One-hit wonders? Hardly. Records are relevant again, and the Orlando faithful aim to keep it that way.
"Once you get into the hard stuff, it's hard to get out. It's hard not to want it. It's hard not to get addicted.''
Those are the words of a self-professed junkie—a music junkie. Her name is Hanna Skrobko, co-owner of Orlando’s East West Music & More, the oldest independent record store in Florida. She’s spent 45 years in the music business selling and obsessing over 12-inch pieces of vinyl. For her and millions around the globe, vinyl records represent the past, present and future of music.
Vinyl as an industry supposedly died and was buried sometime around 1991, after cassette tapes and CDs had washed over the commercial music landscape. Portability superseded the bulky, antiquated way of listening to music, and by the time the downloading and streaming era hit in the new millennium, vinyl was thought to not only be a thing of the past, but something worthy of a museum.
The bins at Rock & Roll Heaven are a treasure trove for record enthusiasts like Tiffany Bailey. Vinyl's resurgence "is giving people a reason to get back in touch with their local music sellers," she says.
But in the last five years, something clicked with a generation that was more accustomed to having its entire music collection in its pocket than on a shelf. Something sparked a voracious interest in vinyl records among millennial consumers that led to sales of over $226 million in the first half of 2015. While streaming services continue to increase at steady rates—25 percent for Spotify in the first half of 2015—vinyl surged at a growth of 52 percent in the same period.
Why? The rise seems to be fueled by a mixture of nostalgia, a return to tactile music, improved sound quality over digital mediums, and an overall quality trend in modern consumerism. People are searching for authenticity in their food, their clothing, and their beer and wine. With music, vinyl is the physical representation of authenticity.
We talked to record sellers and collectors throughout the Orlando community to chronicle the vibe of vinyl.
For Freddy Ehmen, vinyl’s popularity never ended.
“They called us dinosaurs. They called it a dead format,” says Ehmen, a former musician and record distributor who owns Rock & Roll Heaven, one of Orlando’s oldest record stores. “Now they’re building new record plants; the industry can’t keep up with the demand.”
Ehmen is right. According to the Record Industry Association of America, vinyl album sales outgrossed ad revenue from free tier streaming services like Spotify, YouTube, and Google Play in 2015.
Rock & Roll Heaven meets all the criteria of what a great record store should be. The employees have encyclopedic knowledge. The bins are meticulously organized, chock-full of titles ranging from ubiquitous to obscure. There’s always something fantastic playing in the store. Most of all, it’s a place where you can easily spend hours without being asked to leave. On a recent day, a Beatles record was playing as Ehmen waxed nostalgic about the passing of George Martin, the legendary producer known as the “5th Beatle.”
“I was 12. That was the age when music became everything for me, really. My sister gave me all of her Beatles albums, and there was no looking back,” he says. “I always had records as a kid.”
Now, Ehmen is seeing the same mesmerizing quality of vinyl being passed to a younger generation. Even for someone who has been in business since 1977, he says its still rewarding to see the moment when the spark clicks in a young listener, or the moment when he feels like he can make a difference in someone’s day through the power of recorded music.
Tiffany Bailey, 29, is a Rock & Roll Heaven customer and someone who inherited the ritual of listening to records from her grandparents, but she’s definitely noticed 20-somethings get behind the pastime.
“It’s interesting again for some people; it’s like ‘oh cool, records!’” she says. “I’m excited there’s a revival, because it means people are excited about music again. I’m more interested in local, domestic-made products, and vinyl is giving people a reason to get back in touch with their local music sellers.
“To me our generation [millennials] is kind of uniquely qualified to choose from the pack because we went through a lot of mediums in a short time. When we were super young, records were still here. But we’ve basically tried it all, and some people really like vinyl better.”
The items for sale at Uncle Tony’s Donut Shoppe aren’t edible but just as sweet—especially the rare, obscure titles that owner Jon Santino is able to track down.
“When someone smashed in my car window to steal two crates of records,’’ recalls vinyl collector Jon Santino, “I knew there had to be a demand.”
They weren’t just any records; they were some of Santino’s prized possessions—records he had picked up during his travels. But from misfortune came opportunity. It took a collector’s worst nightmare, along with some guidance and investments from expert record buyer John Sarivola and business partner Hector Moreno, to inspire him to get into the market himself. The 29-year-old now co-owns Orlando’s newest independent record store, Uncle Tony’s Donut Shoppe, which opened in April 2015 at the corner of Orange Avenue and Colonial Drive.
