Blake Snow

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Vinyl records sustain digital future

Author’s note: This is the piece I pitched to the Miami Herald and DJ Times after our stay in Fort Lauderdale. The Herald said it was too “trade specific” and the Times said it was too “Stanton specific,” so I’m publishing it here so it can see the light of day. Enjoy.

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HOLLYWOOD, Fl. — Despite three decades of newer technology, vinyl records are still crackling. In fact, vinyl sales grew last year, doubling to almost two million in the U.S., according to Nielsen Media Research—the highest they’ve been since 1991.

“Though vinyl’s popularity waned with the emergence of cassettes and CDs in the late 1980s, records continue to hold a niche in the music marketplace, especially among audiophiles and DJs,” says Joshua Friedlander, vice president of research for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Helping to boost last year’s total is a growing number of teens who prefer the collectible nature and warmer sound of vinyl—comparable to listening to a “live” self-playing piano, as opposed to flat MP3s, which are often forgotten as quickly as they are downloaded.

“There is a whole event that takes place when people put on a vinyl record, almost akin to opening a bottle of wine,” says Tony Rodrigues, vice president of marketing for Stanton Magnetics, one of the world’s largest producers of needle cartridges. “There is the presentation of the artwork, the tactile sense of extracting the record from the sleeve, the smell of vinyl, and the distinctive analog sound. It’s not the same when you push a button to play an MP3.”

The “event” that Rodrigues speaks of has not only made Stanton what it is today, but a renewed interest in vinyl is helping the small Florida company buoy its past as it transitions to the future.

Stanton, established in 1947 as The Pickering Company, is headquartered in Hollywood, a few blocks from the Atlantic. The company employees 66 Floridians, split between the main office and its Riviera Beach manufacturing plant. “Yes, we still manufacture cartridges in the USA,” Rodrigues emphatically tells me. The company is now led by CEO Tim Dorwart.

Under the direction of co-founder Walter Stanton, an accomplished audio engineer and pioneer of early electronics, the company has a history of firsts: first stereo cartridge, first detachable turntable cartridge, first standardized cartridge for jukeboxes, and first low impedance cartridge.

But the “firsts” have slowed in recent decades, as consumers flocked to CDs and MP3s. Still, thanks to stubborn demand for vinyl, Stanton managed to grow during those periods. Its revenues peaked “earlier this decade” Rodrigues says, before professional DJs started shying from turntables for the convenience of and versatility laptops.

While the vice president admits his company didn’t see a “huge increase” in 2008 with the spike of vinyl interest, he says his company is solid thanks continued sales. “We still haven’t seen the huge declines forecasted by industry observers,” he says. “While this happens, the gains made by consumers getting into vinyl more than offset the losses caused by computer DJs.”

Unfortunately for Stanton, vinyl represents only a fraction of total music sales, despite outpacing both MP3 growth and plummeting CD sales last year. “Even with triple digit growth rates, vinyl remains a relatively tiny part of the music market,” says Friedlander, “less than 1 percent of the overall industry vs digital music’s share.”

As a manufacturer of equipment dependent on recorded music, Stanton is very aware of this, as are its primary competitors: Shure of Chicago, and Numark out of Rhode island. So how do you evolve a business founded on a product that is still endeared by many, but will never enjoy the same popularity it once did?

Rodrigues says the answer is found in USB turntables, which his company now manufactures, in addition to supplying the needles that enable them. A double whammy of sorts. “USB turntables meld the experience of vinyl with the portability of digital, allowing music aficionados to migrate their record collection to a computer, while still being able to play vinyl when the occasion permits,” he says. “We see this as a key element to our future growth.”

It’s a clever strategy, one that lets Stanton double dip on “long play” vinyl sales and buy time as it shifts to digital. Granted, the company’s success is still pegged to vinyl this way. But being niche doesn’t mean you can’t grow, as the company has already proved. In fact, retro chic has never been hotter.

© 2009 Blake Snow