week. Drop by any evening during the weekday and the store is bustling with young music fans eager to get their hands on newly released albums. In-store performances of up-and-coming local artists keep foot traffic heavy well into the evenings.
“We opened with the idea of being that local record store,” said Stentz. “We decided to go with new vinyl as well as local vinyl, specifically because there wasn’t anyone doing that in this area.”
The area Stentz refers to is the rapidly gentrifying Echo Park district. Once a predominantly working class Latino community, the Echo Park neighborhood has seen an influx of young twenty-somethings who are actively contributing to the area’s alternative culture.
Set against an eclectic array of independent bookstores, small coffee shops and local provocative street art, Origami Vinyl’s success comes in part from its appeal to a young crowd that is known for challenging mainstream practices, including digital music downloads.
The rest of Origami Vinyl’s success can be attributed to the widely unforeseen resurgence of records.
From 2007 to 2008, record sales in the United States and Canada rose by 124% according to the Recording Industry Association of America. In 2009, more than 2.1 million vinyl records were sold, an increase of more than 35%, according to Nielsen SoundScan, an information and sales tracking system for music and music video products in the United States and Canada.
“We’re seeing major labels put much more effort in doing vinyl releases for a lot of their major artists, which wasn’t really happening so much six to seven years ago,” said Stentz. “CD sales still outsell vinyl to no end. It’s not like vinyl is taking over CDs, but it’s growing as a niche market and it’s something people are going back to.”
With a sign reading “Open noon ‘til late everyday” displayed prominently on their door, some music aficionados make it a point to visit the store at least once a week so not to miss out on regularly added new releases.
“I feel like in the ‘90s when I was buying CDs and first getting into music, you couldn’t find any decent records,” said Britt Brown, a regular customer who visits the store weekly. “There was just stuff from the ‘70s, no cool new bands. But now, everything is on vinyl and so there’s just unlimited options.”
Vinyl customers say that the biggest lure lies in the warmer sound quality and social experience, two key elements that are sacrificed when listening to music with an iPod, for instance.
“Vinyl is very social,” said Neil Schield, founder of Origami Vinyl. “Generally, if you have people over, you’re hanging out in your living room. Putting on a record is much more interesting than throwing on your iPod and throwing it on random.” The resurgence of vinyl has also contributed to an increased demand for turntables.
“I’m seeing more and more people come in here who get enticed by the whole experience,” said George Jensen, a customer associate at Yes, We’re on Vacation, a recently opened record store in Silver Lake. “If someone really wants to do well and help the vinyl resurgence, they should make a really good affordable turntable. For a decent turntable it’s at least $150. We’re going to start refurbishing old turntables to sell for a cheaper price.”
Beyond the sudden revival of vinyl is another unanticipated phenomenon—the success of the small, independent boutique business model versus the giant music superstore. The music industry is proving that small businesses and big business can in fact peacefully coexist.
While Amoeba Records, the music mega store chain with stores in Berkeley, San Francisco and Hollywood, which carries old, new and used record collections is thriving, so too are the smaller boutiques that typically house select music genres that cater to particular crowds.
“People just dig the boutique. If you’re into a certain genre of music, you know exactly where to go to find it and you can interact with people who share that same interest in genre. There’s a really big social movement behind this,” said Jensen.
Origami Vinyl’s Schield agreed. “I think that [the social experience] was lost on a lot of people who were just listening to music with their ear buds and their iPods,” he said.
While small vinyl stores are profiting off of an old music medium, the digital age still plays a key role for the businesses. Yes, We’re on Vacation and Origami Vinyl have Facebook pages where they announce record release dates, upcoming in-store performances and special discount dates. The Internet has helped both vinyl stores engage existing and potential customers, which both stores agree has been significant in keeping business steady.
While these boutiques have in large part turned away from modern technology, their marketing strategies belong to the digital era. Old and new, vinyl, according to Jensen, “has definitely got its groove back.”