“We started as a pop-up shop, just trying to satisfy the demand for the heavy collector culture. You know, deep jazz titles, funk titles, Latin, world music, hip-hop,” Santino says. “Now we’re getting customers who just bought their first turntable along with people who’ve been collecting longer than I’ve been alive.”
Before Uncle Tony’s took off, Santino was working as a full-time IT consultant for Lockheed Martin and doing DJ duty part-time under the stage name Spreadsheets. The DJ scene introduced him to the vinyl culture six years ago and he fell in love. He knew a white-collar job would never satisfy him the same way records did, so he put the pieces in place to try and make his dream come true—which included cashing out part of his retirement.
“Those first few months, I was driving Uber, doing as many side DJ gigs as I could, just hustling to open the shop,” Santino says. “When you invest your everything into this—blood, sweat, tears, money—the super rewarding thing is to see more traffic coming into the store. People are starting to catch on.”
Because the shop specializes in rare and obscure titles, prices can range anywhere from $5 to $600 for the crown jewels. He even sold a $1,500 record once, though he says the normal purchase sits right around the market average at $20. He’s also started buying more common pop and rock titles to better suit new collectors. Santino plans to expand his shop’s selection of “delectable donuts” into the online market in the next year and continue to sew Uncle Tony’s into the tapestry of Orlando’s independent vinyl landscape.
Though vinyl sales are surging, one of the caveats to being a vinyl collector is the price commitment. Turntables run anywhere from $50-$200 at most retail stores and websites. An amp and speakers can range from a couple of hundred dollars to the thousands. But there are all-in-one solutions that combine amp, turntable and speakers that can cut setup costs dramatically. Most new turntables are also compatible with modern speaker systems and digital devices. A great home-stereo setup can satisfy both analog and digital needs.
When it comes to record costs, new pressings and reissues typically cost $25-$30, making purchasing new titles costly in comparison to digital downloads. However, many record companies are including download codes and even CD copies within purchase packages so that consumers get the most bang for their buck on new records. Some companies, like Vinyl Me, Please, offer straight-to-home monthly delivery of new and popular titles based on the music preferences you list. Think of it like a mail-order record club. There’s competition in the market, too. VNYL, Spinbox, and Prescribed Vinyl also offer similar services. For around $20 a month, these companies can help you build your record collection and do all the curating for you.
For older records, the rarer the record and the better the condition, the higher the price. Luckily, bargain bin used vinyl can be found in virtually every record store in Orlando along with thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets.
George Long, better known as Santa to his regular customers because of his bushy white beard and long, flowing white hair, sells carts full of vintage records at Renninger’s antique market in Mount Dora. His inventory sits in a quiet section of aisle C sandwiched among antique furniture and crystals, World War II memorabilia, and various knickknacks from the 20th century. His records are priced reasonably, with most ranging from $5-$10. Any records that aren’t specifically labeled are 3 for $10, which makes it easy for a collector to browse his bins and go home with a great haul for a fraction of the new-pressing cost.
Long, 73, got into the record business late. For years, he owned a Hallmark gift shop until the downturn in the economy forced him to close. In 2013, he decided to sell some of his old records from the 1950s and ’60s by artists like Duane Eddy and Bo Diddley. They sold instantly. Now he buys records by the hundreds and sells them Friday-Sunday at Renninger’s.
“One reason I think young people are getting into vintage vinyl again is because the artists from that era are true originals—like Brenda Lee for example, such a unique voice,” Long says. “The Beatles had a unique sound, CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival]—artists like that. The young people, they’ve become aficionados of the old, true sound.”
George Long watches over his seemingly endless supply of vintage records at Renninger’s. His prices are easy on the wallet: Most of the vinyl goodies go for just $5-$10.
That old, true sound Long talks about? Well, it’s what Hanna Skrobko pines for. It’s probably not wise to talk to her about digital music, or as she calls it, “mosquito music.”
“That’s not a record collection; it’s a bunch of files,” Skrobko says.
One of the main reasons vinyl records have stayed a part of her life—and a part of her customers’ lives—is because of the unmistakable and undeniable quality of the sound. Vinyl is what is called a “lossless” format, which means that records taken from master tracks are a direct representation of the exact sound as it was intended to be heard.
