Everything old is new again: The enduring appeal of vinyl

Bill Thomas, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Spinning. Shining. Black.

Needle strikes vinyl. There’s a faint hiss, as though the record player were a hotplate, with music notes sizzling in place of bacon ‘n’ eggs.

Then, a voice. Sounding as clear and packed with raw feeling as the day the song was recorded, decades ago. The audio is not just crisp, but also warm. Enveloping.

Jay Notartomaso goes back to work, swimming around in waves of sound. He takes a black vinyl record out of its casing, inspects it, puts it in a pile. Does the same with another one. And another. And a couple dozen more. Some go in one pile. Some go in another.

This is a life Notartomaso has lived and loved for more than 25 years. That’s how long he’s been the owner and operator of Musical Energi on 59 N. Main St. in Wilkes-Barre. His love affair with vinyl, though, can be traced back even farther.

“I got my first record player when I was 4 years old. My dream was to be up to my eyeballs in records, and that’s basically what’s happened,” he said.

No kidding. The shelves of Notartomaso’s shop are lined with LPs. Picture-discs and singles by everyone from Billy Idol and Tiffany to Motorhead hang on the walls. There are stacks and there are stacks, and then, just to switch things up, there are more stacks.

“When I went to college, I had student loans, but I would sacrifice food for records,” Notartomaso said. “When you buy a record you actually own something, as opposed to a download, which is just a tiny little spot on your hard drive.”

That’s part of why Notartomaso feels vinyl records have endured while cassette tapes and 8-tracks have gone the way of the dinosaur. But another key to their resilience IN the hearts of music aficionados is their resilience to the entropic effects of aging.

“Vinyl is a permanent format. Records wear very, very little, as long as you have a good record player and a good needle,” he said.

“Most damage that happens to records is when they’re not being played. People don’t put them back right or they don’t know how to handle them. But if you take care of them they’ll last many lifetimes. We have records now from when they first started making records that are in beautiful condition.”

Looking back on the more than two decades he’s spent preserving the legacy of vinyl in his own small way, Notartomaso has watched trends and cultural shifts breeze in and out the front door of Musical Energi.

It’s probably an understatement to say that the enthusiast in him is excited by the revitalized interest in vinyl he’s witnessed firsthand from his post behind the counter at his shop.

“It’s great for me to see young people, especially, who like records. For me, it’s a nostalgia thing. I grew up with records. It’s part of my history. But to see young people who like to play records, I feel like there’s more to it than that.”

One member of the new generation that has embraced vinyl is Wilkes University student and junior communication studies major Trevor Kurtz, who hosts the Vital Vinyl radio show on 90.7 WCLH, every Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.

For Kurtz, it is indeed more than nostalgia. It’s an event.

“I’d rather hold this big ol’ thing,” Kurtz said, comparing the new Bruce Springsteen LP, “Wrecking Ball,” to its shrimpier CD counterpart. “Yesterday, I got this record in the mail. I sat on my couch, reading the lyrics, looking at the artwork. It’s an experience. It involves you more in the music.”

Kurtz’s affection for the format had led him to amass an extensive – and ever-expanding – collection.  It’s not just his love of classic rock or his preference for the more immersive experience of playing records that ultimately attracts him, however. In Kurtz’s view, vinyl is simply a superior format.

“With digital and CDs now, the recording process is different. It has a cold sound to it and it just doesn’t sound right,” he explained. “With vinyl, it’s a much warmer sound, a much nicer sound. The fact of the matter is, with digital recording every record from every band sounds the same. With vinyl, you have different textures with different bands.”

It is that sense of auditory excellence that Kurtz believes has not only imbued vinyl with an eternal appeal, but has also given rise to the format’s resurgence in the current musical climate. According to The Nielsen Company & Billboard’s 2011 Music Industry Report, sales of vinyl LPs increased a whopping 36 percent from 2010 to 2011, marking a Nielsen SoundScan sales record.

No other format’s growth matched that number. Conversely, CD sales dropped by more than 5 percent.

“There’s a generation of people coming up that are like me,” Kurtz said. “They’re interested in the older technology because the newer technology is too much. For me, it’s too much. I don’t like downloading. I don’t download legally, I don’t download illegally. I just don’t do it.

“Frankly, the generation before us, I think, was much more concerned with convenience than quality. I think we’re starting to see a turnaround in that.”