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Sunday, March 15, 2009

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Vinyl heaven: A treasure-hunter fingers 7-inch gems at Be-in in Tokyo's Koenji district.

WEEK 3

45s at 60 just keep groovin' on their 7-inch way


Staff writer

It was 60 years ago this month when a country crooner from the South released the first-ever single to spin at 45 rpm.

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Spin doctor: Escalator Records' Haruka Naka in the indie-specialist company's Harajuku, Tokyo, shop with some of its new 45s in racks on the wall behind DAVID HICKEY PHOTOS

Issued in green vinyl on the RCA label, the 7-inch "Texarkana Baby" by Eddy "The Tennessee Plowboy" Arnold became a No. 1 hit and enjoyed the sort of sales that today's artists can only dream of.

But good news from the music industry these days is (almost) rarer than a gaffe-free member of Prime Minister Taro Aso's Cabinet, what with total sales in all formats here down 3 percent last year, and one industry official now estimating that worldwide sales have nose-dived by more than 30 percent since 2001 because of illegal downloads.

Amid the gloom, though, there's a bright spot: Several young entrepreneurial owners of Tokyo specialty record stores are experiencing a miniboom — and it has a lot to do with those 7-inch slices of circular vinyl.

"Sales of 45s are up 75 percent on last year, and 75 percent up on five years ago," says Haruka Naka as she steps out from Escalator Records' office, stacked almost to the ceiling with cardboard boxes full of records so new they're likely to be unknown as yet to even the most savvy Tokyo indie kid.

"Vinyl is so much more collectable than MP3s," she adds when asked to explain the format's appeal. "We've got cool kids who are pumped up for buying 7-inches every week."

The mood is similarly upbeat elsewhere, from Daikanyama's Bonjour Records (electronica/alternative) to Koenji's Be-In Records (rarities), with its 30,000 45s in stock (out of 100,000 in all), and Shibuya's Warszawa, a dance-music specialist that does much of its business online and is also taking part in the second Record Store Day on April 18 — a global event to promote independent record stores supported by the likes of Nick Hornby, Bruce Springsteen and The Flaming Lips.

One reason for this vinyl revival is the passion and knowledge of the stores' staff, who are more curators than shop assistants.

For example, those at Be-in can show customers such gems as a 1963 demo of The Rolling Stones' second single, "I Wanna Be Your Man" (a cool ¥126,000), and their oldest 45 in the racks, Elvis Presley's 1958 "Hard-Headed Woman" (a snip at ¥7,800).

Add to that a steady stream of younger buyers, and Tokyo's vibrant DJ scene — dominated by analog purists who sniff at the enfeebled sound quality of MP3s and CDs (because digital can't capture the ultra-high frequencies that analog can) — and you have an idea why plastic is still very much fantastic.

Another key player is the music industry itself, which is grappling for a sustainable business model and is desperate to sell music in any form possible to anybody who will listen. Consequently, some boutique independent labels — and some artists themselves — are coming up with marketing strategies (read: gimmicks) to make a connection with the likes of Escalator's "cool kids."

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Wall of sound: 45s in their `60s glory on display at Be-in Records in Koenji, Tokyo (top), which is a a trove of early vinyl rarities. The Feminine (above, with gorilla), a hard-drinkin' garage-rock trio from Saitama, with their debut 7-inch single "Sweet Stout Boogie" DAVID HICKEY PHOTO

Naka credits British dance act Klaxons, who built up a buzz in 2006 with limited-edition 7-inch singles before they went Top 40, and London singer- songwriter Jack Penate, whose 2006 release "Second Minute or Hour" was limited to 1,000 copies (each with a unique Polaroid), for making the 7-inch single a cult object again. These days it's vinyl singles by the likes of Vampire Weekend and Friendly Fires (priced at around ¥1,000) that are flying out of the bins and onto turntables.

Here in Tokyo, life also began at 45 rpm for up-and-coming garage-rock trio The Feminine.

"We don't want our tunes to be something you can just download," explains singer Coatea of the band, whose debut single, "Sweet Stout Boogie," was released as a 7-inch last year on Seez Records. "It had to be something 'real.' Even with CDs, it's effectively just data, and you can copy it easily."

Says bassist Shimmy: "We like that crackle you get with vinyl."

Producing a grooved platter of black wax and the paper sleeve it's housed in isn't cheap.

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Seez Records President Chikara Yoshida says that it cost ¥250,000 to press (in the United States), package and distribute 500 copies of "Sweet Stout Boogie." Then there's recording costs. Yoshida, 30, says he'd have to sell all 500 copies (at ¥1,000 each) just to break even — something he cheerfully admits is unlikely. So why does he do it? Why not put out a CD, which is cheaper to produce?

"Because vinyl is something that'll never die," he says. "I think the way people listen to analog and digital forms of music is different. On one side of a 45, you've only got room for one song. If you want to listen to the flip side, you've got to physically get up, turn the record over and put the needle on again. I think that's really important. There's no fun in listening to CDs or whatever, where you're just pushing a button.

"I think music should be something you have to put some effort into to get enjoyment out of it. That's what you have to do with vinyl; it's a ritual. I don't understand why the major labels spend ¥500,000 to ¥600,000 on making a tune, using the best recording equipment, if the song is going to end up being downloaded onto a cell phone for ¥100."

Indeed, in such a cell-phone-saturated culture, in which browsing is something you're more likely to do while standing on a train than in a record store, perhaps the continued rude health of Tokyo's independent record stores signifies nothing less than a primordial urge for something physical — for possessions that in and of themselves mean something again. Certainly Escalator's Naka thinks so.

"I think young people these days desire more of a connection — with people, things and music," she says.

Despite the diversification of music formats — it would probably make the late Eddy Arnold chortle if he knew Justin Timberlake's last album was released in more than 100 formats, from ring tones to iTunes to plain old CD — it's ironic that some old technology is in vogue once again.

Perhaps the future lies in a mixture of analog and digital. Many stores, including Warszawa, are offering free download coupons when shoppers purchase a record of any sort.

Analog on the A-side, digital on the B-side, if you like.

The Feminine play Smokin' Boogie, Shinjuku, Tokyo, March 21 (7 p.m.; ¥1,500). For details, visit www.geocities.jp/ femininecats For Record Store Day, go to www.recordstoreday.com

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