This is not something made up by vinyl fetishists or audiophiles; it’s verifiable in comparison to the compressed files you’ll find on digital formats. When the files get smaller, the listener loses depth, detail, and volume. To compete with vinyl or even CD quality, engineers artificially alter tracks to make them appear more substantial in what’s been called the “loudness wars.” No matter what it’s called, Skrobko believes wholeheartedly in the purity of vinyl.
“People bring in their phones and they say, ‘I’ve got 200,000 files on my phone,’ but they don’t own any of it and it sounds like crap. It doesn’t make me jealous,” she says. “Finally people are understanding what music is supposed to sound like.”
Marshal Patrick, a 38-year-old former Orlando resident and record collector, says digital music is great for convenience, but he loves the warm sound of vinyl.
“There’s just something about it—the whole experience. The sound is more balanced, more full,” he says. “And I just love the artwork, the liner notes, the fun of letting a particular record take you somewhere. It’s not the same as just clicking a button.”
It’s not just the sound collectors are after, it’s the community of music, too. Skrobko and her husband, Roman, know that better than anyone. Since 1971 they’ve owned East West, and built one of the friendliest and fun in-store experiences you’ll find anywhere.
“The reason we’ve stuck around so long is because we let people hang out,’’ Skrobko says, “Record stores were the first social network. Where we grew up in California, record stores were places where people listened to music together. They talked. They shared.”
With vinyl’s resurgence, she’s not only seen her revenue increase each year since 2010, but her community grow, too. And you’d be hard pressed to find a better musical conversationalist in Orlando.
“People assume I’m the smartest person on Earth when it comes to music, and while I do know a lot, everything I’ve learned is from my customers,” Skrobko says. “I’ve got the smartest customers in the world.”
Hanna Skrobko and husband Roman have owned East West for 45 years. “Everything I’ve learned is from my customers,’’ she says. “I’ve got the smartest customers in the world.’’
Park Ave CDs used to exist on Park Avenue in Winter Park, but the small storefront didn’t have the capacity to fit owner Sandy Bitman’s growing vision. He sensed the desire for vinyl would be coming back to the digital generation—“we saw the trend coming about 10 years ago”—and he wanted to find a location that would be closer to his audience and enhance the customer experience.
“For us it was about being versatile and not being afraid to change,” Bitman says. “We left Park Avenue to get a space twice the size, expand our product lines, do more in-store activities like performances and autograph sessions.’’
The Corrine Drive location is a beautiful store stocked heavily with the latest vinyl releases and reissues spanning nearly every genre. There are $3/$5/$7 bins for collectors on a budget, as well as a modest selection of used and vintage vinyl.
Chances are, if there’s a new title you’re looking for, Park Avenue will have it before anyone else.
Vinyl collector Garry Postell, 52, loves going there for new releases.
“I know if there’s something I want that just came out, or if I want a newer version of an older album, they’ll probably have it,” he says. “Sometimes having the first edition isn’t really important to me; I’ll buy the newer copies because it’s going to sound just as good.”
Postell bought his first record, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, when he was 8 years old and has been a collector ever since. He says after a long day at work, nothing soothes him more than to sit cross-legged on the floor of a Goodwill store and sort through 50-cent records looking for something new and interesting. He also buys records in bulk to sell at select times during the year.
“I do this as a hobby. My records are priced at $5, so I’m not in it to get rich. What I consider myself is a gateway. I give an opportunity for someone who thinks they want to get into vinyl to walk away with four records for $5,” he says. “Hopefully I’ve got them on the road to being a record buyer.”
Amid changing technologies and listening preferences, vinyl records seem to have nine lives, Postell says.
“It’s funny, there has always been something to combat against vinyl. Now is the first time it’s made a comeback. First there were 8-tracks, and then cassettes, and then CDs, and then MP3s, and so forth. But the one medium of all those that people always seem to come back to is vinyl.”
Freddy Ehmen at Rock & Roll Heaven thinks the vinyl market will continue to swell because, inherently, humans long for something to satisfy their soul. And independent record dealers will continue to serve as places where people share their deepest passions, build evergreen relationships with their community, and put their dollars into shiny, round discs that hold the soundtracks to our lives.
“We [humans] started as hunters and gatherers,” he says. “People still come in and comb through dollar records to find something great. That’s primordial. That’s in our DNA.”
Luckily, so is the music.