Culture | The record revival

Tangibility, nostalgia, and the Montreal Fall Record Convention

The end of October means three things: scary Halloween costumes, the first cold winter air, and Montreal’s Fall Record Convention. Organized by Dreambeat Conventions, this year’s fair filled Église Saint-Enfant-Jésus with albums dating all the way back to the 1940s and vendors from across Montreal and Canada. There was a general hum of comradery in the packed church as attendees of all ages searched through endless stacks of records, hoping to find that one album they’ve always been looking for. Many record store owners themselves were in attendance, scouting new additions for their collections, according to Manuel Paul Gabber, owner of Montreal record store Paul’s Boutique.

Montreal’s Record Convention belongs to a particular moment in vinyl history; records today no longer mean what they used to decades ago. First used for commercial purposes around the 1920s, vinyls were originally a marker of the upper class. As they became more accessible price-wise over the following decades, however, records became definitive of music taste. For teens in the sixties and seventies, record collections could define identity. With the development of music technology, however, evolving to tapes, CDs, and now, digital downloads, vinyls eventually became obsolete – or so everyone thought. The ongoing surge in record sales (according to Montreal vendors, 2014 has been the highest selling year in the past decade), the reopening of many vinyl stores, and the presence of events such as the Montreal Record Convention would lead us to believe otherwise.

So how, years after everyone predicted their demise, are records making a comeback today? Why are these convention attendees willing to pay an average of $15 for a vinyl record, when we live in a digital era where most are not even willing to pay $1.29 for a song on iTunes?

Perhaps the answer is that an illegal download is just not enough. Now that almost every track is available for free on music-streaming services like Spotify or on pirating websites, music fans need something more to please them – digital downloads simply cannot offer a full listening experience.

According to Shawn Ellingham, owner of SoundCentral, a Montreal record store, the tangibility of vinyl records has contributed significantly to their popularity.

“For me, the album is not just songs, it’s a concept, you have a beginning, a middle and an end – it’s a story described in music, and you don’t have that with other forms of audio. You don’t have the visuals, the lyrics.”

An anonymous buyer at the convention also shared the same view. “The sensation that I get when I put on a record is just not the same as pushing the play button on the playlist, although the latter is surely more practical.”

Today’s North American culture of e-books and e-courses has arguably lost touch with many tangible aspects of everyday life. In an environment where technology goes by the motto “smaller is better,” sometimes going back to the basics offers a relief. Ellingham explains that “anyone who really appreciates music is going to want the whole story, and vinyl is a way to really appreciate music on a tangible level, because the quality is there as well.”

His reference to quality is also important – many music purists believe that the audio produced by vinyls is unmatched. According to Gabber, “The sound produced by vinyl is a lot warmer than the sounds you would hear on MP3s or CDs, so it gives you the best quality of the music.” Another convention attendee echoed this emphasis on quality, stating that vinyl’s warmer sound makes “the album sound a lot more authentic.”

Ellingham also noted that it’s not so much vinyls that are making a comeback, but society that is pushing them back into the mainstream. “Vinyl never really left, it is just that now it started to be accepted again,” he explained. For those who grew up collecting records, it is indeed likely that vinyl never left – many of the older listeners at the convention have been buying records for decades. What’s more curious is the new generations that are record-shopping, the ones who are coming of age in a digital era but adopting the music listening methods of their parents.

This curiosity points to a second reason for the record revival, aside from tangibility: nostalgia. Records are not just means of listening to music – they are also historical and cultural artifacts, remnants of other eras. They are vintage. Listening to records from the sixties connects the listener to that distant time.

Obviously, as Coltrane Faragher, a convention attendee, pointed out, the rise of vintage isn’t only manifested in the resurgence of records. He believes that “the resurgence of the pop culture from when vinyl was popular has led to the popularity of records at the moment.”

There are extensive examples of retro fads in fashion, furniture, car, and design industries. The adopted vintage trends emphasize lifestyles and identities of eras that are frequently romanticized today. Records and ‘Gatsby’ fashion reference the roaring twenties – a period of dynamism, economic growth, and creativity. Also popular are hippies of the sixties and punks of the seventies: it is not uncommon to walk down the streets and see a twenty-something wearing John Lennon sunglasses or a Ramones t-shirt. Though they have also now been appropriated, advertised, and sold by the mainstream, these vintage trends are popularly associated with ‘hipster culture,’ a subculture that prides itself on being non-mainstream, sometimes to the point of disassociating itself from the present. Perhaps this nostalgic resurgence of records is part of a larger cry for the past.

Pierre Markotanyos, owner of Aux 33 Tours, the biggest record store in Montreal, explains how this vintage trend intertwines with generational exploration. “There are many people from the younger generation who are inheriting records from their uncles and when they try them, they realise that music sounds so much better than in that tiny iPod,” he says. “It is also [connected to] the fashion revival – there is the cool element of it. Our customers now are from 12 to 85 years old.”

Ellingham stressed that nostalgia is only one part of the equation. “It can definitely be nostalgia if you’re buying records of Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles,” he says, “but there are bands that are current that are bringing out material too.”

Interestingly enough, however, the emphasis at the Montreal Record Convention was on exactly that: the historic rock of artists like Hendrix and The Beatles. Legendary rock bands from the seventies such as Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Genesis occupied considerably more space than any other genre – perhaps indicative of a nostalgia for the glory days of rock, more than a specific era. While nostalgia may not be the only factor, this record revival certainly exposes younger generations to music history.

It might sound outlandish to think that people are still buying vinyl in 2014, over a hundred years after they were introduced to the market, but listening to music is an experience. Whether its because they feel digital listening is lacking, or because they’re looking to experience another era altogether, music enthusiasts are clearly returning to records. So maybe it’s time to search through your parents’ old collection, dust off the needle, and give some records a spin, if only to find out what you’ve been missing.