Vinyl's Final Days -- Cds Are Gobbling Up The Market Of That Old Dinosaur, The Album

A revolution is going on at a record store near you.

The 33 1/3 vinyl LP, which has been the staple of the record business since the 1950s, is going the way of eight-track tapes and 78s. Industry observers say that by the end of this year, many record stores no longer will be carrying vinyl records at all.

Already, some hit LPs are not available on vinyl. Milli Vanilli's ``Girl You Know It's True,'' the No. 1 album on Billboard's Top Pop Albums chart, was deleted in November from Arista Records' vinyl catalog, because of poor sales. It is available only on cassette tape and compact disc.

New Kids on the Block's Christmas album, ``Merry Merry Christmas,'' which made the Top 10 last month, was deleted from Columbia Records' vinyl list after the first pressing, also because of poor vinyl sales.

Compact discs are the main culprit in the death of vinyl. Introduced only six years ago, the new technology has swept the industry faster than predicted. According to a 1988 Billboard story, most record companies didn't expect the CD to overtake vinyl until the mid-1990s. But the superiority of CD in sound reproduction, its longevity and ease of use could not be denied and consumers enthusiastically embraced the new sensation. Now record companies are having a hard time keeping up. Compact-disc pressing plants are going 24 hours a day, seven days a week and there's still a huge backlog of orders.

The stabilization of CD prices has rushed vinyl's demise. Vinyl records are still cheaper than CDs, but the gap is closing. Discs once went for $20 or more each; they're now down to $10-$15. Records range from $7 to $9. For the past several years, major record companies have been trying to come to an agreement on a uniform CD suggested retail price.

The continuing decline in the price of compact-disc players also has fueled the vinyl revolution. A good CD player can be had for about $125. Fancier models, which can play up to five discs, go for about $200. Players are programmable, so you can play the cuts on a CD in any order, or delete or repeat cuts.

Many new classical-music titles released by major record companies are not even pressed on vinyl. Most are released exclusively on CD. That's because classical-music lovers value top quality sound reproduction more than pop-music fans. Just as classical music spurred the development of the 33 1/3 disc - because whole classical works could be contained on one record - so did it inspire the development of the CD.

Indeed, the amount of music that can be contained on a CD was determined by Japanese audio technicians, who wanted to get the entire Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - beloved in Japan - on one disc. The work runs about 70 minutes, and that's why CDs are about that long.

Cassette tapes also contributed to the demise of vinyl. But cassettes crept up on LPs very slowly. Introduced in the 1960s, it wasn't until 1983 - after the introduction of Walkman-type players and boom boxes - that cassettes overtook LPs in sales. Compact discs have taken hold much faster not only because of their superior sound reproduction, but also because of their ease of use. Unlike cassette tape machines, most CD players allow you to program only the cuts you wish to hear.

Some stores already have dumped records. Walk into any of the five Wherehouse Records stores in the Seattle area and the only vinyl you'll see are a few 12-inch dance singles. They're one area of vinyl that's holding on, mostly because of ``scratching,'' the practice of manipulating a record on the turntable to produce rhythms or a scratching sound.

Wherehouse stores banished vinyl in October because they accounted for less than 10 percent of sales. Tossing bulky albums also allowed more display space for CDs, cassette tapes and videos. The stores will still special-order vinyl albums, but a clerk at one Wherehouse store said that doesn't happen very often. Nevertheless, she said, ``People haven't given up on vinyl. I have a stereo still and I will not pay for a CD player just yet.'' Her final word: ``Bring back vinyl!'' However, she asked not to be identified because she was going against company policy.

A few CD-only stores have sprung up, such as the three Silver Platters stores here - which also carry video LaserDiscs. The locally based chain started four years ago with a store in Bellevue. The other stores are at Northgate and Southcenter.

Some record stores plan to cling to vinyl as long as possible.

``We are going to ride it out to the bitter end,'' vowed John Ramsey, general manager of the three Peaches stores in the Northwest. ``We always want to maintain our full-catalog stores,'' with all three music configurations - vinyl, cassette tapes and CDs.

But he said vinyl is disappearing ``faster than I ever thought was possible.'' Like other retailers, he is having trouble ordering some titles on vinyl, and acknowledged that vinyl sales are shrinking more and more each month. But when other stores have given vinyl the boot, Ramsey hopes Peaches will still carry them. ``Then vinyl buyers will have to come to our stores,'' he predicted. Are he pointed out that some types of music - including blues, folk and ethnic - are still available only on vinyl, and probably will continue to be.

Visitors to Tower Records stores in this area find less and less floor space devoted to vinyl. According to Russ Solomon, founder and president of the Sacramento-based chain that has 54 stores in the United States and 13 overseas, vinyl is nearly dead.

``It's gasping for breath,'' he said in a phone interview, as rock music played in the background. ``We'd like to hold on, but unfortunately the world is not going that way.''

Solomon, who has long been considered one of the wisest figures in record retailing, predicted that vinyl will go by the end of 1990. He wouldn't have said that six months ago, he added, but vinyl sales dipped considerably in the last quarter of 1989. ``The last four months they've been dropping 1 percent a month,'' he said.

He said that when the major record companies adopted a 15 percent return rate on vinyl in May - meaning that they would pay 15 percent of the original wholesale price for unsold vinyl returned to them - that it was the end of the ball game for vinyl. Most majors offer a near-100 percent return rate for CDs and cassette tapes.

Solomon said that Digital Audio Tape, the new technology advance in cassette tapes, which produces sound quality comparable to CDs, would probably not have the impact of compact discs.

``There's no burning need for it,'' he said. ``DAT players are too expensive. People already have tape players and nothing about DAT is going to make them switch.''

The 33 1/3 record isn't the only victim of the technological revolution in recording. Cassette singles are outselling vinyl singles by a 10-to-1 ratio, according to Billboard, leading many stores to drop the familiar 7-inch 45 single. CBS has already stopped making 45s, except for its classics line. Other labels probably will follow suit soon.

So what happens to all those vinyl records nobody wants anymore? Some of them will turn up at used-record stores, such as those in the University District. According to Dave Caplan, manager of the Cellophane Square store there, the demise of albums means that some of the classics will go up in value. ``Old Stones in mono, old Beatles records and stuff like that will become more valuable,'' he said, ``but most old Top 10 albums are worthless now, because you can get them on used CD for only a buck or two more than vinyl.''

While vinyl soon may be gone from your favorite record store, albums probably will stick around for a long time. According to The New York Times, there are some 65 million turntables in American homes, 4.7 million of them sold in 1988, the last year for which figures are available. (Some 5 million CD players were sold in 1988.) Most music lovers probably have a collection of albums they won't soon part with. But then again, you don't see many eight-tracks or 78s anymore.


Manufacturers' shipments (in millions)

1988 1989 percent


LPS 43.48 17.53 -59.69

CDS 70.45 96.87 +37.51

CASSETTES 208.09 211.31 +4.45

SOURCE: Recording Industry Association of America Marketing Research Committee.