IOWA -- Here’s something that’s loud and clear: the tables are turning.
They're turning back. In America, and here in Iowa -- to sounds and systems of the past.
Driven by a once-defunct medium, and bringing along those which drives its beats and keep its power flowing.
This month, Kevin Moll is looking back on three crazy years at SkyLabs in West Des Moines' Valley Junction.
“I even still feel like a kid in a candy store,” he says through a smile.
He’d collected so many vintage stereo receivers, he figured he’d start selling them.
“I just had a gut feeling that people were going to start gravitating to this with the resurgence of vinyl.”
Americans didn’t just want the records again, they wanted the classic systems that brought them to life.
“That subculture was there for a reason," Moll says. "And it wasn’t because it was cool—it was because it sounded good. So that actually gives validity to what’s going on now.”
What’s going on is records—old and new—are the rage.
“I always thought that there was some potential there," says Nate Niceswanger, standing among the rows of albums in his shop, ZZZ Records on Ingersoll.
When it opened in 2000, Niceswanger was all alone.
“I’d say for the first 7-8 years, we were the only ones selling records in the city,” he adds.
Now there are no fewer than six record stores, and far more (Wal-Mart, Barnes and Noble) selling them in a limited capacity.
Vinyl has been the only physical medium growing over the last decade—up another 14.8% in sales since last year. The Beatles’ Abbey Road, for example, sold another 76,000 new copies in 2018--and that record is 50 years old.
The question is, who’s buying? That answer might surprise you.
“7-8 years ago," Niceswanger recalls, "we started seeing a number of younger people who were getting into record collecting, and I never would have envisioned that when I first started out.”
“I think the bulk of it, the bulk of the push, is from the younger kids," Moll says, "first-time record owners.”
The millennials--the generation of iTunes and Spotify. Music fans like Jessica Perkins.
“I feel like a lot of people my age are looking for something to connect them to the experience a little bit more,” says Perkins, 28.
That’s a common theme—eschewing the cold ease of digital streaming for the loving chore of analog.
“There’s more of a process to putting a record on a turntable rather than just bringing out your iPhone, and having 10,000 songs that you just put on shuffle and put in the background," says Niceswanger. "This is something that forces you to actually pay attention.”
It’s hard not to pay attention to the looks, the lights and the legendary names of this revival. Marantz, Pioneer, Sansui, Klipsch, etc. They were audio giants in their day and now they’re back.
“I used to install home theater and my main job was to hide electronics and then control it with a remote, "says Moll. "And now people want to put these as their centerpiece in their living room because you don’t want to hide these."
Most of the stuff in SkyLabs has been hiding--for decades--in attics and basements.
“The market for this stuff has almost tripled in the last five years," says Moll. "What I was charging for a receiver five years ago was half of what I’m charging, now.”
Refurbishing the old stuff has revived yet another layer of the industry.
“I used to do this stuff, 40 years ago," says John Gudehaus, "and it was the funnest (sic) job I ever had!”
Audio techs Gudehaus and Rob Tracy were nearing retirement, but then SkyLabs called, needing help.
“And I said ‘Yeah, sure!’” says Tracy.
Now they’re booked months out--refurbishing stuff for sale here and for customers who want their own stuff revived.
“I think this old stuff was really more hand-soldered and well-thought-out,” says Tracy.
When finished, their work becomes a glowing salute to the age of brushed aluminum and real wood. Components with an unmistakable feel.
“Nice heavy knobs. Weighted,” says Moll, fiddling with a 1976 Marantz receiver.
These pieces sold for more hundreds of dollars in the 1970s, and are now back to that level after years of worthlessness.
“None of us knew that this was gonna come back like this," Moll says, "but that’s what gives it value, too. Because most of it got thrown away. It’s like anything else—you’ve got to throw 90% of it away for the other 10% to have value.”
The value is in MORE than aesthetics. Most will agree that the rich tones of vinyl sound best when paired with the warmth of analog electronics.
The sound is…well…
“Unfatiguing," Tracy guesses, "you can listen to it for hours and hours and it doesn’t seem to wear on you.”
“You can hear the pop—sometimes you can hear the crackle,” says Perkins.
“That’s something you can actually hold in your hands and read the liner notes,” adds Niceswanger.
“It isn’t just hype," says Moll. "Records really do sound good, when they’re done right.”
It’s a sound that’s good to hear again: Americans talking music…Iowans finding a path in retail…and of old classics landing a space in a modern world.
A sound so good, you’ll have to hear it for yourself.