On a recent Saturday night in Los Feliz, a crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk outside the grand opening party for High-Fidelity, the latest entrant in the increasingly crowded field of Eastside vinyl record shops. Inside, a string quartet played Radiohead and Postal Service covers while the owner, Michael Hobson, worked the room. With his close-cropped white hair and stocky build, Hobson looks more like a retired drill sergeant than a music business lifer. But as soon as he starts proselytizing about the joys of vinyl, you know you're talking to a true believer.
“It's not really a nostalgic thing with most of the customers we have,” he insists. “It's like opening a nice bottle of wine or having a nice meal. [You] put a record on and really enjoy the fidelity of it.”
Only a few years ago, you could have dismissed Hobson as a doe-eyed sentimentalist, raving about a format that was obsolete to all but a few obsessive collectors and snobby DJs. But these days, he's got a lot of company. In the last year alone, three new vinyl-centric retailers have opened on the East Side: Mono Records in Echo Park, Permanent Records in Eagle Rock, and now High-Fidelity. Add Highland Park's Wombleton, Echo Park's Origami and Silver Lake's Vacation to the mix, all of which have been in business less than three years, and a small section of L.A. is now glutted with vinyl.
So much competition might seem impossible to sustain, but Origami's Neil Schield prefers to look on the bright side. “A lot of people when we first opened thought we were crazy. But for us to see these new shops coming up … it make us feel really good.”
So he doesn't see them as competitors?
“Maybe that's how it is in the coffee business. I view things like people downloading music or things like Amazon as more of a competitor than a fellow vinyl record store.”
Mono Records' John Roller echoes this sentiment, and even Wayne Johnson, co-owner of Silver Lake's venerable Rockaway Records, doesn't have a bad thing to say about the new kids. “It's great to see stores coming back,” he declares. “There's plenty of business to go around.”
But is there really?
Although sales of new vinyl jumped nearly 40 percent last year (used vinyl numbers are harder to track), Hobson admits it's still a “tiny number” compared to sales of CDs or digital music. But he's also quick to point out that each of the new stores serves a specific niche, so they might cannibalize each other's business less than you'd think.
“My attitude is that we're really not in competition,” says Hobson, who's been selling vinyl online through TheMusic.com since 2001. It's hard to argue his point; High-Fidelity's inventory, which appeals to the Los Feliz yuppies with lots of used jazz, soul and classic rock, bears little resemblance to the new indie releases at Origami or the heavy rock and experimental sections at Vacation.
At Mono Records, which specializes in local labels and used obscurities, business is so good that Roller is already adding more floor space and inventory. Whether the East Side's other vinyl newcomers will enjoy similar success remains to be seen. But for now, as Roller says, “It's a really exciting time to be into vinyl and live in L.A.”