5 Cities Where Records Still Rule

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Nope, it's not a relic of old Pearl Jam songs, Gaslight Anthem film projects or even a byproduct of Foo Fighters audiophile experimentsIt's the fastest-growing music format in the country.

Vinyl is still a thin sliver of the much larger recording industry, but its groove is widening. Of the 289 million albums sold last year, a scant 6.1 million were on vinyl. Yet Nielsen Soundscan and Billboard note that while total album sales dropped 8% last year and physical album sales plummeted 13%, vinyl sales grew 33%.

It's no fluke, either. Since 2009, sales of vinyl records have grown by nearly 2.1 million albums and by nearly 15% each year. During that same time, total album sales have dropped from 376 million, while combined physical album sales have fallen below 200 million for the first time ever. Even digital album sales, hailed as music's savior, dropped slightly last year as the demand for digital tracks plunged by 6%.

That's not enough to undo all the damage vinyl and its purveyors have suffered throughout the years. Record stores saw their revenue tumble by 76% since 2000 to $2 billion, according to market research firm IBISWorld. That group estimates that record stores will lose another 40% of sales by 2016. But despite being derided as cumbersome and outdated, vinyl is the only form of non-streaming music that more people actually want to own.

Those recent sales spikes elevated vinyl from a thrift-store find to an honored portion of music collections throughout the U.S. You may buy a $1.99 digital single of the moment or download the full $8 to $10 album if you're really into it, but record buyers save that honor for their most prized albums. Otherwise, they're content to let it pop up on the streaming music service they're paying a monthly fee for. That's prompted labels such as Warner and Sony Music to crank up the vinyl works again and, on occasion, thrown in MP3 versions for free if people spend on shiny new 180-gram vinyl. Warner is once again paying for its spot as lead sponsor for Record Store Day this Saturday at 700 participating independent record stores across the country and more than 1,600 shops around the world.

So where should you be if you want to get your hands on a Sam Cooke reissue, a Dinosaur Jr./The Cure 7-inch version of No Fun or any of the other special-edition releases headed to record stores that day? We offered some suggestions last year, but here's a new slate of cities still in love with vinyl:

Memphis, Tenn.

There's just about no way this town wouldn't hold on to all the vinyl it had: It's part of its rich legacy.

The city's blues, gospel, soul and rock roots were all laid down on wax and Sun Records and Stax Records are cornerstone's of the nation's recorded music heritage. From W.C. Handy to Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis to Aretha Franklin, Roy Orbison to Issac Hayes, there's a whole lot more to this city's music landscape than the guy who lived in Graceland and a Mickey Mouse Club kid from the suburbs named Justin.

Memphis has only three shops participating in Record Store Day, but any one of them would be the best record store in most cities in the U.S. Shangri-la Records was once a house, then a relaxation center filled with flotation tanks, but it's now Jared and Lori McStay's tribute to Memphis' music history. Stacked with blues, rock and hardscrapple country records stripped of Nashville's sheen, Shangri-La keeps Memphis music going through its Shangri-La Projects label and through the owners' own band, but a trip through its racks is an archeological dig full of Memphis' greatest treasures.

Goner Records on Young Avenue still has an impressive selection of blues, country, soul, funk and indie albums, but it's best known for bringing music's outer margins into Memphis' fold. Japanese shredders Guitar Wolf and the late, abrasive Jay Reatard have called Goner home, as have the Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Ty Seagall. They could all be lumped under "garage rock," but that's one untidy garage.

Lastly, there's tourist-friendly, venue-adjacent Memphis Music sitting in all its neon glory on Beale Street. It's part souvenir shop and trades in heavily on both its location and having B.B. King's club right next door, but it still trades in some of the best Memphis souvenirs you can ask for -- blues, soul, gospel and rock LPs.

Portland, Ore.

It takes a whole lot of willpower not to go record shopping in this town.

You have your sprawling everything-to-everyone shops with in-store shows such as Music Millennium on East Burnside and you have cramped storefronts filled with Golden Age hip-hop gems, art and gear at Future Shock just a few blocks down. You have bins full of vintage vinyl at hardcore collectors' shops such as Mississippi Records and Crossroads Music to niche shops including hidden gem and soul, jazz and disco depository 99 Cent Records and electronic music paradise Beacon Sound.

If you're not from the area and only have a limited amount of time to spend in town, there's a circuit built just for you. Start in the Pearl District near the massive Powell's World of Books and head to the outsized Everyday Music just a few blocks west on Burnside across from the famed Crystal Ballroom music venue. Not only do they have sprawling aisles of new and used vinyl, but they're occasionally the record spot of choice for acts playing across the street. From there, hike back toward Powell's and bang a right on 10th Avenue to get to Portland-based label Tender Loving Empire's shop. They're going to ply you with souvenirs and knick-knacks at the front of the store, but a few racks full of of label artists and local acts including Y La Bamba, Boy Eats Drum Machine and Radiation City sit just beyond them to the left.

From there, pop into Courier Coffee for a Jarbraltar Latte and a quick listen to whatever they're spinning on their countertop turntable from their crates of LPs hand-washed with homebrewed cleanser. The shop is just around the corner from the 9th Avenue outpost of Jackpot Records, which has a limited back catalog but just about every new vinyl release out there. Its own record label contributes a whole lot to the pile, including reissues of work by The Outsiders, The Skabbs, The New Dawn and seminal Portland punk band The Wipers.

When it's time to wrap it up -- or if you only have time for one record store in this town -- head down to 2nd Avenue Records near the base of the Morrison Bridge. The genres bleed one into the next, the overflow is still kept in crates and cardboard boxes that require some digging and your order is going to be marked off of inventory by hand, but you can find just about anything here if you have some patience and time on your side.

