Like vultures, coyotes, flesh flies and other scavengers, vinyl collectors are omnipresent: find them in thrift shops flipping through bins with hunched shoulders and beady eyes, or at estate sales picking through the remains of the recently deceased; turn on an attic light and watch them scatter from the dusty box in the corner that holds Aunt Mabel's old Victrola gramophone.
Although digital music is becoming increasingly widespread and more easily acquired, the record hunters and gatherers are here to stay.
Earlier this year, the Nielsen Company's 2012 Music Industry Report revealed, with as much surprise as a report is capable of, that "for the fifth consecutive year, more vinyl albums were purchased than any other year in the history of Nielsen SoundScan." (The official music tracker dates back to 1991.)
Last year's record-breaking LP sales amounted to 4.6 million units, compared with 3.9 million sold in 2011.
The top-selling albums exemplify the harmony between new and old that infuses modern-day record collecting. Side by side in the top three are the Beatles' 1970 classic Abbey Road and Mumford & Sons' 2012 release Babel (both moving around 30,000 copies).
More surprising is Nielsen's account that "67 percent of all vinyl albums were purchased at an independent music store during 2012." So, to witness the reality behind the statistics, SFR visited vinyl salesman Dick Rosemont, "the Guy in the Groove," on Record Store Day, April 20.
"I don't approach it as a business; it's just an extension of an interest," says Rosemont, who SFR first profiled in October 2011. His highly curated selection occupies a nook within Constellation Home Electronics—don't check the phone book, it's not listed.
Rosemont attributes vinyl's rising popularity to a new generation of collectors who want to supplement, rather than supplant, the old.
"It's interesting to see the two generations coming in to shop together," he says. "One of the attractions for these younger people is the fact that it's not mainstream. It's retro."
I ask him what other factors compel people, young and old, to build up their LP libraries.
"Why do people collect anything? Beanie Babies, stamps, coins," he says. Specific to records, he adds, "There's the content; the cover work; who did the cover work; being enamored with a particular artist and wanting all their music and its permutations; the thrill of the hunt; and collecting as a way of interacting with people."
That day, a 20-something shopper from Texas—who preferred to be identified by his musical handle, Rodeo Queen—agreed.
After striking it rich at the casinos the night before, Rodeo Queen was more than happy to spend a few hundred dollars on a big stack of old blues, rock and psychedelic standards.
"This is kind of like Christmas for me," he said. "I have a lot of music in mp3 [format], but I hate having to listen to them as mp3s."
His preference speaks to a long-running consensus among audiophiles: analog recordings have sonic qualities yet to be replicated in digital formats. When music is sampled digitally, no matter how high the rate, it is saved as blocky chunks of data, whereas sound waves are just that—rounded undulations of sound, which some believe are captured on vinyl with a unique warmth and fidelity.
This warmth is further enhanced by the natural distortion (coming from dust and scratches) that is signatory to the format. But although records are fragile when mishandled, Rosemont points out that the medium is actually quite durable: "You can play a 100-year-old record. It's an archival format."
That archival element, he says, informs the record-collecting subculture. Like mushrooms feeding off yesterday's decay, these collectors help perpetuate the vibrant (and delicate) musical legacy of the past.
The Guy in the Groove
215 N Guadalupe St., 983-9988
A small, highly curated collection inside Constellation Home Electronics.
325 W San Francisco St., 795-1939
A resale shop with a collection that changes daily and exceeds 2,000 records.