The primitive joy of vinyl
Next to the front entryway of Growler Records sits an old, out-of-tune piano. As proprietor Molly Zachary chats with a new customer about music, a young mother is holding her daughter up to the piano, allowing the little girl to reach out and pound away at the cracked and yellowed keys. The room fills up with sound and the little girl begins laughing, finding joy in every dissonant note.
This was the same joy that Molly Zachary experienced when she started listening to vinyl as a teenager.
“Even though I didn’t know why it was cool, it just felt cool that you would mail-order these records and you would get a big, honking package in-between the storm-door and the front door when you got home from school,” Zachary said.
Growing up in the homogenized suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, Zachary tried hard to carve out her own identity at an early age. After she started high school, she got turned onto punk music.
“I got really into riot grrrl and Bikini Kill,” Zachary said, recalling one of her favorite feminist punk movements and a notable all-female punk band. “So, I used to write notes to all the record labels, like Dischord and Kill Rock Stars; they would send you their catalog and all they had, really, was vinyl.”
In 1996, just before her junior year of high school, Zachary’s family moved to the equally cultureless suburbs of Denver. It was in this setting that Zachary’s passion for vinyl, as well as her record collection, started to grow.
Then, throughout her ‘20s, Zachary attained a bachelor’s degree in music, held down a handful of odd jobs and started selling her share of esoteric vinyl under the moniker “Growler Distro.” After a random, yet fateful, trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, Zachary realized what she needed to do.
“While I was traveling around, I met this young woman at a youth hostel who was from Croatia, but she spoke English really, really well. All she wanted to talk about were her dreams and fantasies,” Zachary said.
To this day, Zachary gives that young girl credit for her vinyl-related epiphany, “She was like, ‘What’s your biggest dream, Molly? If you could do anything with your life, what would it be?’ Before I even I had time to think about it, I was like, ‘I want to own a record store,’” Zachary explained.
When Zachary returned from Mexico in May 2011, she set out to find a proper storefront and by August, she had rented out the farthest backroom of Yellow Feather Coffee in the Sante Fe Arts District. Come Sep. 3, 2011, Growler Records was officially open for business.
Today, after nearly eight months in existence, Zachary feels right at home insider her store. Just before her latest customer leaves and the little girl gets dragged away by her mother, Zachary sits down to eat a dinner of takeout Mexican food with her boyfriend. After a few bites of Huevos Rancheros, Zachary starts talking about random shows while she spoons refried beans into a piece of flour tortilla.
In between mouthfuls, Zachary continues to laugh about her youth, only to reiterate the importance of vinyl. For Zachary, it’s rather befitting talking about vinyl inside Growler Records. On one side of the store, there is a shelf filled with obscure titles. Colorful ‘zines are lining most the walls. And just outside the main door is Growler’s Westword award for being the “Best New Independent Record Store” in 2012.
But whether it was destiny or not, when Zachary opened Growler Records she was getting on board with a continuing trend.
After all, for the past few years, vinyl has seen boom in popularity amongst both audiophiles and general consumers alike. No one understands this more than fellow punk-rock enthusiast and the owner of the Denver-based Suburban Home record label, Virgil Dickerson.
Around the same time that Zachary was moving to Denver, Dickerson was starting Suburban Home and in 1996, he released his first, official record. In 1998, he decided to open his own vinyl-centric store called Bakamono but, as Dickerson recalls, vinyl just wasn’t popular at that time and Bakamono went under after only one year of business.
After a while, however, Dickerson’s love of vinyl actually started to pay off as the rest of the world began to re-evaluate the merits of the outdated medium. “I started an online store called Vinyl Collective — which lasted a few years — around 2005. With Vinyl Collective, we kind of rode the wave of resurgence of vinyl,” Dickerson said.
This resurgence went hand in hand with the commencement of Record Store Day. According to the online bio for Record Store Day, the event was founded in 2007 by a handful of record store aficionados and now, it is the, “One day that all of the independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music.”
Metallica officially kicked off Record Store Day at Rasputin Music in San Francisco on April 19, 2008 and now, the event is celebrated every third Saturday in April. During its first year, a handful of artists released limited edition vinyl specifically for Record Store Day. This year, the number of contributing artists had tripled.
With more current support from buzzworthy artists like The Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen, The Black Keys and The White Stripes, Record Store Day has seen a rise in attendance and during this year’s Record Store Day there were huge crowds at Denver biggest independent shops, Twist & Shout and Wax Trax.
Zachary understands that Record Store Day started with the best intentions in mind, but she also fears that, in the long run, an event like this might enable some consumers to treat vinyl like it is a recurring fad that should only be sought after once a year.
“I just feel conflicted,” Zachary said, in regards to the true values of Record Store Day. “Sort of like 420 is this holiday for pot when you could smoke pot whenever, you could also just support a record store. Just come in and support it.”
Of course, if vinyl is a fad, then it’s popularity must end at some point. Although this is a worrisome thought for people like Zachary and even Dickerson, they both agree that vinyl won’t be cast aside too soon.
Zachary believes that many listeners associate life experiences with listening to music, “Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, when they wanted to eat, they’d be like, ‘Computer, Chicken Alfredo.’ Then, Chicken Alfredo would appear. Once we had MP3s, people were like, ‘I still have to have a tangible product. I need it.’ There’s like this human connection — you want to cook the Chicken Alfredo sometimes,” Zachary mused.
Dickerson notes that on a deeper, more technical level, vinyl just sounds better, “It’s the best. It’s proven that listening to vinyl is the best listening experience when it comes to fidelity. That, and you usually pay attention to the spinning of vinyl, unlike the background [noise] that digital music [provides].”
According to numerous guides on the sound quality of vinyl, a gramophone record is an analog recording and CDs or MP3s are digital recordings. Original sound is analog by definition and a digital recording merely takes snapshots of the analog signal at a certain rate. Simply put, a digital recording is not capturing the complete soundwave. Instead, it is taking a series of sonic snapshots.
For both Zachary and Dickerson, so many memories and human connections can be associated with listening to vinyl. From pausing to flip Side A to Side B, analyzing the cover art or actually absorbing a whole album’s worth of material amongst a group of friends. In a world of personalized playlists and isolating headphones, most listeners are less attune to these experiences or even better sound quality.
Obviously, it is a culmination of these factors that have made vinyl relevant again.
As she closes up her near-empty Styrofoam container and leans back to contemplate more, Zachary points out that the future of vinyl all depends on informed consumers that are intent on listening to music the way it was meant to be heard.
Just like the old piano outside of Zachary’s door, vinyl will either keep getting played — offering some element of primitive joy — or it will just sit in the corner, gathering dust, waiting to be played again.