What is it about vinyl that captures the imagination? People don’t get glassy-eyed with nostalgia over wax cylinders or eight-tracks or MP3s. Some in the punk scenes might argue that cassettes still have a healthy following, but it’s more a function of portability and the ability to record over them. Even still, how often do you see a band announcing a newly re-mastered cassette-release of an album?
No, in the annals of audio consumption, the vinyl record stands alone. And while everyone who loves the vinyl experience can give you a personal preference as to why, each person often offers a very different reason from the next. And that, perhaps, is the truest beauty of the medium: Vinyl is a deeply personal experience and allows for a level of intimacy with a band or an album or a song that is just not replicable in digital format. This explains why, in just about any city you visit, a vinyl collector will still find a record store holding its own with an “open” sign on the door. Long after the behemoths like Sam Goody and Musicland conceded in the face of bleak financial landscapes and drastically changing technology, music consumers still seek out vinyl. And whether it’s an original printing of a classic album or a slick 180-gram vinyl pressing of a new release, there will always be places to find it.
I remember the first album I ever bought with my own money: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” I rode home from the store with the album in my lap. I opened up the cover and placed it flat for the first time to admire how cool M.J. looked sprawled out in that white suit with a baby tiger. I remember pulling out the liner notes and reading the lyrics to every song as the record played. It was the first time music had grabbed me in this meaningful, visceral way.
“That’s the thing about vinyl, man,” said self-described audiophile Jason Allen. “It’s not just sitting down and listening to a bunch of songs. It’s an experience. There’s all that big, beautiful album art, the lyric sheets and art inserts, colored vinyl and label art. It’s telling a story without even putting the needle down.”
Nobody waxes that poetic about a compact disc.
What’s in a name?
Nate Niceswanger sits behind the counter at Zzz Records and surveys his domain. Named Zzz to deliberately place its listing in the back of the phone book, the smallish space at 2200 Ingersoll Ave. is a claustrophobic journey — LPs everywhere, in boxes on the floor, under display racks, stacked in corners.
“When someone comes in with a collection they want to sell, you have a couple of options,” Niceswanger explained. “You can look through 500 records and buy 10, or you can just make an offer for everything.” He looks over the store again. “I tend to go the second route.”
Niceswanger started collecting records after he moved to Des Moines in 1996.
“Back then there were several independent stores, but they were all CDs,” he recalled. “Records were on the way out. Tapes were still kind of big, but it was almost all CDs. Then those stores started to close, and, by the end of the ’90s, the only store that was left was Peeples.”
Before closing its doors for good in 2006, Peeples Music was the go-to place for local music lovers to congregate and commiserate on their passions. A holdover from the halcyon days of shops like Co-Op Tapes and Records and Music Factory, Peeples remained a place where a music connoisseur could go and still find quality vinyl in 1990s Des Moines. It wasn’t a new concept — there were thousands of indie record stores around the country — but Peeples was the last of its breed in Iowa’s capital city. That is, until Niceswanger opened the doors of Zzz in 2000.
“We’re the longest-running independent store now,” Niceswanger said. “It drove me crazy, because here we were in a town with a half million people in the metro area, and there was no good place to buy records. You could go to Half Price Books or garage sales and find something once in a while, but in the way of actual stores, there wasn’t anything around.
“I would go to Omaha, and they’d have seven stores. Iowa City at the time had a couple. Sioux City at the time had three. And I thought to myself, ‘If Sioux City can support three stores, surely Des Moines can support one.’ ”
Niceswanger was right, and he was banking on the notion that Des Moines had enough vinyl lovers to keep him afloat, though he had no idea for how long.
“I had this fear opening up that we were just going to get this Baby Boomer crowd and that they were going to get older and older and older and finally get to a point where they wouldn’t buy records anymore and there wouldn’t be anyone to replace it,” Niceswanger admitted. “One of the nice surprises is that we’re getting that 18-35-year-old crowd.”
