Vinyl LP sales accounted for more than 18 percent of all physical album purchases in the U.S. during the first half of this year, according to data from Nielsen Music. More than 7.6 million LPs were sold, a 5 percent increase from the same period one year earlier.
If current activity continues, vinyl LP sales are on track to break another record. Last year, Nielsen Music reported that 14.32 million vinyl LPs were sold, which broke the record set in 2016 for 13.1 million. 2017 marked the 12th consecutive year of increased vinyl album sales.
From a high-tech standpoint, consumer interest in this vintage format seems a bit curious. Granted, vinyl’s share of the music market is not massive: 8.5 percent of all album sales in 2017 were vinyl LPs, up from 6.5 percent in 2016, and LP sales were 14 percent of all physical album sales during 2017.
For Josh Wright, owner of Vinyl Street Café in Fairfield, the continued appeal can be explained with several theories.
“Forget the fad among the kids — that is a separate market,” said Wright. “You have the two main markets with the collectors. Some are looking for something to add to their collection or to sell. Then you have the audiophile who is looking for the best sounding whatever. Take the Blue Note label: the original mono pressings any of the early mono Blue Note stuff with the deep groove is very valuable if it is in any kind of decent shape. The avid jazz audiophiles will pay good money for those. They usually have top-end systems and, I think, what they’re looking for is a sound that if you turn the lights down and you’re listening, you feel that Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins is in the room with you.”
Wright added that there is also a sense of perceived altruism that never resonates when harvesting tunes from cyberspace. “You almost feel that you are supporting the artist by buying the physical copy versus getting it for free or downloading it for pennies,” he said.
Wright opened Vinyl Street Café in July 2016, which was originally conceived as a vehicle for selling off what he described as a “very big collection” of vinyl albums. A manager at the Westport Starbucks in the 1990s, Wright opted to mix vinyl LP retailing with food and beverage service — the café’s coffee is freshly brewed and pastries are brought in from local bakeries. However, he admitted that concept has not quite percolated with customers.
“The idea behind the coffee shop was to gain momentum,” he said. “But people don’t think of it as a café — they think of it as a record store that happens to have coffee.”
Vinyl Street Cafe consists of two 325-square-foot rooms and an inventory of between 4,000 and 5,000 records; Wright will consider buying certain albums from collectors, but his focus is primarily on sales. The title selection within the store is varied, and Wright is willing to try to track down specific requests for hard-to-find albums. However, certain artists and genres seem to be most popular with the store’s customers, often to Wright’s bemusement.
“I’m not a massive Deadhead, but we have a huge element to the store about Jerry,” he continued. “I have a customer who comes in and wants a much bigger selection of metal and hardcore. The most popular albums in this store are the Grateful Dead’s ‘American Beauty’ and Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows.’ But the biggest selling album during the holiday season was Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ — and I was like, ‘Why?’”
For his own musical odyssey, Wright appreciated that the store gave him the chance for “discovering all of this classic R&B stuff from the Stax label and Atlantic Records — this amazing original music that I wasn’t focused to when I was growing up.” But Wright freely admitted that not every album is a classic. For example, when asked about a soundtrack album for the 1965 film “Doctor Zhivago,” Wright commented curtly, “It’s in the dollar bin. The price is right.”
A constant challenge for Wright is his location: Vinyl Street Café is based toward the rear the Colonial Plaza complex on Fairfield’s Post Road, out of sight from the busy street. Signage in the complex is small and many customers declare their surprise at finding an album shop.
“We get that almost every day,” Wright stated. “People say, ‘I didn’t know you were back here. How long have you been here?’ They’re very curious people who are not here to shop, but to ask questions. Our intent was not to be a hidden gem off the beaten path.”
Looking forward, Wright would like to relocate to a larger space, expand the café aspect of his operation and incorporate daily live music performances. At the moment, he is satisfied with the venture and is striving to increase sales.
“On a marvelous week, it can bring in five-to-eight grand,” he said about the store. “If I could do five a week, I’d be very happy.”