By Kwon Mee-yoo
Placing a needle in the groove of a black vinyl record and listening to the scratchy analog sounds was common a few decades ago when vinyl was the major distribution vehicle of popular music. Vinyl records were ousted by the rise of smaller and more convenient cassette tapes, then CDs and then digital music.
However, vinyl records have been spinning again since the late 2000s, sparking nostalgia of those who miss the analog sound as well as those who haven't seen vinyl before, but are curious enough to try out the retro tech.
The vinyl revival is sweeping the world and Korea is no exception. Last year, K-pop singers such as Girls' Generation's Taeyeon, Big Bang, Wonder Girls and A-Pink's Jung Eun-ji released vinyl editions of their album.
Collecting vinyl records has become a new hip hobby among people in their 20s and 30s as well. Kim Mi-jin, 29, recently bought a limited edition blue vinyl of the soundtrack of "La La Land," the latest addition to her vinyl collection.
"Most colored records are limited and it is hard to get my hands on them. I'm really excited to listen to the music of La La Land in vinyl format," Kim said.
|A visitor to the Hyundai Card Music Library in Hannam-dong, Seoul, listens to Adele's "25" in vinyl format. / Korea Times photos by Shim Hyun-chul|
Her collection is small but she is excited to explore a new way to listen to music.
"At first, I worried about the sound quality, but the LP's sound was great. Listening to vinyl records made me concentrate more on each note of the music," Kim said. "I also like the analog sentiment of the LP player of which I have to place the vinyl on the turntable, make the platter rotate, lower the needle onto the vinyl and move the needle to change between tracks."
She said some albums go especially well with the vinyl medium. "I thought the voice and tone of Adele would go well with the analog sound of vinyl and purchased her 21 as my first record. It turned out great as the music blends with the sound of the record spinning," Kim said.
She is a novice collector with about 10 albums in her collection, but she is satisfied with purchasing great albums in vinyl format. "Vinyl records are more expensive than CDs, but there is the joy of discovering great music and purchasing hard-to-find albums. I wish more albums were produced in vinyl," Kim said.
|Hyundai Card Music Library has an extensive collection of music-related books.|
Music library offers vinyl experience
Currently, the hottest and best-equipped place in Seoul to listen to vinyl discs is Hyundai Card Music Library in Itaewon.
About 150 people daily visit the library, which has a collection of over 10,000 records and music-related books, and the line grows long on weekends when over 500 people come to explore music. The venue has six turntables and visitors can play records available on the shelves.
"The Music Library opened in 2015 and it surely contributed to help Itaewon become a music-oriented district," Hyundai Card's global PR manager said.
Curtis of the Music Library said what the library provides is the experience, not just records. "Vinyl discs offer richer sound than CD or digital mp3 files and our turntables and headphones maximize the music experience," Curtis said.
|The first edition of the Beatles' first studio album "Please Please Me" released in 1963|
Visitors can browse the albums as well as an extensive collection of books including the whole range of Rolling Stone magazine from its inaugural edition. After selecting the record, they can listen to the music using a turntable.
"It's my first time seeing a turntable in person. I'm not much of a music lover, but it's really interesting to see the needle on the disc making the unique sound," a visitor to the library said.
The library became famous among international vinyl lovers as well since it houses some of the rarest albums in the world such as the Beatles' butcher cover edition of "Yesterday and Today" released in 1966, the first edition of Led Zeppelin's debut album from 1969 and the Sex Pistols' 1977 single "God Save the Queen." Since the Music Library is only available to Hyundai Card holders, it is difficult for non-Koreans to enter. The Hyundai Card official said the only way to get into the library is to find a Korean friend who has the right card.
Next to the Music Library is Vinyl & Plastic, another place created by Hyundai Card. The music store is open to anyone and visitors can purchase records as well as audio devices including turntables and speakers. There are several turntables for sampling vinyl records for those who cannot enter the library.
Starting vinyl collection
Hyundai Card's Music Library surely boosted vinyl's unlikely comeback among style-conscious youngsters, but some mom-and-pop shops have a long history with vinyl record mania in Korea.
Livingsa, one of the largest secondhand record stores in Korea established in 1965, is located in the Hoehyeon underground arcade along with a handful of other secondhand LP shops.
Lee Suk-hyun, owner of Livingsa, said the number of young customers in their 20s and 30s have been increasing in the last four or five years.
"At first, people started looking for records out of curiosity. The young generation who hadn't seen the large black plastic before are amazed when a stylus rides on the record and makes sound," Lee said. "They soon discover the rich sound coming from records, different from mp3s or CDs."
Collecting and listening to vinyl in the era of mp3s is more expensive than digital music. Even entry-level turntables cost around 100,000 won and new records are priced at around 30,000 won.
"Used records ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 won are most popular at our shop. Rare ones could cost a fortune, but most records are not that expensive," Lee said. "It's cheaper to start collecting used records."
|Turntables at Vinyl & Plastic|
Lee cited a diversifying source of music for causing the recent LP boom.
"Listening to a record is totally different from CDs or mp3s. The playing method is a bit complicated for a novice, but the texture of the plastic record and the noise of the turntable sound cannot be replaced," Lee said.
When asked to recommend an album for beginners, Lee suggested "digging" instead of giving out album names.
"A great album is a subjective term. Everyone has different taste in music and people have to listen to music to find what's best for them. So browse through the records and find your favorite album," Lee said.
Lee feels sorry that there is no proper record-pressing plant in Korea despite the recent boom.
"In Europe and the United States, over 50,000 titles are released on vinyl a year. About 50 titles are produced each year in Korea and most of them are pressed overseas with jackets printed in Korean. If we had vinyl-pressing plants in Korea, we could make more vinyl records and grow the market overall," Lee said.