As CDs gave way to digital media as the dominant means of acquiring and listening to music, physical forms of the medium became less about convenience and more about sound, feel and aesthetic. That’s where vinyl triumphs. In Des Moines, as the interest in vinyl began trending again, it wasn’t long before others followed Niceswanger’s lead.
“There was this guy that I knew who came in one day, and he says, ‘Hey, Nate, I just want to let you know, I’m opening up a record store.’ And I said, ‘That’s great!’ He thought I was going to be mad, but I always thought we could use another one.”
The vinyl intersection
The junction of Sixth Avenue and Euclid in Des Moines’ Highland Park neighborhood is like Rome for local vinyl lovers — all roads lead to it. Cuddled up to this old intersection are four stores that deal primarily in records: The Underground Rock Shop at 617 Euclid; across the street and down a couple doors sits Red Rooster Records, at 509 Euclid; almost directly across the street from Red Rooster, at 516, sits Uncle Moe’s; and finally, on the southwest corner of the intersection is the 2013 Cityview readers’ choice for “Des Moines’ Best Record Shop,” Wayback Records, at 3524 Sixth Ave.
For the vinyl-minded in town, this eighth-of-a-square-mile of real estate is a treasure trove of some 60,000 albums, as well as CDs, cassettes, posters, clothes and assorted memorabilia. And while Niceswanger may pull many of the customers west of the river, Highland Park is still a must-visit for those looking to expand their horizons — or their collections.
“That intersection is the best place in town, man,” said Allen. “Most of them will haggle to some degree or another, and in terms of sheer volume, you can’t beat it. I don’t know if it was planned or just luck, but having all four of them right there is awesome.”
“It wasn’t planned,” explained Matt Storms, owner of Red Rooster, which was the first of the four shops to open there. “I don’t think it would have happened this way had there not already been a shop in this area. I guess it makes sense that people would open around here, knowing that there’s a built-in clientele.”
And the rent is affordable for a small business owner, he admitted, “which is important in this business, because you’re never making a whole lot of money.”
Red Rooster opened its doors in 2005 followed not far behind by Wayback, Uncle Moe’s and Underground in fairly rapid succession. Planned or not, it has since become a neighborhood anomaly in which record-lovers like Allen revel. Locally owned gems such as these four record stores, coupled with the recent Highland Park revitalization efforts, is breathing new life into the old neighborhood.
“I’ve noticed more customers since (the other three shops) opened, but they’re usually buying less per person,” Storms said. “When I used to have one person come in and spend $100, now I’ll see three or four, and they’ll usually come in with another bag, so I know they’ve been to at least one of the other shops.”
“Business is awesome,” added Underground owner Steve Ratcliff. “I’m very proud that our store is so local.” He points to the back wall festooned with fliers promoting local gigs. “People will come in here and look at these fliers for a half hour or more: ‘Oh, I remember that show,’ or ‘I played that show.’ ”
“I think it’s been great for the neighborhood and the community,” said regular patron James Peters, standing outside Wayback. “For a while, this area was nothing but pawn shops and empty space. So when Red Rooster came up here, and then the other places started to follow, it definitely made (the neighborhood) more vibrant.”
The individual shop owners do their part to foster that sense of community, from Underground’s “tag wall,” where local bands can slap their stickers, to the working relationship that so obviously exists among the stores.
“It’s a good relationship,” Storms said. “We’ve all bought things from one another. We all work fairly well together.”
For some people, however, the devotion to vinyl isn’t about collecting for collecting’s sake. Some people speak of the inherent romance of vinyl and appreciate the interactive listening experience — putting a record on a turntable, gently lowering the needle, the patient anticipation of awaiting that first note, the quiet crackling at the end beckoning listeners to come flip or switch the album every half hour or so like clockwork. Others insist it’s a matter of quality.
“Some people say that the sound is better,” explained Niceswanger. “If you have the right equipment, yes. I’m not much of an audiophile, so that doesn’t concern me as much. But there are some people who swear by it.”
I’m standing in a loft-style condo in the middle of downtown. From the picture window that serves as the south wall, an excellent view of Principal Park and the river can be had. But that’s not what I’m looking at. My gaze is controlled by Heath Salt’s audio setup.
