Record albums aren’t dead quite yet

Quick, tell me the top-selling album on vinyl for 2011.

It was The Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” released in 1969.

That’s according to a year-end industry report released last week by Nielsen SoundScan, a company that keeps track of music sales.

That tidbit alone is enough to bring a smile to the face of this baby boomer. Kids buy Beatles records. Isn’t that the best news you’ve heard so far this year?

There’s another bright spot for anyone who is bugged, like I am, by the fact that music is now largely purchased not by the album, but by the song.

For the first time since 2004, sales of whole albums — whether on CD, cassette, vinyl or in digital format — were up in 2011. It was just a 1.3 percent jump from 2010, the Nielsen report said. Even that shows a flicker of interest in the concept that an artist makes an album, a piece of art in itself, that’s intended to hold together from start to finish.

Or maybe big-box stores were just selling CDs for a song, and attention spans of modern music buyers really aren’t any longer than a single track downloaded on iTunes.

At Everett’s Bargain CDs, Records &Tapes, which sells used music and movies, Doug Sandhop sees the trends every day. Despite a slight uptick in album sales in 2011, he said listeners continue to shed vinyl albums and old CDs as they fill their electronic devices with music.

Sandhop, 52, works for store owner Gordy Arlin. They see what people buy and sell. The drift is definitely toward getting rid of physical music collections.

“It’s CDs, vinyls, DVDs, too. With the streaming, people just get rid of everything,” Sandhop said Friday. “People are bringing in their grandparents’ records to sell. Downloading and iPods have definitely taken a big chunk out of our business.

“I can imagine there won’t always be people who want a hard product,” he added.

Sandhop remembers the golden age of the concept album. “Just think of ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ or even something like ‘Nevermind’ by Nirvana,” he said. For Sandhop, Marvin Gaye’s 1971 “What’s Going On” is a favorite.

Who still buys at the Everett shop?

“It’s people in their 20s and 30s, I would say,” Sandhop said. “I still get grandmas and grandpas looking for their Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra,” he said, but buyers are mostly young.

And what sells?

“The Beatles are always the most consistent when it comes to collectors,” he said.

Elvis Presley, who would have turned 77 Sunday had he lived, may be the King of rock ‘n’ roll, but Sandhop said “Elvis is getting hard to sell.” Presley fans, he said, “are getting older and dying off.”

“When I first started collecting in high school, it was kind of cool and you had street cred if you had ’50s doo-wop,” Sandhop said. “That stuff is hard to sell now. They may remember it, but they’re too old to even care about it.”

In today’s economy, he said it takes a serious collector to want to spend real money — $100 or more — on an old album, especially when music is so easily available.

There are exceptions, he said. A copy of The Beatles’ “Yesterday and Today” album with the original “butcher” cover is still valuable, he said. That picture shows the Fab Four in white smocks holding headless baby dolls and pieces of meat.

Sandhop is eager to buy any 1950s jazz on the Blue Note label. He’s also interested in early Rolling Stones and early Pink Floyd.

Some albums sold so many copies they are essentially worthless. “There was a ton of it,” Sandhop said. In that category are Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas &the Papas, “Frampton Comes Alive!” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours.”

Kids who come in the store want old rock. “Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, heavy metal, Led Zeppelin. And Dylan always maintains with that age group,” Sandhop said.

“It’s mostly boys. I don’t know why that is. Baseball cards, comic books, collecting seems to be a guy thing,” he said.

Tastes change, but what kids like will inevitably tick off their parents. Hear that, my son No. 2? Turn it down.

“I think about how everyone looked at me cross-eyed because I listened to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols,” Sandhop said. Today, the music of those punk bands is venerated by a wide audience. He doubts today’s Insane Clown Posse CDs will be collectibles 20 years from now.

“If there’s one place there’s always a generation gap, it’s music,” Sandhop said.

Album sales may be up, but at the Everett record store no one is getting rich.

“It’s fun, but it’s a vow of poverty,” Sandhop said. “We’re doing what we love to do.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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