Return of vinyl: Missoula record stores see resurgence in sales

John Fleming is the owner of Ear Candy Music on Missoula’s Hip Strip. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Seventeen-year-old Missoula high-school student Noah Woodin likes spinning Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” on his turntable. No, that sentence wasn’t written in the 1970s; it was written today.

Vinyl records are once again hip, and Missoula’s Hip Strip is the place to find them at Ear Candy Music and Rockin Rudy’s Record Heaven, both on Higgins Avenue downtown, south of the bridge.   

“I prefer vinyl for the aesthetics, and the quality of the music,” Woodin says. 

He’s not alone.

“A young guy came in yesterday and bought 200 records,” says Scott Storer, manager of Record Heaven. “There’s been a real resurgence in vinyl. I sell hundreds, if not thousands of records a week, and mostly to younger people in their teens and twenties.”

John Fleming, owner of Ear Candy, reports similar numbers. “I now sell about five records for every CD I sell,” he said. “Vinyl has really made a comeback.”

Scott Storer is manager of Rockin Rudy’s Record Heaven. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Both stores sell new and used records, as well as new, used and refurbished record players and turntables, in their shops and online, and also purchase used records.

Their experiences match national trends. According to the Record Industry Association of America, vinyl record sales increased by more than 50 percent last year, with half of the buyers being young adults under the age of 25. With 3.2 million records sold, reaching profits of about $430 million, it was the 12th consecutive year of sales growth. And that’s only half the story, according to Forbes, which reported last fall that industry figures only reflect the sale of new vinyl, not used. 

Still, digital is here to stay: Record sales make up less than six percent of total music sales.

“It’s a niche business, for sure,” Storer said. “But Missoula seems to have a good record-buying population for its size, and I suspect having a university here helps. It’s that age-group I generally sell to.” 

Cooper Scharfe, 18, fits that age group. A recent graduate of Hellgate High School, Scharfe says he prefers records because of the “collectability” of records, “and I like having a material copy of my music.”

For Rob Cave, 28, it’s a bit more complicated.

“I was diagnosed with a mental illness when I was 18,” he explains. “I used to treat myself, after therapy, by going to Ear Candy and buying a vinyl. I’d take it home and unwind to it. At times, I would take chances and buy a new record based on a recommendation, or just because I loved the artwork, and looking up a review or two. It helped me. I like vinyl because it’s symbolic of a full body of work and artistic vision, everything the artist has worked for is displayed to the fullest degree. It makes me feel more connected to my favorite bands . . . it promotes more of a directed listening experience.” 

People growing up today “are accustomed to getting music quickly and easily, and have access to most everything,” Storer said.  “But that can drive a desire for something else, something more tangible, something they can hold onto. People can argue about sound quality, but that’s besides the point . . . I think the main point with vinyl is the immersive quality of the listening experience. You have to take it out, put it on the turntable, listen, then flip it over . . . You need to be there. It’s something that creates a stronger connection for some people.”

Customers search for records at Ear Candy Music. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Storer also talked about the uniqueness of records. “You can copy CDs and cassettes, and you can make CDs and cassettes from records, but you can’t copy and make a record from a record.”  

That uniqueness can make them collectors’ items. “There’s some albums out there you may never see – misprints, rare collector’s items – with a finite, limited quantity,” Storer said. “So there’s a ‘thrill of the hunt’ aspect to it. It’s fun to go flipping through stacks of records in hopes of finding something rare or unique.”   

And you don’t need a lot of money, he adds. New records average about $25.00. Used records cost about $5.00 to $8.00 (although Storer recently sold a rare “Yesterday and Today” Beatles album for $1,000, with the original, controversial “butcher cover” that was once banned.) He has one section in the store with records that cost only $1.00 each, or eight for $5.00.

Although records have come a long way since Thomas Edison built the first phonograph in 1877, followed by Emile Berliner’s first gramophone in 1887, the making of vinyl records is now considered an old technology that almost disappeared by the late 1980s, when compact discs surpassed records in popularity and sales. In 2018, when Sony Music started producing records again for the first time since 1989, they struggled to find engineers with the skill and experience to make vinyl records. It’s a complex process that includes “ecctroforming“ metal to create master copies used to create “stampers,” which are then pressed down, like a waffle iron, onto heated polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to create records. 

“Demand now outnumbers the pressing plants, and their ability to keep up” Storer said. “There’s not a lot of people around skilled at making records. So it can be expensive, and the quality sometimes suffers.” He also mentioned that new records are made from music that is digitally recorded and then copied to vinyl, whereas old records were recorded in analog form for an analog format. For those reasons, and more, many people prefer old records. 

Old rock and roll and pop are the most popular.

“It’s definitely a nostalgic thing,” Storer says. “There are two things I often hear people say when they come into the store: ‘This brings back great memories,’ and ‘I love the smell in here . . . the smell of old records.’” 

The revival of records has become so popular that, in 2007, some independent record-store owners in Baltimore, Maryland, launched a “Record Store Day” that is now recognized annually, worldwide, on a Saturday every April (and on Black Friday, for many stores) to “celebrate the culture of the independently-owned record store.” Places like Ear Candy Music and Rockin Rudy’s Record Heaven. 

Is it a trend that will continue? Storer and Fleming sure hope so.