Although streaming sites such as Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and Deezer now dominate the music-recording industry, physical releases have not disappeared. Industry arbiter Billboard.com reports that in 2019 vinyl album sales grew for the 14th consecutive year to a new high, with 18.84 million units sold, representing 16.7 percent of all album sales that year.
Meanwhile, a small but devoted cadre of collectors, dealers and fans of vinyl have kept interest alive in the decades-old format — which was largely written off after the rise of digital recording and compact discs in the early ’80s. Among these fans are four members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Assistant Concertmaster David Taylor, bassists Robert Kassinger and Joseph DiBello and cellist Gary Stucka, who together have accumulated thousands of albums. Ahead of National Vinyl Record Day on Aug. 12, they shared their enthusiasm for this venerable format, which might not be as ubiquitous as it once was but still holds plenty of appeal.
The most hard-core of the CSO’s vinyl fans is arguably Taylor, who has amassed about 5,000 albums, most of them classical. He made his first purchases in New York when he entered the Juilliard School’s pre-college division in 1967 as a high-school senior, playing them on a belt-driven AR turntable. “Right away, I started buying a few albums to listen to,” he said. “One of the first ones was the great soprano Bidu Sayão, singing Puccini and Mozart, which is just a sensational album. I fell in love with the voice and singing at quite a young age.”
As a student, Taylor could afford only a few albums here and there, but once he got his first professional position in the first-violin section of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1974, he accelerated his purchases. “Little by little, I started adding to the collection,” he said. “And when CDs came out, I started doing that, too, but never to the extent that I had with LPs.” At the same time, he became an audiophile, acquiring increasingly sophisticated and more expensive stereo equipment. For example, he owns a high-end Boulder CD player that retailed new for $24,000. Taylor bought it third-hand in very fine condition for much less.
Stucka is probably just as committed as Taylor, but he has devoted much of his attention not to vinyl but its predecessor: 78 RPM records, most of which were made of shellac, a harder and heavier material. He has between 3,000 and 5,000 discs in this format. “He’s the guy that most people think of when they think of recorded music in the orchestra,” DiBello said.
In 1970, inspired by a fellow member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago who was a big enthusiast, Stucka began collecting records. In 1972, his teacher at the Chicago Musical College, Karl Fruh, alerted Stucka that Roosevelt University was selling its holdings of 78s, and he wound up purchasing records by, among others, Emanuel Feuermann (1902-1942), an internationally acclaimed cellist he had never heard of previously. That set him off on a lifelong exploration of the recordings of the great musicians from that time. “The music-making on the 78s is from a different era, so there is a lot more feeling and personality in the recordings from early on.,” he said. “That feeling and personality, for me, seems to have disappeared around 1970 when the last of the very emotional conductors kind of disappeared.”
RCA Victor began making an early and ultimately unsuccessful version of vinyl records in 1931, but the format really took off in 1948 with Columbia Records’ debut of what became the first commercially successful long-playing 33⅓ RPM albums. Stucka has collected in that format as well, though he has sold off some, replacing them with compact discs. But he still has around 1,000 LPs. In some cases, the recordings lost a little of their luster in the transfer to CDs, so he kept the vinyl version. One example is a recording of the opera Der Rosenkavalier with conductor Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic that has a bass sound that is “so wonderful” but is largely missing from the CD version.
Stucka also owns some examples of classical 45 RPM records from the late 1940s and ‘50s, and in some cases, he said, the sound is better on those than on 33s.
DiBello began collecting in the 1960s and ‘70s, acquiring albums in a range of genres, including opera, chamber music and jazz. “Bass is a great instrument, but I’ve been attracted to the music not just because I’m a bass player but for the totality of it all,” he said. He recalls spending hours perusing the record bins at Rose Records (later Tower Records) at 214 S. Wabash, near Orchestra Hall. Among his acquisitions was the complete set of Beethoven string quartets by the Guarneri Quartet, a famed foursome founded in 1964 at the Marlboro Music School and Festival. (He later gave the set to his daughter, Gina DiBello, a member of the CSO violin section.) “It’s great,” he said of the Guarneri’s Beethoven collection. “They’ve played them in such a heartfelt way and so beautifully.”
DiBello has also benefited from other people who have liquidated their LP holdings and have passed what they had on to him.
Kassinger has been a collector nearly his whole life. His parents gave him a record player for his fifth birthday, and he began immediately nabbing records from his older brother, who didn’t seem to mind. He later started making acquisitions of his own, and by the time he left for college, he had a sizable collection. Though many were later ruined in a flood, he saved what he could salvage and has kept adding albums since, amassing a few hundred or so, mostly of jazz. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has found himself returning to his LP holdings and rediscovering some recorded treasures.
With certain exceptions, all four of the collectors prefer vinyl records over later formats. “If you have two recordings — one an LP and a CD, almost invariably the LP is going to sound better even if you have fantastic equipment,” Taylor said. One reason is that most compact-disc players have built-in convertors that transform the sound from from the original analog, and much can be lost in that process, especially if that convertor is low grade. Sound quality also can be lost when converting from one format to another. “Like copying a key, the more times you do it, the greater the loss,” Taylor said.
Taylor, like many vinyl aficionados, believes LPs have more “warmth and reality” than CDs. DiBello describes the LP sound as more “organic.” Kassinger agrees, pointing to LP jazz recordings from the 1950s and ‘60s on such labels as Blue Note, Impulse! and Pacific. Many of those sessions were recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, a sound engineer whose recordings was renowned for their distinctive sound. “Those albums were recorded in a very specific way, and I think it sounds best on vinyl,” Kassinger said. When those recordings are converted to CDs or MP3 files, they don’t have the same aural impact. “It’s acoustic music, and I just think it sounds better in that more analog delivery system,” he said.
While Stucka and DiBello have downsized their LP holdings, Kassinger and Taylor are still making additions. Kassinger likes to check out used record stores. “If I’m in a place where I can browse, I always go in and see what they’ve got,” he said. He lives in Lincoln Square and sometimes ventures to Laurie’s Planet of Sound, 4639 N. Lincoln, which he describes as “a really cool, old-school record store.”
Taylor makes an annual pilgrimage to the Midwest Classical Record Show, held at the Holiday Inn Chicago North Shore, 5300 W. Touhy, in Skokie. The event, which currently is still scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 19, draws enthusiasts from across the region.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to hear for yourself what the fuss over vinyl is all about, TimeOut recently posted its guide to the 16 best record stores in Chicago. Happy hunting!
TOP: Vinyl, the preferred format for many audiophiles, continues to grow in popularity, despite the rise of digital alternatives. | Photo: Wikimedia