Vinyl’s Back, Baby!

See why the vinyl revolution has taken hold in and outside of Virginia.

A decade ago, vinyl accounted for less than two percent of physical album sales. But by 2017, as digital music began toppling CDs, vinyl was already on the rise. Today, Virginia’s two vinyl pressers face unprecedented demand as collectors and vinyl converts clamor for the latest discs. 

“My dad is a huge record collector,” says Abby Huston, a Richmond-based singer-songwriter, “so vinyls have always been part of my life. They’re higher quality than CDs or cassettes, and they satisfy a ritual.” 

Unless you’ve had your head in an iCloud, you’ve probably witnessed this digital backlash. Jay Leavitt, owner of Deep Groove Records, a tiny but influential shop in Richmond’s Fan District, first noticed the shift 15 years ago: “People who never bought records started buying records,” he says. “I had a father in his 40s with his little girl, 12. He’s got a record; she’s got a record. I asked her, What is it about records? She said, ‘You can hold it!’”

“I love vinyl,” says recording artist and Richmond native Lucy Dacus, 27, who recently played to sold-out crowds in the Netherlands, the U.K., and Spain. “It wasn’t that big a thing when I was in high school. Occasionally, I had friends who would bring a vinyl to my house. We’d just lie on the floor and listen. That was our activity—it wasn’t playing in the background. Records I listened to that way made an impact on me because I was so open to them. I still try to do that with records; give them as much space as possible.”

For Dacus, half the fun is the album art, flipping through the liner notes, and reading the credits and lyrics. “That physical connection is really important. Sound is so intangible, and vinyl is a physical manifestation of music. I don’t get how vinyl works, but it’s kind of like witnessing magic.” 

Listening with Intention

According to Billboard, sales of vinyl LPs surged in 2021, up 51.4 percent from 2020. The 41.7 million records sold that year represented a 900 percent gain over 2011’s figures. 

But here’s where it gets interesting: The top vinyl sold in 2021 wasn’t limited to new music. Sure, Adele’s 2021 album 30 topped the list. But Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) and The Beatles’ Abbey Road (1969) came in at numbers 7 and 8, bookended by Taylor Swift’s evermore and folklore, both out in 2020. Curiously, none of these releases ever cracked the top 10 in digital play.

Consumers aren’t just buying more vinyl, they’re listening with intention and attention. While cheap and plentiful digital music is devoured, pricier and precious vinyl is savored. All of this means business is booming for vinyl record manufacturers. The 31 pressing plants in the U.S. are all swamped. 

Furnace Record Pressing, based in Alexandria, was too busy pressing to even talk: “Right now, our full focus is on output and manufacturing,” Jenn D’Eugenio, the company’s sales and customer experience manager told us. It makes sense. Between contracts with major labels and an aggressive push to add presses, their hands are full. So, I visited Blue Sprocket Pressing in Harrisonburg, to peek behind the vinyl curtain.  

Pressing Vinyl

“We thought we knew what a good vinyl record was, and we set out to make it,” says Chris Jackson, who co-founded Blue Sprocket in 2018. The company’s Shenandoah location, with its universities, mountains, and easy access to I-81, offers the labor force, lifestyle, and infrastructure that impel the plant like a driving bass line. 

Jackson sports a bushy beard and Blundstone boots as he tours me around a warehouse festooned with rainbows of records and countless boxes of album art awaiting their discs. The company is tooled to press a half-million units per year. They’re poised for growth, but equipment is on backorder. In addition to local indie artists, they’ve pressed records for Alanis Morisette, Arrested Development, John Prine, The Lemonheads, and Edie Brickell, as well as regional acts like Hold Steady, Steel Wheels, Morgan Wade, and Butcher Brown.

The vinyl record is a small miracle: sound waves pressed into a plastic disc. In practice, that requires industrial plumbing, steam boilers, chillers, handwork, and automation—a far cry from Thomas Edison’s tin-foil phonograph of 1877.

Vinyl records begin as PVC pellets, which are heated and extruded into a hockey puck–sized “biscuit,” as Jackson calls it. The biscuit is sandwiched between the A- and B-side labels and placed onto an hydraulic press fitted with stampers, or aluminum negatives of the record. Blasts of 300ºF steam soften the biscuit, which is then smooshed, like a waffle, with 140 tons of force. 

Quickly cooled to 100ºF, the record is then spun on a trimmer to shear excess vinyl. The whole process, over and over, repeats every 29 seconds at Blue Sprocket. Stacks of finished LPs are left under weights to flatten, cool, and rest overnight before final inspection and shipment. “Make today, pack tomorrow,” says co-founder Logan Stoltzfus, who manages the company’s operations.  

Care and Craftsmanship

Tech-heavy as it sounds, this is still an analog domain. “Every record is unique,” says Jackson, “within the style and in a single run.” This is why every 25th record is inspected for dimples, chipping, or cupping; every 100th is listened to, first and last 30 seconds on both sides; and every 200th is scrutinized, but this time with headphones from start to finish.

