It was only a few decades ago that buying records seemed like little effort for the listening pleasures it promised. But over time, LPs started collecting dust and filling up empty boxes in the back of garages.
Today, with the advent of the Internet, MP3 players and smartphones, music lovers can play songs in the palm of their hand with the touch of a button. The music industry releases singles online before CDs ever hit the shelves of music stores.
However, the unpredictable nature of trends dictates that vintage is now cool and LPs are back. And, in Korea, the music industry is going full circle with a vinyl revival.
Here, the production of vinyl records halted in 1994 as listeners migrated to the much more convenient CDs.
Record collecting has since become a rare and increasingly expensive hobby in Korea, with vintage stores full of collectable items occasionally sought by die-hard vinyl fans and foreign customers, particularly Japanese tourists, who lap up old Korean records.
Many describe the feeling of looking for a particular record amongst the pile as “hypnotizing.” Once found, the thrill of the chase pays off when the warm sound of music surfaces from an organic, well-worn LP spinning on a turntable.
|An LP record shop in Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Center in Hoehyeon-dong, Seoul, displays hundreds of records for sale. (Cha Yo-rim/The Korea Herald)|
“Looking and listening to records is a relaxing experience. Whenever I have time, I come and look for ‘hidden gems’ that I might find in the shops,” said Brad Kim, looking through stacks of LPs at a shop in Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Center in Seoul, where a number of shops specializing in LPs are located.
The vinyl revival emerged in the West, which has been seeing a substantial increase in the number of LP records sold. In the U.S., sales shot up for the fifth straight year in 2012, marking a new record with 4.6 million records sold, a rise of 17.7 percent.
While LP music enthusiasts are often thought to be middle-aged men nostalgic for the more natural sound they grew up listening to, the latest LP revival in Korea couldn’t be further from that image.
Rather than a feeling of nostalgia, the resurgence of vinyl is being led by innovations in the LP music industry that make the music format more attractive and accessible to younger audiences.
For the younger crowd, LPs are an exploration of something new ― even with its easily identifiable technical shortcomings.
“I took out my dad’s old turntable and started listening to his old LPs, and I really like the atmosphere that is completely different from listening to a song online or on your phone. Once you start to look into LPs, you can’t help but be interested,” said Park Han-joon, a 23-year-old college student.
For the uninitiated, as well as loyal fans of vinyl, there are plenty of LP bars around Seoul where they can get a taste of the uniquely rich sound of a vinyl record booming through old-style hi-fi speakers.
Hongdae, home to many university students and known for its urban music culture, has a number of bars where DJs spin the best from an extensive collection of records.
“LPs have a different sound. You won’t grow tired listening to them for long periods of time, and you will be able to feel the difference between listening to a record and listening to a song online,” said Kim Ik-ha, owner and DJ of The Car with Two Tires in Hongdae.
|Kim Ik-ha, owner and DJ of Hongdae LP bar The Car with Two Tires, plays an LP record selected by a customer from his collection of thousands of records. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)|
Patrons have different reasons for dropping by. For the older crowd who experienced vinyl albums as youngsters, it is the nostalgia.
“When I come here with old friends, we talk about the times when we were younger,” said Park Jin-woo, 53, a customer at The Car with Two Tires. On the other hand, Kim Yeo-jin, a 22-year-old college student, it is the retro feel that draws him in.
“I have never listened to an LP or been to an LP bar before, but the atmosphere is very relaxing,” said the first-time visitor at the Hongdae LP bar.
The next step in appreciating LP music is building up a collection, and for that purpose Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Arcade, Wausan-ro near Hongdae, and Hwanghak Market are the places to go to.
The LPs are original and in very good condition, often still wrapped in plastic. The prices can be reasonable to expensive, usually starting at 20,000 won. However, with a little bit of digging around, it is possible to find something cheaper, from 5,000 won to 10,000 won, in the bargain bins. Attracting the young
The music industry has been quick to cash in on the LP boom with an annual Record Fair in Seoul, the recent opening of an LP factory, and a rise in contemporary idol groups using the LP format to promote their music at concerts.
Young Hyuk, who has been organizing the Seoul Record Fair for three years, said, “It’s still hard to say whether vinyl is revived in Korea, but we’re trying to let more people know that vinyl is still one of the greatest ways to experience music.”
The fair also attempts to bring awareness about the age-old music format, and revive the sales of LPs in Korea, Young said. Fifteen years ago there were more than 3,000 record stores in existence, but today they are down to just about a hundred, which is one of the reasons behind organizing the record fair, he explained.
