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Vinyl Gets A Breath Of New Life

Vinyl records fell out of favor beginning in the late 80s and 90s as digital music became king. And by the early 00s, it looked like vinyl’s days were numbered. But a mixture of new artists releasing their music on vinyl and a new generation discovering the format is breathing new life into the medium.

This trend is evident at Charlotte’s very own Lunchbox Records. Business has been so good it’s moved into a space that’s more than twice as big. WFAE’s resident record nerds Sarah Delia and Marshall Terry stopped by as the record store was preparing to open the new spot.

The first thing you notice about Lunchbox Records new building is the bright blue color its consumed by and the towering robot mural with its glowing red eyes that looms over the entrance of the store.

The door is propped open. And with music blaring, Scott Wishart is busy unpacking his inventory from his former location just a half mile down the road on Central Avenue. The floors are a checkered grey and white, the walls are painted a bold red similar to the old store. 

A good and lively vibe hangs in the air which is a bit ironic given the building’s history.  It used to be a funeral home. In the back of the store Wishart shows us a few remnants of the building’s former life.

“See there’s my shrine of formaldehyde and embalming fluid and artery hardeners,” Wishart says as he opens a cabinet.

 A space with this kind of history wasn't necessarily what Wishart had in mind when he started looking to expand about five years ago. But the affordable rent was too good to pass up. And besides, Wishart thinks the morbid history is kind of cool.

 Wishart opened Lunchbox Records in 2005 and much to his surprise business kept growing, little by little, every year. Last year was his best, and it was also a banner year for vinyl. Record sales totaled $416 million, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. That’s the highest level since 1988. Vinyl sales are still definitely a small sliver of overall industry revenues about 6 percent. But as Marc Hogan, a senior staff writer for the online music magazine Pitchfork, points out: 

"Shocking, vinyl is still more revenue than on demand ad supported streaming which is sites like YouTube that grew to $385 million only."

Hogan covers trends in the music industry. And to be clear he does point out that subscription streaming services like Pandora and the paid version of Spotify  aren’t included in that number.

According to the RIAA U.S. revenues from all types of streaming last year grew 29 percent... that’s $2.4 billion.

"People want something tangible, something that means a little bit more. A lot of digital stuff just gets lost. You put something on your phone or on your computer and you just kind of forget about it."

Now Hogan says that some may be surprised to hear vinyl is still so relevant when it comes to how people listen to and purchase music. But he points out it’s not just super obscure artists or vintage classic rock records selling, it’s today’s mainstream musicians tapping into the vinyl market.

"Vinyl does seem to be here to stay. The best sellers are albums like Adele's new album…it’s the same album that was best overall. It’s not like it’s confined to some trend niche that’s going to go away," Hogan says.

That’s not surprising to Wishart. He says there’s always a new audience waiting to discover vinyl. He has customers as young as 12.

 So why do people buy records? Wishart says for one it’s a reaction to everything else being digital.

"People want something tangible, something that means a little bit more. A lot of digital stuff just gets lost. You put something on your phone or on your computer and you just kind of forget about it," Wishart says. 

One of Wishart’s employees, Brett Green, says he appreciates the craftsmanship of vinyl, from the artwork to the warm, authentic sound.  He says it’s like owning a piece of the artist.

"If I could own a band, that'd be cool. And I would, but I can't. So I buy records," Green says. 

Like listening to vinyl, Wishart wants a visit to Lunchbox Records to be an experience. A corner of the store has a built in stage for music events. 

Wishart’s optimistic that the success he’s had so far will continue, but he does accept that the way people listen to music is constantly changing, and vinyl may lose its appeal…again.

 He points out the store’s new location lends itself to a solid backup plan.

"I could always open a funeral home," he says with a chuckle. 

Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.
Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.