Sunday, October 23, 2011


 Some consumers in the UK are switching tracks as sales of vinyl albums for 2011 have surpassed last year's figures. Recent offerings by PJ Harvey, Arctic Monkeys and Bon Iver have spurred English record buyers to purchase close to 250,000 units so far in 2011. It's a far cry from 1975, when vinyl sales totaled over 91 million.

Here is the Official UK Vinyl Album Top 10 for 2011 according to The Official Charts Company.

1. ‘The King Of Limbs’ - Radiohead
2. ‘21’ - Adele
3. ‘Different Gear Still Speeding’ - Beady Eye
4. ‘Suck It And See’ - Arctic Monkeys
5. ‘Let England Shake’ - PJ Harvey
6. ‘Bon Iver’ - Bon Iver
7. ‘Submarine (Ost)’ - Alex Turner
8. ‘Director's Cut’ - Kate Bush
9. ‘Build A Rocket Boys’ - Elbow
10. ‘Nevermind’ – Nirvana

In the US, music sales increased 8.5% for the first half of 2011 when compared to the same period in 2010. This is the first uptick in US music sales since 2004. The mini-resurgence included an 11% increase in digital music sales and a 44% jump in vinyl units moved when compared to 2010. Surprisingly MP3s account for only 1 out of every 3 albums sold. CDs remain the most popular form of music purchase.

Below is my article on vinyl and Birdman Sound's John Westhaver which originally appeared on In addition a condensed version was published in 24 Hours Ottawa.

John Westhaver of Ottawa's Birdman Sound has been carving his path through the vinyl for 20 years. Contrary to popular belief, the business of selling tunes on wax has a few more revolutions to go. With the popularity of MP3s, torrents and the iPod increasing, you may think the death of the underground record store is imminent.

Think again.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, nearly one million LPs were bought in the United States in 2007. That's an increase from 858,000 in 2006. In 2008, 89% more records were sold than in 2007, with Radiohead's In Rainbows taking the top spot. Regardless of what musical medium they are seeking, audiophiles continue to flock to Birdman Sound and the increase in sales hasn't made Westhaver change his business style one bit.

"This store is an old school store," says Westhaver. "I cater to people that really did music of all kinds, mostly obscure. If you go through the bins, there are tons of well-known artists but in a more underground way." Which means John Coltrane and Miles Davis are in while crooners like Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr. are out.

Westhaver has a particular methodology when choosing what to stock in his humble yet inviting store.
"It's an educated and semi-scientific approach," says Westhaver. "The science would be based on having done this since the 1970s, and not trying to be somebody that has ever purported to be the be-all and end-all for everybody who walks through that door. It's virtual financial suicide, not to mention insulting to most intelligent people to try and carry everything. It's impossible; there's too much music. With a store these days it's not trial and error—that's a ruination path. You have to start some way, with what you want to do, see what happens, and hopefully develop a clientele and then you have to nurture that clientele."

Yet no amount of good intentions can circumvent the fact that a record store operator will always be at the mercy of suppliers.

"If you have good connections and you have access to tons of stuff that you don't necessarily bring in, of course, once you develop relationships with your clients and you get to know them and they request a copy of something specific, you just do it. You don't go ‘Yeah, I'll do it' and not do it. It's not as simple as saying ‘Yeah, I'll get it' and have it here next week. It sometimes doesn't work that way. I've seen stuff go on back order for a year before it comes in. It has always been like that. It's a big world and there is a lot of music. After I do my bit and put the order in I have to rely on other people who are also relying on other people. The chain can be long. That's just the way it works. It depends on what the customer wants."

Westhaver has definitely amassed a loyal following. Male, female, young, old, the customers who choose Birdman do so for the selection and quality and Westhaver has achieved this following with absolutely zero advertising.

"It's pretty much by word of mouth," Westhaver explains.

He goes on to say that while the production of records has never ceased, he's aware that records will never regain their number one spot as a musical medium. "It would be preposterous to think that all of a sudden the entire music buying population is going to say that CDs suck and MP3s sound like shit, we're all buying records again and all of a sudden everyone is dusting off their record presses."

Westhaver has observed that while many baby boomers still buy records, a lot of younger people are dropping the needle.

"A lot of young people are not buying CDs. Some of those young people are buying records. Many of those kids live in houses with parents who are perhaps my age, and they grew up with their parents listening to records. And if that parent has a big record collection and that child has a good relationship with that parent, there may be some influence there."

No amount of influence can correct the portability problems the record player faces and, surprisingly, Westhaver isn't about to knock the iPod.

"The whole iPod thing—I can see why it exists and I don't really have a problem with it existing. The reason why downloading and the iPod have become so popular is because it is a convenience issue. I think all of these storage forms can co-exist together quite comfortably. There's always something, right? And there will be other things down the road that people will come up with to store your music or to get your music. It's just going to happen. I think it's still good that people are offered choices, because with many things in life there are not many choices."
Major labels have taken notice of the increase in record sales and are offering consumers these choices. Many labels are including download codes or CDs with the purchase of a record.

"I've had a lot of customers say that they don't really buy a lot of records but they would buy a certain album especially if it came with a download code."

Just as labels are offering more options to consumers, Westhaver has a varied career that goes beyond his Bank Street store. Westhaver has worked as a talent booker, promoter, as a musician in bands such as Resin Scraper and "the band whose name is a symbol," and has hosted a show on CKCU-FM Radio titled Friday Morning Cartunes for close to two decades.

"John is a world-class programmer who presents a well-researched show," says Matthew Crosier, CKCU's station manager. "He's been with us for years and he pays homage to the past as well as touching on the present."

A graduate of Algonquin College's broadcasting program, Westhaver has taken the Friday morning time slot on CKCU and transformed it into what many now regard as an institution.

"What I choose to present on that program is what my musical diet is the week leading up to it," says Westhaver. "I don't pull any punches with that. I may start the show with some of the heaviest psychedelic doom rock. I've started my show with Black Sabbath at 9:30 in the morning. People don't have a problem with that. The beauty of radio is if you don't like it you can turn it off. I have fun doing it and I know a lot of people enjoy listening to it. I do it for myself because I really like doing it and there is no self-important bullshit that is connected to it. I'm in a position to be able to elevate people's interest and knowledge in music; it's kind of like instructing or teaching. I think it's providing a valuable resource."

With so many choices surrounding music and with mediums on which to listen to music changing, skipping like a scratched record, Westhaver has always and will continue to stick by his records.

"I personally have always believed that records sound superior to CDs or digital and you do not need an expensive system to appreciate that difference. It's amazing to me how many young people not only believe that as well but also have that conviction."

Westhaver and the sales figures speak for themselves.

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