“The younger generation hardly experiences the pleasure of finding new and unknown music through record stores, so we thought we just need to give it a chance.”
|Kim Won-sik, owner of Phil Records in Yongsan, Seoul, looks through a collection of classical music LP records in his shop. (Cha Yo-rim/The Korea Herald)|
The annual fair gives people a chance to become familiar with LPs through a variety of vinyl records and compact discs available for sale and viewing.
“Most of the audience didn’t have turntables when they visited the first fair. We heard many young people saying ‘I just bought the very first vinyl in my life.’ Through the fair, we saw more people trying to buy vinyl LPs or become a vinyl fan.
“We were also glad to see a father and his daughter come to see and buy records together. That’s not something we often see in this country. Certainly, young people’s interest has increased since we started, but this vinyl event is something that different generations can enjoy together.”
Even for young idol music fans that usually consume CDs or MP3s, Young believes the unique point of vinyl lies in the ability to have bigger and better packaging.
Jason Lee, who opened the nation’s only LP factory in 2011, agrees.
“Korea is differentiating itself by focusing not only on the LP itself, but also working on nice packaging. We are trying to appeal to people with the fact that not only can you listen to good music on an LP, but also the fact that it’s a collectable item.”
Now, K-pop groups and artists like SHINEE and G Dragon are working on producing LPs for merchandise as the format allows them to provide fans with products that can’t be imitated.
“The one thing that you really can’t imitate is LPs. You can imitate the shape, but you can’t press the sound. So YG Entertainment is trying new things. G Dragon recently went on an Asia tour, and that’s when they started selling LPs to test whether there is a demand. The response was positive,” Lee said.
Listening to LPs is certainly not a cheap hobby, requiring the purchase of equipment, as well as the vinyl record itself.
A new black vinyl LP will usually cost 30,000 won-40,000 won, and picture discs ― currently unavailable locally ― cost $75-$80. Turntables, without which the LPs are redundant, can cost up to 1 million won.
Innovations that make the hobby more accessible are making headway. One example is portable turntables, which not only connects LPs to the turntable, but also to the speakers and USB. The product available on Ebay, the cheapest costing around $30.
Nowadays, many vinyl records come with codes for downloading the album from the Internet, offering a choice of both formats for those who do not want to forego the convenience of music on the go offered by online music services.
Appreciating the sound quality of a vinyl record involves a ritual: removing the record from the jacket sleeve, cleaning it, placing it on the turntable ― the extra care necessary with LP records makes them all the more valuable to those who invest in them.
Lowering the needle ever so gently on the vinyl on a turntable triggers intrigue in younger listeners, an authentic music experience that other disposable music media can’t provide.
By Astha Rajvanshi and Cha Yo-rim
Where to go for vinyl kicks
|A turntable’s needle is placed on an LP record in Hongdae LP bar The Car with Two Tires. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)|
● 93-86 Sangsu-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul/ (02) 324-3970
● Open 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., closed on Sundays
● The bar, named after the legendary country/folk rock group the Byrds, was set up by owner Kim Young-jun, who used to collect LPs as a hobby while running an art academy. The bar has more than 10,000 LPs. Suzie Q
● 410-3 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul/ (02) 338-9929
● Open 6:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. on weekdays, 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, closed on Sundays
● The large collection of LPs in Suzie Q is composed of original records. Listen to old rock, pop, and blues vinyls while drinking coffee or a cocktail. Between night and music
● (19 locations)
● 683-134 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul/ (02) 790-7335
● Open 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.
● This old-school bar/club plays Korean songs that were popular during the ’90s. Only people born before 1989 are able to enter, and there is a dance-floor for patrons to go all out and have fun. There are branches in Korea. Hannamdong, Hongdae, Jamsil, Busan, Gwangju are just a few. Traffic
● 662-8 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul/ (02) 3444-7359
● 548-5 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul/ (02) 3444-7359
● Open 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., closed Sundays
● Traffic plays a wide genre of old-school music but in an upscale swanky atmosphere, complete with velvet chairs and sleek tables. This bar is reportedly a hot spot for some A-list celebrities. The Car with Two Tires
● 369-3 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul/ (02) 333-0140
● Open 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., closed Sundays
● This bar’s ambience as well as music is a complete old school experience, with an authentic DJ, Kim Ik-ha, who has been in the business since his younger days. Slip your music requests on a piece of paper to the DJ. Gopchang Jeongol
● 327-17 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul/ (02) 3143-2284
● Open 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., closed Sundays
● Named after a Korean dish of spicy beef/pork tripe hot pot, nostalgic customers head to Gopchang Jeongol to sing along to tunes from the ’70s and ’80s. Customers are free to dance and mingle among those who share a love for all things retro.