“The turntable is a Walker Proscenium Gold,” he said, pointing at a 75-pound collection of lead, brass and air tubing that I only vaguely recognize as a record player. “The Gold is an older model, so it wasn’t bad. I picked it up for $11,000.”
This, it turns out, is a steal in the world of audiophile equipment. Brand new, the Proscenium Gold sold for about $30,000, and Walker Audio’s new turntable — the Proscenium Black Diamond V — retails for $105,000. Its website boasts that “The PBD V turntable is friction-free due to the air-bearing arm and platter” and is “resonance-free due to its adjustable air suspension,” plus it’s “a specially-treated, fine-grained crystalline material that reduces static build-up and cancels the effect of virtually all EMI, RFI and microwaves (and) is employed at strategic locations in the turntable’s operation.” Salt goes on to detail the rest of his equipment, turning out more industry terms I don’t fully understand and names I’ve never heard of (“Raidho C3.1 speakers with a REL Acoustics subwoofer…”), and as the total price for his set-up grows, I feel myself retreat to a safer distance for fear of breaking anything.
He had asked me to bring a favorite album from my own collection so that I could hear the difference for myself. I opted for The Beatles’ “White Album,” and as the first wave of “Dear Prudence” washed over me, sitting in the middle of the room, the experience was as close as I’ve ever come to pure nirvana. Anyone with a beat-up Technics turntable and a decent pair of headphones or speakers will tell you that vinyl has a warmer, fuller sound than CDs and is closer to the master tape sound that artists originally intended. But hearing a song you’ve listened to since the womb being played on equipment that costs more than your car is a surreal personal phenomenon. My ears caught highs and lows that I swear I’d never noticed in hundreds of listens before, and the clarity and power of the notes was, at times, overwhelming.
“There’s this conception that audiophiles are fools with more money than common sense,” he said. “There are some of those out there, too — people who will buy their speakers from Target, then spend $500 on gold-plated Monster stereo cables — but when you have the proper knowledge to put together a genuinely superior sound system, you become a believer.”
He hands me back my album, “And only vinyl will do it for you from then on out.”
The next wave
Today’s market for new vinyl is built much more with the collector in mind. People can download any song they want for 99 cents from iTunes, so new records must bring more bang for the buck. Record labels that still produce vinyl often package them with artful and intimate multi-page booklets, photos and lyric sheets. Record sleeves are made from a variety of card stocks and plastics, and the albums themselves are pressed in denser, high quality 180-gram vinyl.
From high-profile re-issues of classic albums to limited runs of local artists, and from larger labels like Seattle’s Sub Pop and Omaha’s Saddle Creek, to more local names like Red House and Maximum Ames, independent record labels are still releasing a steady stream of high-quality vinyl every year. While the demand may never be what it was 30 years ago, it’s probably safe to say vinyl will always have a place in a well-rounded music collection.
“A CD doesn’t take you to the same places a record can,” Allen said. “Even if you weren’t alive when the album was released, you can hold this tangible thing in your hand and feel the work that went into it. That goes for the new stuff, too; you feel connected to the effort.”
“People say there’s a warmth to vinyl,” added Storms. “But I say there’s a punch. If you’ve got good equipment, you’ll feel it. It cuts deeper than a CD. There’s more attachment to the subject at hand.”
And as long as music rovers continue their search for that “punch,” there will be places — stores on sidewalks and street corners — to find each vinyl gem on the list. Those spaces are not cyber, but buildings with windows covered in colorful fliers, and doors fixed with a bell leading into perfectly cluttered rooms, where an example of the employee’s personal favorite revolves over speakers hidden somewhere among band posters on the walls. The music choice of the day is a mere taste of the many that hide among a row of records, like a wall of trophies, waiting to be found, waiting to be heard.
“Vinyl never went away,” Niceswanger said. “A lot of people think that it did. I’ll still get people in who ask, ‘When did they stop making records?’ Well, they never stopped making records. You just can’t find them at Target.” CV