It’s an unseasonably warm fall Friday in Uptown Kingston and Doug Wygal is about to eat Rick Lange’s lunch. And older gentleman and his wife parked across the street from Wygal’s Rocket Number Nine Records. They’re looking for Lange’s Rhino Records, a block further down North Front Street. But they spotted Wygal’s sign first. Now he’s eagerly perusing half a dozen boxes of old vinyl LPs they’ve brought in to sell. Such is life on Kingston’s Record Row.
“We’re all competing for those records, but it’s a friendly competition,” said Wygal of the region’s tight-knit group of serious record collectors. “They’ll tell me, ‘You won’t believe what I found’ and I’m like, ‘Really? In my own back yard?’ We just go back and forth, like fishing stories.”
Wygal opened Rocket Number Nine — named for a Sun Ra song — back in July after a career with Sony Music. Lange started working at Rhino’s New Paltz location as a self-described “know-it-all, know-nothing punk rock kid” back in 1990 and worked his way up to store owner. He opened the North Front Street location in September, drawn by the cultural renaissance he saw happening in Uptown Kingston.
“I’ve wanted to do something in Uptown Kingston for a long time,” said Lange. “There’s so much going on here and I kind of wanted to be part of it.”
Around and around
A decade ago, the idea of a single two-block stretch in a small city supporting two dedicated record shops, as well as a bookstore, Half Moon Books which also peddles vinyl, might have seemed far-fetched. That was before a nationwide resurgence in vinyl record sales led by youth who had grown up storing their music on iPods instead of in milk crates. In 1993 — with compact discs dominating the market — U.S. LP sales bottomed out at 300,000 units. In 2006, with CDs largely supplanted by digital formats vinyl sales crept up to 900,000 units. Since then, the numbers have skyrocketed. In 2012, 4.6 million units of vinyl were sold in the U.S. and many acts now routinely put out their latest releases on LPs right along with CDs and on download and streaming sites. So much vinyl is being sold, in fact, that record pressing plants have trouble keeping up with the demand and artists can wait months for a spot on a crowded LP production line.
At Rhino, Lange said that he’d seen sales of LPs begin to eclipse the CDs that had been the business’ mainstay.
“If you’re not putting a record out on vinyl, you’re missing out,” said Lange. “It’s the only growth in the music industry.”
The shops cater to all subgroups of record fans. There are hardcore collectors who scrutinize record labels looking for signs of a rare first pressing that they wouldn’t dare put on a turntable. Then there are music appreciators seeking out rare recordings by their favorite artists, as well as audiophiles who demand flawless vinyl to go with their vintage hi-fi systems, along with people looking to recapture the warmth and depth of analog audio. Lange said that there are now two generations who have grown up with digital music formats that can fit an entire record store’s worth on music onto a USB stick but who still appreciate something they can hold in their hands and put on a shelf.
“It’s the joy of actually holding physical music over the ones and zeros of binary music,” said Lange.
Bowm chicka wacka …
Lange and Wygal can observe the vinyl revival in real time as teens too young to drive themselves to the shop rifle through the punk and hardcore bins while their bemused parents stand by. Lange notes, however, that the newest generation of vinyl fans is largely missing out on a key element to the format’s appeal — a decent sound system. While record companies have rushed to fill the demand for LPs, the electronics industry has held back, largely turning out low-quality turntables with built in speakers that suffer from the same tinny, thin sound that’s driven people away from digital formats.
“I keep thinking these kids are going to wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, this sounds just as shitty as an mp3,” said Lange. “The industry has to catch up and get some good turntables out there.”