(Photo by Sherri Kauk)
Early into the film VINYL NATION, a record store owner recounts how a conference of indie store owners was held in the midst of an existential crisis. The narrative was that record stores were closing. With nothing less than the survival of the stores at stake, he had an idea.
“Maybe we could do something called Record Store Day.”
That was how the very first Record Store Day came to be. Artists signed up to perform in stores and began to create special edition collectibles for the occasion. The entire industry got behind it. Its popularity led to a resurgence in interest in record collecting and is at the heart of the documentary VINYL NATION: A Documentary Dig Into The Record Resurgence which captures America’s renewed romance in record collecting and the rebirth of the medium once thought dead. According to Statista, vinyl album sales have increased every year from million total albums sold in 2007 to 18.84 million total albums sold in 2019.
The film, co-directed by Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone, has been playing on the festival circuit and opens the New Haven Docs Film Festival this week. The co-directors, onetime college roommates, crisscross the country’s cities and record stores with a sense of investigative intrigue as they strive to find the magic underlying a renaissance that has transcended the CD era to co-exist and thrive in the transient world of streaming.
“For most of our research and really our time shooting VINYL NATION as well, we were focused on telling the story of vinyl’s comeback,” co-director Kevin Smokler told me ahead of New Haven Docs. “It was only during editing when we realized we really had made a move about human connection. Our editors Jason Wehling and David Fabelo told us this was probably going to happen. Since documentaries have no script, you almost always end up thinking you’re making one movie then the movie itself tells you what it really is. They were right.”
Through the movie we get to see vinyl fans like Logan Melissa who espouse the virtues of album art and its inherent display value. “I like to be able to touch it and hold it and hug it if I want to.”
The film debunks the stereotypes of the elitist, sometimes grumpy record store owner and the archetypical record collector as a pretentious male with a ponytail. Instead the documentarians capture a public that is inclusive of younger women and families who have diversified the demographics and created a self-perpetuating generational fan base.
“I feel like you walk into my record store and you can’t find something you like, then somehow I’ve failed my mission to the record shop,” says Sandy Bitman of Park Avenue CDs in Orlando. “I want the kid who is eight or nine years old to find her favorite record and as she develops her musical traits over the next ten to twenty years, she can find everything she wants here.”
“We knew from the very beginning that there couldn’t be a comeback of vinyl records, i.e. record buying couldn’t both return and get bigger year after year if the exact same people were buying them,” Kevin Smokler shared. “So we knew who was a ‘record collector’ had changed and diversified. That was just math. Beyond that, we were never interested in making a documentary about a weird hobby and the weird people into it. We saw VINYL NATION as a story of a present and future, not a nostalgic passion.”
My vinyl fascination began early in life. I count myself fortunate that at a young age of four, my parents were brave enough to let me play their expensive Fairchild belt-driven turntable and Scott tube amplifier. It led to a lifelong obsession with vinyl abetted by my babysitter who snuck out her Beatles albums and an eighth- grade math teacher who lent me The Band and the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and I learned about Americana long before it had a name. Endlessly flipping through bins I imagined a future of a large collection which was later made possible by birthday and holiday gifts and the trove of records sent when I became an aspiring music journalist in my mid-teens. I kept my collection through the compact disc era alphabetized on custom shelves in my first house. My then four year old daughter looked up and asked about all the magazines I had.
For Kevin Smokler, a pop culture columnist and Christopher Boone, the director of the narrative feature film Cents, collecting records began in the new millennium. Smokler started collecting records in about 2007 when he bought a cheap stereo system. He admits he didn’t have any idea it was the beginning of records comeback but for a short time records were inexpensive and he found them an easy way to learn about music. For Christopher Boone, he and his family got a turntable in 2014. While his daughter has grown up with digital music, she got into records as both a way to listen to music and “as a kind of thrifting for objects and ephemera from earlier eras. He also realized that, in my soul, he was an album person but streaming had made him a passive listener of individual tracks. Records brought the filmmaker back to the album as a complete musical experience, one that also requires you to be present for.
In recent years, my interest in records was renewed by vinyl’s presence at show merch tables and the special bundles for artists provided for their Go Fund Me campaigns. There were also those random moments that seemed to come upon me during the pandemic. Watching CNBC correspondent Ylan Mui reporting in front of the album shelves of her apartment, I spent more time trying to decipher the titles in her record collection than I did paying attention to events of the day. Bingeing on the Prime show Bosch, I savored the scenes when the police detective Harry Bosch would come home and set the stylus on vintage John Coltrane sides that would fill the soundtrack of the noir drama. Set high in the Hollywood Hills, the music lit up the panoramic lights strewn below across the City of Angels. When the detective visits Amoeba Records on Sunset Boulevard, it’s like going on a pilgrimage to record mecca.
In the film Amoeba’s owner Marc Weinstein points out that any of his three stores is the largest record store on the planet. For those of us who lived in the heyday of Tower Records and suffered through its closing, Weinstein’s observation resonates. “You’re basically going to get turned on to things looking this way or that way as opposed to having something fed to you through some logarithm.”
VINYL NATION does a great job capturing the renewed creativity of the industry across all levels of the supply chain. Smokler reflects that some parts of telling a music story in the visual medium of film were easy. “Watching records being pressed or record sleeves being printed is visually compelling all on its own. But for example, record stores are not easy places to film, because fundamentally, you’re looking at aisles and rows of squares, geometry and abstract shapes instead of places. You have to work hard to capture the magic one feels walking into a great record store onscreen.”
And that’s just what the film does as it moves from store to store and reminds us that the communal record store experience and archeological-like dig is for music lovers, the great gathering at the village square.
For me watching VINYL NATION was a cathartic experience. Having a modest but still weighty collection of several thousand albums, the question that always seems to be hanging in the air is what to do with my records. Twenty years after my daughter asked me about my “magazines,” they’re now still alphabetized standing on concrete blocks and Lowe’s shelves in a small room outside my basement office. They’re waiting to be liberated in some more open space and a future home wherever we end up down the road. Each week in the Washington Post a little colored ad always jumps out in the Weekend section as if it was targeted just to me. Steve’s Records….we buy everything.
It’s been tempting to make the call but after watching VINYL NATION, I’ve recalculated. The record collection I’ve spent my life building is too much a part of my DNA. The expense of moving them to wherever next is has to be part of the budget. And If the person in the film who courageously dragged his over 13,000 records in crates up the driveway of a California mountain, surely I too can find a way to keep mine.
(For more information, visit http://vinylnationfilm.com. The film is also available on a RSD commemorative limited edition Blue-ray/DVD made for Record Store Day. A list of record stores where it is available can be found at: https://vinylnationfilm.com/rsd-limited-blu-ray-dvd)