Andrew Mason describes the experience of spinning vinyl records as opposed to playing MP3s in deeply reverential terms. "It's the thrill of the needle on the groove and hearing the noise of the record and then the song starts. It's this visceral thing," says Mason, also known as New York-based DJ Monk-One. "That's not the same as playing something that's already been converted to a digital file and ready to load onto your computer. It doesn't have the same feel."
For Mason and many other vinyl enthusiasts, records hold a special quality. That's the reason he hopes this year's International Record Collector's Show, the first of its kind in the 22-year history of the Winter Music Conference, is a success. The event, co-sponsored by Wax Poetics magazine (where Mason is a contributing editor), is scheduled to attract collectors to WMC host hotel Miami Beach Resort & Spa for a Sunday of dealing and trading mostly rare hip-hop, jazz, blues, disco and soul twelve-inches from the late Seventies through the early Nineties.
Along with the annual spin-off in which DJs compete in mixing and scratching beats this year's conference promises to pay special attention to vinyl. (No laptops are permitted at the competition, though organizers say CD turntables may be used.) Yet WMC program director, Sabrina Winogrond, maintains the conference's philosophy has always been inclusive. "We've never taken a stance like [choose between] MP3 or vinyl," she says. "I think it's best to embrace both."
In recent years though, digital downloads have obviously dominated the music scene. Major retail chains such as Sam Goody and Tower Records, which long ago stopped selling wax in favor of CDs, have closed partly due to the rise of legal and illegal downloading. And perhaps further suggesting the impending disappearance of physical CDs, the recording industry has felt the consumer shift as well. In 2006 album sales declined for the seventh year running, but total sales rose, due to a 65 percent spike in downloads from 2005, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures.
DJ technology has kept pace with the digital music renaissance. Vinyl emulation software such as Serato Scratch Live and Stanton Final Scratch has allowed jocks to mix and blend their computer's digital audio collection using a turntable. But if CDs are becoming increasingly obsolete and DJs can manipulate their MP3s like a piece of wax, what does that spell for the future of vinyl?
"Vinyl ain't going nowhere. That's the bottom fucking line," says Rich Medina. The Philadelphia-based artist and DJ will play several gigs during WMC (including one on March 23 at the Marlin hotel). "Vinyl purists that go digging after records are always going to exist; the vinyl purists who make records are always going to exist."
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The numbers back up Medina's assertion. According to RIAA figures, vinyl LPs accounted for nearly one percent of record sales for the past three years. It's a small slice to be sure, but the statistic suggests wax has a loyal niche following.
However others such as veteran producer Prince Paul (born Paul Huston), who owns upward of 50,000 records, points out that he's less excited about collecting vinyl and even less interested in spinning it these days. "If it's a matter of me toting around x-amount of records that I know I may not be able to replace or me carrying around a laptop that I can replace [in case of a mishap], sorry the laptop wins," says Huston, who's best known for producing De La Soul.
The level of convenience and flexibility that spinning via Serato offers is undeniable, admits producer and DJ Justin "Just Blaze" Smith. "I roll through songs real quick," says Smith, who's made beats for Jay-Z, Kanye West, and the Game. "When I'm spinning ten records in two minutes, I can't take each one out and put them back neatly in the covers and what-not."
Using Serato, he scrolls quickly through and plays any one of the 22,000-plus songs in his digital music library. Plus he worries less about a record skipping, or about spilling a drink on a rare 12-inch. Yet Smith claims he's never stopped collecting vinyl, and currently owns more than 25,000 records. "It's a catch-22 because I'm a vinyl dude who doesn't care if you're spinning with vinyl," he adds. "But Serato don't mix, cut, scratch, or blend for you. All it does is make your life easier. Tell me how that's making a bad DJ better. You still have to have the right skills to rock a party no matter what you use."