Vinyl music gives record stores a boost in a digital world

PORTLAND, Maine — Record stores have not only survived the onslaught of pirated music, digital downloads and online streaming services. They're now growing in numbers.

Several hundred indie music retailers have opened in the past five years in the U.S. thanks largely to the resurgence of vinyl records, industry officials say.

"Stores are popping up in small towns. There's enough vinyl business to support them. You have a lot of young entrepreneurs who are seeing this opportunity," said Wes Lowe from Alliance Entertainment Corp., the nation's largest wholesale distributor of compact discs, DVDs and vinyl record albums.

That gives music lovers something to cheer as Record Store Day celebrates its 10th anniversary Saturday in stores from Maine to California.

The annual event pays homage to the neighborhood music store, the place where people have long gathered to thumb through vinyl records or cassette tapes. Back in the 1970s, every community had at least one of them, but hundreds went out of business at the onset of the digital music revolution.

The number of independent record stores leveled off at about 2,000 before growing over the past five years to a number that's closer to 2,400, Lowe said.

The resurgence in vinyl sales is helping.

A new generation is enamored with old-school vinyl albums and turntables, joining older listeners who grew up with record albums and audio purists who prefer the full, warm sound of albums to modern compressed digital audio files.

Sales of vinyl albums have grown from fewer than 1 million records a year in 2005 to more than 13 million in 2016, according to Nielsen Music.

And money is being invested in expanded production capacity. Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer Jack White got into the act by launching a vinyl pressing plant earlier this year in Michigan.

Record Store Day got off to a raucous start with heavy-metal band Metallica in San Francisco in 2008, but the story begins off the beaten path with an indie record store chain operator in faraway Maine. Chris Brown from Bull Moose Music hatched the idea in 2007 for an event that started the following year with 200 stores and has grown to 1,600 participating record stores on Saturday.

New vinyl releases are a hallmark of the event. This year, tributes to two stars who died in 2016 include several 12-inch extended mix hits from Prince and a first-tune release of a demo album used to promote David Bowie before he became famous. Others include Elton John's reissue of his favorite concert recording dubbed "17-11-70"; a live recording from The Doors; a flexi-disc from Emerson, Lake and Palmer with cuts from "Brain Salad Surgery;" and Toto's "Africa" pressed on an album shaped like the continent.

There's also the second annual Record Store Crawls, a 12-date tour by Warner Music that will escort participants by bus to local record stores. It kicks off Saturday in New York and will also visit Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Performers include Savoire Adore, Craig Brown Band, Angelica Garcia and others.

Brown doesn't think it's any coincidence that the growing popularity of vinyl records coincided with the creation of an annual event to celebrate stores with vinyl. "They call it the 'vinyl resurgence' but it started with Record Store Day," Brown said.

Almighty Music Marketing, a market research firm in California, estimates that more than 500 stores have opened since 2010, and believes the trend will continue.

Its president, Vince Hans, added that part of the growth is independent stores filling gaps left by the closings of big box retailers.

The new stores aren't always conventional. These days, there are combo stores selling comics and records. And there are even restaurants and bars selling records.

"You have to innovate to be successful now," said Michael Kurtz, Record Store Day co-founder and president of the largest coalition of independent record stores.