Uh-huh. You've heard it all before. It's an endless debate in music: vinyl record fidelity versus the digital quality of compact discs and streaming platforms like Spotify. We've all heard audiophiles who beat their gums, boasting about the medium's superiority, as well as those who simply believe records are just flat-out cool.
But you can breathe easy. That's not the story here. It's true, vinyl record sales are up and continue to rise. Perhaps it's out of nostalgia or obtuse creativity, but new record releases are still relevant now.
Once upon a time, from around 1975 to 1995, the Rochester music scene was stuck in analog limbo, with a dubious digital solution waiting in the wings. It was a growing scene that fed off itself: Local musicians put out records, which would inspire their peers to issue their own records to supplement their income and further express their art. It wasn't just about what these records were, but what they meant to the musicians who created them.
"Back then it was near impossible [to put out a record] and if you did have a band and made a 45 you were considered fortunate," Greg Prevost says.
Prevost is an avid collector of all things rock 'n' roll. As a musician, he was a founding member of Rochester's Distorted Levels and garage rock revivalists The Chesterfield Kings. He remembers hearing his first bolt of audio lightning when disc jockey Tommy Thomas spun a seven-incher on WSAY-AM. It was The Heard's "Stop It Baby."
"It knocked me out," Prevost says. "I went out and bought the 45 at Jay's Record Ranch." Located on North Clinton Avenue in downtown Rochester across from Sibley's, Jay's Record Ranch sold nothing but 45's from national artists like The Heard and local bands like The Invictas, whose controversial tune and subsequent dance, "The Hump," got them banned in Boston. Prevost also mentions "Weird" by Rochester band The Wee Four as being significant. "That record is still one of my favorites," he says.
The first record Prevost personally released was a 45 for his group Distorted Levels in early 1978. "I actually recorded three albums before this as Mr. Electro and The Psychedelic Burnouts between the years 1975 and 1978, but couldn't afford to have them pressed," Prevost says. "When I did, it was a thrill to actually hold on to and look at a record I did."
He pressed and distributed 1,000 copies, and paid for it on his own dime. "This record helped me establish the bands that followed, including The Chesterfield Kings, which was like the sixth band I created in the 70's."
It was the late 1970's, and Mike Murray was a self-proclaimed member of the L7 clique in high school.
"If you weren't into hard rock or progressive rock, you were a square," Murray says. "I liked Ventures records, so I was a square." Murray went on to form The Fertility Rite Brothers and host the "Whole Lotta Shakin'" show on Saturdays for WRUR-FM.
He remembers vividly the first Rochester band he ever heard. "I had gone to see The Ramones' show on July 7, 1979 at the Triangle Theatre." The opening act was New Math. Murray was more than a little intrigued.
"It blew me away that this band was from Rochester," Murray says. "Rochester was very conservative, and I wasn't aware of the underground that was happening at the time. Bands like Cappy and the Frenchmen, New Math Distorted Levels, The Hi-Techs, The Antoinettes."
After joining New Math in 1979, drummer Roy Stein found himself in the studio, recording "Restless Kind/BW Older Women." Fairly quickly after that, the band recorded the follow-up EP, "They Walk Among You," on 415 Records in California. According to Stein, this was no small feat: Recording and pressing a vinyl record cost some serious gelt. "It was hard to make records back in the 70's," he says. "Because the studios were expensive. PCI was the main studio in town, and it would cost $100 to $250 an hour, so you really had to have your stuff together. You had to make it quick at those rates. Nowadays, people record first before they play out. But not then, no way. You played out for a long time, then you made a record."By playing the songs live, New Math found out quickly what people liked. So they put the crowd favorites on the record, which helped the band gain a national reputation. "It was kind of a vindication," Stein says, "a validation."
"We were always sort of a wink and a nod anyway," Murray says of his band The Fertility Rite Brothers. "But it was great we had joined the ranks of those who had inspired us."
Todd Bradley was a member of The Essentials, and was working at Record Theatre in Midtown Plaza when his band's record came out in 1990.
"It was unusual," he says. "There weren't many bands doing it. It was something special, an achievement."
Without widespread access to the Internet and social media, music fans relied on magazines and face-to-face conversations with record store clerks to stay in-the-know, Bradley says. So when he was allowed to play The Essentials' album at work, it mattered.
"That was definitely a big step as far as 'making it,'" he says, "to have people hear it and say, 'What's this?'"
Rob Filardo is a record executive with a penchant for beating the drums. He initially co-founded Trashcan Records with Duke Galaxy in the early-90's, releasing music by bands such as The Shop Class Squares. Filardo created the label Garage-Pop Records shortly thereafter, playing with virtually all of the bands on that label. As a kid, he was first turned on to records by his dad Bobby Francis, who had a locally popular single called "At The Beach." "My sister and I used to play it all the time," Filardo says.
By 1988, Filardo was in his own band, The American Vandals, which was getting ready to release its first LP. At that point, however, people were all putting out CD's,
"We thought this would be our calling card," Filardo said of cutting the record on vinyl.
With the influx of so many bands without drummers, Filardo had to play drums for those who couldn't find someone to supply the beat. He drummed for Rochester bands including The Quitters, The Thundergods, The Veins, and The White Devils.
Most notably, he played keyboards in The Priests. "I just thought they were just the greatest thing," he says. "A glorious mess, and nobody knew them."
The first few releases on Garage-Pop were sketchy at best. "They were horribly pressed somewhere in Texas," he says. "But it was cool – they were on vinyl."
And why vinyl?
"That's how we listened to music," Filardo says. "Our whole scene bought vinyl. It sounded better. It was more fun." For him, it seems to have been more fiscally responsible, too. "We made enough money to pay for the next guys' release," he says, "whoever was in line."
When The Priests eventually signed to Get Hip Records, they had one request: In lieu of a cash infusion, they just wanted the record to be printed as a gatefold.
Filardo considered CD's a passing fad. "At least we thought it was," he says. "It probably is now."
CD's have declined, but interest in vinyl has persisted. "There was that period, I'm guessing 1995 to 2005, when CD's were all the rage," Stein says. "And vinyl just kinda sat there. Then all of a sudden people wanted vinyl again."
Artists who put out vinyl in its glory days worked tenaciously, despite the limitations and logistical difficulties involved – so much so that they still choose vinyl over digital mediums today.
By the late 1980's, New Math had morphed into The Jet Black Berries. When JBB's album "Desperate Fires" came out, Stein could hardly contain himself. He wanted it so bad, he went out and bought it the moment it was released.
"I was living in New York City at the time. It was 1988 and we had just recorded it," Stein recalled. "I went into Tower Records to buy a copy, shouting to anyone on the street that would listen: 'That's my band! That's my band!'"