Independent Record Label | Est. 2009
Wilmington, North Carolina



Saturday, June 15, 2024

Wilmington is a vinyl town: How spinning records impacts the culture of the Port City

James Tritten + RizzyBeats at The Underfront Co.; photo by Ken Blevins

[Repost from StarNews; by John Staton, June 10, 2024]

In April, during the annual celebration of music and capitalism that is Record Store Day, James Tritten waited in line for three hours at Yellow Dog Discs on South College Road to buy a special release on vinyl from the British electronic band Ladytron.

Arguably, Tritten wasn't even the most dedicated vinyl fan out there. At least 100 people were in line ahead of him when he showed up that April morning, he said, including a half-dozen people who had camped outside the store overnight to secure their places in line.

At the Modern Legend record and lifestyle shop downtown, recent renovations allowed owner Catherine Hawksworth to double the amount of vinyl she carries. She said that this year's Record Store Day, when many artists drop exclusive releases available only at independent record shops, was the best one for sales since she opened Modern Legend eight years ago.

"I've seen a massive increase in young people buying vinyl," Hawksworth said as a gaggle of twentysomethings browsed the stacks nearby, adding that vinyl records account for more than half of her overall sales. "Then again, my first customer today was a 70-year-old man who bought The Eagles and Steely Dan."

Tritten, who owns Wilmington's vinyl-centric Fort Lowell Records with his wife, the singer Tracy Shedd — they pull from their massive record collection to DJ every Tuesday evening at the Satellite Bar & Lounge on Greenfield Street, and every Wednesday night at The Sandspur restaurant and bar in Carolina Beach — said it recently occurred to him that Wilmington punches well above its weight when it comes to buying, selling, playing and celebrating vinyl.

"It's such a small community, but so rich in the arts," he said, likening Wilmington's affinity for vinyl to its status as a hotspot for such diverse yet cool activities as skateboarding and stand-up comedy.

"People are very interested in vinyl records. All of the venues are supportive of having vinyl DJs," Tritten said. "There's more DJs being booked in Wilmington right now than I've ever seen in the six years we've been here.

"It's a beautiful thing," he added. "I'm here for it all day long."

The explosion of interest in vinyl has had an impact on Wilmington's arts and cultural scene. The outdated stereotype of a vinyl collector is an older guy playing records at home alone, but these days, vinyl is often a highly social activity.

In addition to a half-dozen or more local record stores where vinyl is the main attraction, including School Kids Records on Kerr Avenue and Record Bar on Oleander Drive, area breweries including Flytrap and Mad Mole have "vinyl nights" where patrons can bring in their records to play. A dozen or more DJs with names like Bo Fader, Infinite Spins and Rob Starr spin vinyl records around town, and Wilmington label Fort Lowell is getting the music of local bands on vinyl.

Wilmington even has a vinyl-themed hangout in the Ibis bar and coffee shop on Princess Street in the Soda Pop District, where area DJs hold court in a beautifully designed booth four nights a week.

"I think it's at sort of a peak in my lifetime, definitely in the life of my business," said Matt Keen, owner of Gravity Records on Castle Street, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. "Around 2012 or 2013, I saw a huge shift from CDs to records, and it's stayed that way."

It's not just a local phenomenon, of course. In 2022, vinyl became the most popular physical format for recorded music for the first time since 1987. According to the online data-gathering platform Statista, vinyl accounted for 40% of all album sales in 2023.

The popularity of vinyl has accelerated since the pandemic, record store owners say.

"'I sold them all a few years ago and now I'm buying them all back.' I hear that one at least once a week," said Wilmington DJ and hip-hop artist RizzyBeats, who also works at Gravity Records. The shop's clientele ranges from "10-year-olds whose grandparents are buying records for them" to the grandparents themselves.

"People who buy music in a physical form, that just shows how much they love it," he said.

In early May, RizzyBeats and Tritten teamed up for a special event that packed the house at downtown lounge UnderFront. Part of the Let's Dance series, which has Tritten spinning danceable tracks at different venues around town, the UnderFront show had an '80s theme.

"Rizzy had a very specific vision, "Tritten said. "His perspective of it was, he knows that my roots are in post-punk and new wave, and his roots are in R&B and hip-hop. And his vision was, well, let's bring these two worlds of '80s music together."

The resulting evening was "magical," Tritten said.

'It just sounds better'

The argument for vinyl among music heads has always been the sound quality.

Tritten said he's had people come up to him while he's DJing to comment about songs they might have only heard digitally before. "I've had numerous people tell me, 'It just sounds better,'" he said. "When I recognize a song as a real hot track, I'll go as far as to find that song on a 12-inch vinyl record cut at 45 RPM because it will hit harder than anything else will hit. You can't hit harder than a 12-inch cut at 45."

Safe to say that Tim Jarman, who owns Cargo District record and book store The Fuzzy Needle, concurs.

"The sound quality, it's impossible to beat, especially if you've got a good hi-fi set-up," Jarman said.

He opened The Fuzzy Needle in early 2021, just in time to catch a post-pandemic vinyl wave that has yet to abate. Jarman also spreads his love of vinyl at the Ibis, where he coordinates the DJs who spin there Wednesday through Saturday. (The Ibis used to be affiliated with Gravity Records, but that's no longer the case.)

"Wilmington isn't really thought of as a music town," Jarman said, but given the Port City's vinyl obsession, not to mention its emerging status as a concert hub, that view might need to be reassessed. "Wilmington must love music. Maybe even more than other so-called music towns."

With Wilmington lacking a dedicated mid-size concert venue, Jarman said, perhaps that's driving more people to seek out "authentic" musical experiences on vinyl.

Robin Wood, who plays in the Wilmington punk band Tercel and works at Fuzzy Needle, said that, for some people, vinyl and other forms of physical media are reactions to the increasing digitalization of society.

"We're drowning in this sea of digital overload," Wood said. "Vinyl is an antidote to that."

When she DJs at Satellite on Tuesdays, Tracy Shedd said it's all about "being spontaneous. There's something about having a record on, and only having a split-second to change it."

She can play to the vibe of the room in the moment, or play to her own vibe and hope that others pick up on it.

"The human touch. You absolutely can't replicate it," Tritten said. "And that's (why) Tuesday nights worked out at Satellite so well. Tracy gets compliments all the time, 'I just love what you're choosing to select.' It's just, you're reading the vibe in the room. That's just something an algorithm literally can't do."

'The record is just cooler'

Vinyl's popularity hasn't escaped the notice of chain stores like Target, Barnes & Noble and even Walmart, all of which carry vinyl records now and sometimes partner with artists for exclusive releases, like Walmart did with Taylor Swift.

"That kind of hurts us" at the local record store level, Rizzy said.

Tritten literally winced when asked about people buying vinyl at big box stores.

"Support your local record shops," he said.

Jarman said that while he doesn't love that big box stores carry vinyl, "For some people," especially younger music fans, "it might be a gateway. Once they come to a real record store, they won't buy records at Target anymore. It's just not a cool experience."

And it's not like you can just find everything online instead. Rizzy said it's a common fallacy that everything's on streaming now.

"It's not at all. Especially when you get into certain genres," he said. "I find stuff all the time that's not on streaming. It's not even on YouTube, or maybe it's just on one streaming service."

Another popular misconception, perhaps driven by vinyl's newfound popularity, is that vinyl "is kind of like a gold mine," Rizzy said. "Like, 'There's money in these records!' In reality, there isn't. We'll get people coming in trying to sell us a record that they said is going for $200 on Ebay, when we'd only sell it for like $5."

Most shops stock non-vinyl products to make ends meet. Modern Legend sells clothing and gift items as well as new vinyl. Fuzzy sells used and collectible books along with new and used vinyl, and just added the Folkstone Slow Bar coffee shop in its space. In addition to a huge vinyl selection, Gravity Records offers the only turntable repair service in town.

"Definitely for a town this size, there's no shortage of people selling records," Gravity owner Matt Keen said. "I'm talking to you right now staring at a turntable and trying to figure how to fix it, because nobody else is doing it."

Margins are slim, Keen added, and "the pie is only so big. It's still a niche market. It gets hard to survive on those slivers."

Certainly, the record store business has long been a labor of love to some extent. But when it comes to "supporting both businesses and artists," Jarman said, "buying vinyl is the best way to do both of those."