Boston

I'm not sure than we can write a longer, more earnest love letter to local chain Newbury Comics than we did just before Record Store Day last year, so we won't even try. We'd just advise starting your day there -- preferably at the Newbury Street location itself -- before heading out, if only to center yourself for what comes next.

Greater Boston's record store circuit isn't all that tightly packed anymore, but it's still vibrant and incredibly esoteric. At one point, you could go around the corner from Newbury Comics to Looney Tunes on Boylston Street and transition seamlessly from a well-lit wide-aisled world of plastic-sealed jewel cases and shelves full of Simpsons and Family Guy toys to tight confines and giant stacks of cardboard-encased vinyl that you perused at your peril.

That's gone now, but its spiritual sibling Nuggets nearby on Commonwealth Avenue still exists in all its anachronistic glory. Sharing its name with the noted '60s garage-rock compilation record, Nuggets is stacked with a whole lot of 45s for $2 or less, signatures on the wall from noted musicians long gone and a whole lot of cheap Blu-rays, DVDs and VHS tapes -- with VCRs still available for sampling. It's Boston's classic rock haven just around the corner from Fenway, so don't let the strong whif of cardboard and heavy presence of dust put you off.

Just a few T stops down Comm Ave is the similarly disheveled In Your Ear that claims more than 100,000 CDs and LPs, but none in any discernible order. The first trick is finding the shop itself, which is tucked away inside an aging store complex that now houses a theater company. The second is finding anything in the bins that range from three-for-a-dollar bargains to the occasional collector's item. Want a random 1989 issue of Rolling Stone? It's probably here. A single of Poison's Every Rose Has It's Thorn? Ditto in the bargain bin. Any hope of leaving the store in less than an hour? Sorry, not available.

While we'd be remiss if we didn't mention one of the best hip-hop record shops in the Northeast in Underground Hip Hop and one of the most well-hidden collection of world music in the city at Tres Gatos, which is literally hidden in the back of a tapas restaurant in the city's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, we'd also be committing a crime of omission if we didn't tell you that much of the area's best record shopping is a Red Line trip north in Cambridge and Somerville. Cheapo Records and Weirdo Records in Cambridge's Central Square thrive on the vintage and obscure, while Armageddon Shop, Planet Records, Stereo Jack's and In Your Ear's second location are Harvard Square's last ties to the once-thriving music culture that preceded its current outdoor mall aesthetic.

Austin

You'd hope that the city that hosts South By Southwest, Austin City Limits and myriad music venues would still have places to buy music.

While being in a college town is no longer a guarantee that anyone's going to want to buy albums from you -- especially with downloads now giving way to streaming -- being in a town filled with old-to-their-soul music fans pretty much guarantees a consumer base for life. Shops such as End of An Ear, Antone's and Breakaway all cast a wide net for music fans but have a deep reverence for vinyl.

That said, this is the kind of weird little town where the niches thrived. Encore, for example, is metal's oasis away from Austin's indie rock and country scenes, while The Screw Shop is one of the last pillar's of DJ Screw's "chopped and screwed" brand of Texas hip-hop.

So where do you start? Waterloo Records, which is generally untouchable during SXSW but only slightly less so for the rest of the year. It's a huge shop teeming with just about everything you could ask for, new or used, plus frequent in-store appearances and shows. On Record Store Day, the line forms at 6 a.m. for 10 a.m. openings, so unless there's something you really want or you've been jonesing to get an album signed by The Black Angels, maybe hold off a day or so.

Baltimore

John Waters' films would have moviegoers believe Baltimore is a strange, quirky, not at all Wire-like place where vinyl spins freely and vintage tracks reverberate off of every rowhouse.

At least where the record shops are concerned, he's not altogether wrong. Tucked in among the myriad bars of Fells Point is Baltimore's mainline, new-and-used, vinyl-and-CD, DVD-and-Blu-ray shop Sound Garden. While the owners just had to fight for the life of a satellite store in Syracuse, N.Y., that fell in the crosshairs of onerous new laws governing used music, the original has slipped quietly into Baltimore's mainstream much as Newbury Comics has in Boston. It isn't the geekiest store in town, but its broad selection keeps it busy.

Neighboring El Suprimo Records, however, distinguishes itself by sticking strictly to vinyl and stocking 13,000 LPs, 45s and 78s among a huge selection of turntables and DJ equipment vital for a town with a DJ culture as deep as Baltimore's. Downtown, just a bit closer to the University of Maryland Campus, Dimensions In Music sprawls over three floors and has a dense selection of Baltimore club, jazz, R&B and hip-hop on vinyl.

Head up toward John's Hopkins, meanwhile, and you'll run into the impressive cluster of indie record and vintage turntable shops: Jo Jo South, Husker Du-inspired punk and hardcore shop/mini bar Celebrated Summer and metal enclave Black Mess. It's substantial, but still just a prelude to what awaits at the city's finest shop: True Vine.

Knowledgeable beyond a casual fan's comprehension, store owners Jason Willett and Stewart Mostofsky maintain an enormous vinyl inventory that they buy a collection at a time. We're not just talking about estate-sale 78s, but whole troves of Baltimore club releases collected by those in the know. The clientele at this shop has a more encyclopedic knowledge of their music than most store owners, but Willett and Mostofsky have dedicated their careers to knowing the music  others would shrug off as obscure or ephemeral. This is Baltimore, and the music scholars here are among the most learned in the world. They're not caricatures from The Wire or relics from John Waters movies, nor are they wallflowers from some Dan Deacon loft show. They know their music because they've absorbed it, and they're more than willing to bring similarly serious folks into the fold

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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