Streaming rules, but vinyl still grooves: Record stores see new generation of shoppers

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There was a time when Jack Woker wasn't sure his business would survive.

It was the early 2000s, when CD sales were beginning to decline in the U.S. His store, Stereo Jack's Records in Cambridge, had been selling vinyl records since 1982. By the '90s, he mostly depended on CDs as vinyl and cassette tapes went by the wayside.

But if there's anything Woker has learned over his four decades in the retail music business, it's that consumer habits can be unpredictable — and at times, mind-boggling.

"Suddenly there was this swell of interest in vinyl, and it was mostly coming from young people," Woker said. "It was puzzling to us, but we went along with it."

Shoppers sifting through records at Stereo Jack's Records in Cambridge. (Yasmin Amer/WBUR)
Shoppers sifting through records at Stereo Jack's Records in Cambridge. (Yasmin Amer/WBUR)

According to Woker, a lot of his young customers tend to prefer classic rock albums their parents might have bought as CDs in the '80s and '90s. Some of his big vinyl sellers include Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Beatles.

But it's not just the classics. New artists, such as Taylor Swift and Adele, are also responding to a nationwide boom in vinyl sales by releasing more physical records.  Data from the Recording Industry Association of America shows a steady increase in record sales over the last decade. There was also a significant jump in revenue between 2019 and 2020.

"I think the pandemic caused people to suddenly have to find a find a way to entertain themselves at home," Woker said.

Vinyl fans swear by the medium's sound quality — a rich, detailed texture that you'd be hard-pressed to find in an mp3 file. But for some fans, like 30-year-old Brian Laurentiev, there's an even greater allure of vinyl: the search for a record.

"There is an archaeological project thing where it's interesting to find stuff that's not on digital," he said. "Then you've found something really special."

Stereo Jack's is one of more than a dozen stores in Greater Boston that sell vinyl and other physical albums. Although music lovers in the region have kept record businesses mostly steady, Woker says it can get competitive when they're all bidding on rarer collections.

Pat McGrath, who owns Looney Tunes Records in Allston, says it takes a special kind of passion for music to be in this business.

"If I had more money, I would just own a better record store," McGrath said. "It's what I do."

Both McGrath and Woker have dealt with a host of challenges over the years. Rising rent prices, threats of eviction, and the fact that streaming now accounts for 84% of music revenue.

Still, Woker says he's looking forward to another year. At 76, he has no plans to retire.

"I love music. I love being around music, and I'm thrilled that I'm able to make a living with what used to be my hobby," he said. "If I retired, I wouldn't know what to do."

This segment aired on December 16, 2021.


Yasmin Amer Reporter
Yasmin Amer is a business reporter for WBUR.



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