Like letterpress or custom cabinetry, everything is high-touch, not cookie-cutter. “That’s the voodoo part of it,” says Jackson. “Dialing in the specifics.” Most projects now involve color, for instance, which means mixing polyvinyl chloride pellets like paint. To achieve a record’s distinctive marble swirls, splatters, or color-in-color effects requires hand-pouring them through an extruder at varying rates. 

Today, demand for vinyl far outpaces supply. “In April 2020, everything looked scary. Artists weren’t going on tour and selling records,” says Stoltzfus. “People were sitting at home looking to connect with music and things went crazy.”  

Globally, a six to eight month turnaround is now par. “There used to be two companies making the blank lacquer discs used to cut masters. One burned down,” Jackson says. New presses have been delayed by a semiconductor shortage. “Between jacket, label, and sleeve, even paper is impacted by supply chain issues. And these,” says Stoltzfus, gesturing toward 25kg bags of PVC pellets stacked like burlap sacks of Arabica. 

The Album Experience

Start to finish storytelling, that’s another vital difference of vinyl. When you poach hits from a playlist, you lose an album’s narrative thread. An artist’s unique voice can’t be captured in one algorithm-picked song any more than Macbeth can be boiled down to an “Out, damned spot” soundbite. In a culture that reduces songs to hooks and riffs on TikTok, there’s an equal and opposite charge toward vinyl. “If you’re getting introduced to music in little snippets online,” says Lucy Dacus, “it makes sense that you’d want the full experience on the other end of the spectrum with the physical object, listening in total, engaging with the art.”

“It’s easy to miss the point when you’re hopping around on streaming services,” says Richmond artist Ali Thibodeau, who performs as Deau Eyes. Listen only to her song, “Another One Comes Around” and you might peg Thibodeau as a country artist. But on vinyl, it’s song three on side B. “This out-of-placecampy-country vibe in the context of a pretty cinematic record throws you off axis, which illustrates how life tends to be—and who I am as an artist,” she says. “Rather than a consistent, predictable sound and brand, the album pacing takes you on a ride. Our attention spans could use some nourishment.”

Nuances of Sound

For audiophiles, vinyl delivers on sound quality, too. Because loudness and bass notes take up space, audio engineers must master music for vinyl to suit the finite space on a 12-inch record. There are limits to how deep and wide the groove can be cut. With no such constraints, digital music’s overly-compressed files tend to shout while vinyl captures the whispers, tonal details, and nuance—Bruce Springsteen’s breath in “Jungleland”—that’s often muddied or lost in digital recordings.

But with each revolution, a turntable’s needle bobsleds the groove—up, down, left, right. “Every time you play a record, you’re deteriorating it,” Dacus notes. “That’s part of what’s special. If you wear out the vinyl, you’ve made something specific to you. Your interaction with the object changes the music. It gets more nostalgic as you listen, because it’s getting warmer, less distinct. And that’s how memories work also. The more you remember something, the more distorted it becomes. It’s kind of beautiful.”

An Audio Fanatic 

Collector Russell Hise, owner of RVA Repairs, is “chasing that sound.” Hise grew up with vinyl in Richmond. “My dad had a killer Pioneer stereo system. I’d go to the Sound Hole or Plan 9 and buy seven-inch records.” He’s marveled at vinyl played on $250,000 Krell speakers. “The sound kind of ruined me,” he admits. Audiophilia is an expensive pursuit. “Some people go to the gym, some go to booze. I went to music,” says Hise. “Every subculture has its fanatics,” he says. “My relationship with music is intimate.”

Hise started with a turntable, priced in the low thousands. Then, when he acquired a detached two-story garage, he started building a listening room. Tumbling down the rabbit hole, Hise assembled a bucket list of components, speakers, and cartridges, “so far out of my budget, it was dream-worthy.”

To make it happen, Hise hustles and barters, trawls eBay, and scours online collector corners to manifest rare tube amps and bespoke interconnect cables. He’s even procured one of Virginia’s holy unicorns of connisseurdom, a $10,500 Fern & Roby Audio’s Montrose Heirloom Turntable. Hise swears he didn’t pay full price, but that may be a husband saving his bass from treble at home. 

For all of vinyl’s sonic romance and poetry, it’s still just “smashing plastics,” as Stoltzfus put it. Yet, initiatives in sustainability and experiments with non-petroleum-based products suggest that plant-based records might not be far off. “Our vinyl is not single-use plastic,” he adds. “It’s meant to last.” 

Not forever, maybe, but long enough to become a treasured heirloom, a bargain bin discovery, or even a message to the universe. Remember the Golden Records that NASA sent into space aboard Voyager 1 and 2 in 1977? These interstellar probes aren’t carrying thumb drives. The story of our planet is pressed into records that are etched in copper and plated in gold. And they’re just waiting for the day when someone, somewhere…drops the needle. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum