Sheila Burgel grew up with vinyl records. Almost every weekend, she and her father would comb through rows of record stacks at Crazy Eddie's ("His prices are INSANE!") for the latest hits. At home, the music played nonstop on the stereo her father built.
That was in the '80s, when vinyl still ruled the music industry.
By 1997, when Burgel was in London visiting a friend, the CD was king. But not every recording -- like her friend's collection of '60s French pop singer France Gall -- had migrated from vinyl yet. As she explored the stack of EPs, Burgel took in the covers: their photography, color saturation, typefaces and the young blonde from the Swinging Sixties.
And then her friend put one on the record player. It sounded better, felt better and gave her a sense of joy she'd never experienced with CDs.
"I went home, I bought an issue of Record Collector Magazine, and it was almost like the beginning of my life," says Burgel, 39, now an avid collector of '60s female pop singers.
You might say what's old is new again. Last year, vinyl record sales hit $416 million, the highest since 1988.
There are two big surprises about who's doing the buying. First, 72 percent are younger than 36. And second, almost half of the people buying records don't even listen to them. For that group, a record collection is a fashion statement, and hipster Urban Outfitters is one of vinyl's biggest sellers.
Urban Outfitters is also one of the biggest accounts for Crosley Radio, arguably the leading maker of entry-level turntables. Based in Louisville, Kentucky, Crosley makes vintage-inspired radios and turntables geared to Urban Outfitters' under-35 market.
"People want to enjoy vinyl, whether it's the older demographic who might have all their old records, or this new audience that is so inspired to listen to vinyl. They just get it, and that's the neatest thing," says Crosley CEO Bo LeMastus.
Better known for its entry-level prices (primarily in the $80 to $200 range) than its sound quality, Crosley sold 1 million turntables last year.
Dropping the needle
There are lots of theories about why vinyl records appeal to millennials. In 2015, Billboard homed in on three: The desire to focus on the music, instead of something that plays in the background. A craving to collect something tangible. And the perception that music sounds better on vinyl.
Artists like 12-inch records because they're a great way to package albums, featuring full-scale art and allowing inserts such as posters, CDs and download cards. It's one reason indie band Dawes recorded "North Hills" on vinyl in 2009.
"There was this dream of holding our own record on a big album sleeve, to see what that looks like and feels like," says lead singer Taylor Goldsmith.
The band now puts even more thought into the vinyl experience. Previous albums made poor use of the format, sprawling over two discs, sometimes with just two tracks on a side. It felt awkward. Dawes' 2015 album, "All Your Favorite Bands," now fits on one disc. Goldsmith says he wants fans to experience the album the way he experienced the B side of The Rolling Stones' "Tattoo You" -- which Goldsmith calls "magical."
"We want to wring out every drop of what we can get out of a record, and I feel that's how vinyl collectors often look at music," he says.
Other pro-vinyl musicians include Alabama Shakes, The Black Keys, Daft Punk, Taylor Swift and Jack White.
Fans want records and bands want to make them. There's only one problem: Record pressing plants can't keep up with demand.
"If you're an independent label or even a major label, and you want your new band's record to come out on LP, you have to get in line," says Steve Guttenberg, who reviews high-end audiophile systems for CNET.
Rainbo Records' website doesn't mince words. "TO ALL VINYL CUSTOMERS," it warns, "Vinyl production is in high demand worldwide so please plan your releases well in advance!"
The Southern California pressing plant runs 24 hours a day, six days a week to produce 23,000 records a day. And orders are still backlogged, says Steven Sheldon, Rainbo's president. "I never in my wildest dreams expected [vinyl] to be as big as it is today."
United Record Pressing ("nothing but vinyl since 1949"), the largest pressing company in the US, started production this year in its second Nashville, Tennessee, plant and acquired Bill Smith Custom Records to boost capacity even more.
Crosley Radio is getting into the vinyl pressing business, too. It plans to open a plant geared toward smaller runs and independent artists in 2017. And artist Jack White is looking to open a plant in Detroit, not far from the record label he founded, Third Man Records.
Here's the thing: No one actually needs vinyl. "People have Spotify, they have YouTube. They don't have to buy this stuff," says Doyle Davis, who co-owns independent record store Grimey's New and Preloved Music, in Nashville. "They can listen to music all day long, to everything in the world, without ever putting a penny down." And yet, business is so good there's now a Grimey's Too, right next door.
Records can be many things for their fans: hipster fashion accessory, better listening experience, art and photography canvas. For collectors like Burgel, they're a rich reminder of why music matters.
"We made a big mistake thinking the digital world was going to liberate us from all the burdens of physical objects," says Burgel. "People forgot the supercool product, the artwork, the love that went into creating these things are a big part of the joy."
This story appears in the winter 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.
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