By Burt Constable
The technology has been around since 1878, when Thomas Edison opened his Edison Speaking Phonograph Co. and gave birth to the first 78 rpm gramophone records. By the 1940s, vinyl records were the medium of choice. In the 1970s, 8-track tapes and cassettes put a dent in vinyl sales, and compact discs did the same in the 1980s. The pandemic did in lots of products, but vinyl records survive.
"It's never gone away," Steve Warrenfeltz, 69, owner of Kiss The Sky record store in Batavia, says of the vinyl records that make up the vast majority of his sales. "Even during the CD era, there were deejays keeping the format alive."
That streak was threatened in spring 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to in-person sales during what Warrenfeltz calls "the first year of weird."
"We were shut down for 68 days," he says. "I resorted to curbside service and home delivery."
With sales down 90% and his lease about to run out, Warrenfeltz thought his record run might be finished. He considered retirement, but the pandemic absence fueled a desire for vinyl records.
"When we reopened, it got back to normal, or even better than normal," Warrenfeltz says. "By the end of October, I made up everything we lost."
Vinyl records dominate the space at Kiss The Sky record shop in Batavia. Some are rock classics from the 1960s, but many are the latest vinyl presses from popular rap, country and hip-hop artists. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer
The pandemic introduced vinyl to a younger crowd.
"My customer base was changing," Warrenfeltz says. Girls as young as 12 are buying turntables and records because of being forced to stay home.
"Well, we're staying home and listening to mom and dad's records and it sounds great," Warrenfeltz remembers his newest customers telling him as they bought new vinyl albums by Lana Del Rey, Harry Styles and Taylor Swift.
The Kinks are Steve Warrenfeltz's favorite band. But the 69-year-old owner of Kiss The Sky record shop in Batavia says his favorite album is "Rubber Soul" by The Beatles. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer
Warrenfeltz's favorite band, The Kinks, burst on the music scene in the 1960s, and he collects pre-World War I records of blues, jazz and the "hillbilly music" that his parents, Bernard and Mary Warrenfeltz, introduced to him. But he also listens to the new music popular with his young customers.
"I've become a Taylor Swift fan," he says as if he's surprised to hear himself say that.
"We haven't been able to restock 'Rumours' since July," Warrenfeltz says, noting the supply chain problems caused by the pandemic require him to explain the meaning of "back order" to customers.
While streaming accounts for 84% of music revenue, sales of vinyl records are up more than 85% in the first half of 2021, and the $467.4 million in revenue is a 94% increase over the same period last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Production isn't keeping up with demand.
"What I get now is nowhere near what I order," Warrenfeltz says, referencing the example of "Faces," a 2014 mixtape by Mac Miller that just came out on vinyl. "I ordered 20 copies of it, and I got two."
That reminds him of a chemical shortage that cut supply and raised prices during his pre-record-store corporate career as president and CEO of Old World Trading Co., which owned Peak Antifreeze. "We made more money, but that was stressful," he says.
The new vinyl records he sells average about $25 each. Used records usually cost less.
"I sold a copy of Peter Frampton's 'Frampton Coves Alive!' over the weekend for five bucks," Warrenfeltz says. He also sold a still-sealed copy of David Bowie's 1983 "Let's Dance" album, featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar, for $300.
Kiss The Sky record shop in Batavia will open at 7 a.m. Nov. 26, the Friday after Thanksgiving, as part of Record Store Day's Black Friday promotion. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer
"I do a lottery for entrance into the store," says Warrenfeltz, who will open his doors at 7 a.m. Nov. 26 and will start taking reservations soon at kissthesky.net.
It's all good for Warrenfeltz, who has three grown children and three grandkids. When he started the store in 1996 with his now-retired friend Mike Messerschmidt, Warrenfeltz had a five-year plan. Twenty-five years later, he expects this year's vinyl sales to be 50% to 60% higher than last year.
"I'm going to hang in there and see what happens," Warrenfeltz says.
"I'm going to keep doing this until the wave isn't there anymore."