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Top Story
DJs move from vinyl to digital

Spin me right round: DJs embrace technology, but vinyl still sells

No matter whether 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, or MP3s were the music format of the day, a DJ hovering over turntables spinning records to rock a party was constant. Sales-wise, vinyl has enjoyed a resurgence in the past couple years. However, as exciting new technology develops, DJs, longtime vinyl holdouts, must decide whether to keep their crate of records or embrace the digital media for performances.

Vancouver DJ, producer and vocalist Ill-Esha explains that analog definitely sounds different than digital formats. "It's warmer and pleasingly erroneous in harmonic reproduction," she observed. When it comes to performing though, Ill-Esha hardly spins vinyl anymore.

"For me, the difference is minimal compared to the difference in my spinal health from not carrying 90-pound bags of vinyl. A hard drive weighs only a few pounds."

With just a laptop, noted artist Girl Talk has whipped crowds into frenzies at large festivals such as Lollapalooza. There are a variety of Live Personal Appearance (livePA) software that artists can use. As well, products such as CDJ and Serato allow DJs to reproduce familiar vinyl techniques. CDJ is a compact disc player that can be manipulated like a turntable. Serato uses blank records printed with "timecode" information that DJs can use as controllers to integrate with their computers, explained Victoria, B.C.-based DJ and promoter James Turner. The aptly named Turner is also a valued member of ParetoLogic's Customer Care and Support Team, when not performing onstage as "Jim Turns".

When talking about using vinyl, Vancouver DJ, turntablist and producer DJ Soo of the duo Wood 'n' Soo said, "For me, the appeal is really the feel of the technique, which is something that is retained when DJing on Serato."

Turner said there is a certain appealing look to a DJ working with a turntable rather than a laptop.

"There are a lot of people who expect to see the DJ frantically digging for tracks and queuing up instead of being hunched over a laptop checking up on their Facebook status."

Turner has opted to stick with vinyl. The founder of NorthWestJungle.com has even decided to start collecting older 45s, as well as the standard 12-inch records DJs usually use, rather than performing with MP3s. Turner enjoys the many facets of collecting vinyl, such as the hunt through dusty bins for rare gems.

DJ Soo sees the digital explosion that has occurred in DJing as both a blessing and a curse. With the new creative tools, "experienced DJs can really take their sets to a completely new level," he said. However, he also worries that new equipment makes it too easy for new DJs to get involved without spending the time to learn the craft properly.

"Before, after a DJ spent thousands on the gear, it still took months and many more thousands to get the vinyl collection ready to even play an hour - during that time, the DJ would be practicing, learning the basics, going to clubs and watching and learning what works and what doesn't," DJ Soo said. "Nowadays, a DJ can buy turntables and Serato (or even an all-in-one solution) and instantly have thousands of songs available immediately (free or otherwise). I think it has recently led to an overall drop in quality in DJing anywhere from sound quality to technique."

Mat the Alien is known internationally for his turntable prowess. Back in 2006 he was invited to play a party at Canada House at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. The renown Whistler-based DJ uses both Serato and vinyl.

"All mediums - like CDs, vinyl and MP3s - all appeal to different styles of DJs who are all basically doing the same thing - mixing and blending bits together," he said. "If someone is good at what they do, I think it doesn't really matter how they do it."

A comeback?

Lately there have been a number of reports about records making a comeback. In Canada and the U.S., Nielsen SoundScan tracks the sales of recorded music. In 2008, new vinyl sales doubled to reach 1.88 million, the highest total since SoundScan started its tracking in 1991.

Victoria musician and manager Piers Henwood said it is important to note that vinyl is making small gains while CD sales continue to plummet. He does not see a day where vinyl will return to its glory days when 45s of Elvis Presley or the Beatles were the most played in juke boxes. Henwood noted the big story is how vinyl was once considered to be a dying format but has outlived 8-tracks and cassettes and is now faring better than its shiny, round counterpart.

Henwood certainly sees the value of vinyl. As well as a warmer, mellower sound, records also allow for better canvas for art work and liner notes. "It is not just a musical statement, it is an artistic statement," Henwood said.

Nick Blasko & Piers Henwood Artist Management handles a stable of artists including some notable Canadian performers: All of Tegan & Sara's albums are available on vinyl as well as some of Buck 65's output.

As a musician, Henwood is a guitarist who performs with Victoria's Jets Overhead. For their 2006 album, Bridges, the band opted to use a voluntary purchase model. This method of letting fans download the album and then pay what they chose was repeated about a year and half later by British rockers Radiohead, grabbing international headlines with their album In Rainbows. The model has been used by a variety of artists including Canadian songwriter Jane Siberry, now known as Issa, and Girl Talk.

In June Jets Overhead will release its new album, No Nations, on vinyl, CD and various digital formats, with no decision made as of a mid-May interview if a pay what you want model will be used. The vinyl version will be done through Canadian legend Neil Young's label, Vapor Records. The idea of releasing a LP was not to rake in cash, Henwood said. "At our level it has to be a labour of love. Maybe you break even, maybe you don't."

The band hopes to include a code with its vinyl release of No Nations so that fans can download a free version online when they buy the record. Various artists, including Bob Dylan, have used this model.

"In the end the main draw for the rock industry to print vinyl instead of CDs with their MP3 purchases may be just a wee gimmick to provide something that can be valued for people who still don't see the benefit of purchasing MP3s," Turner said. "For a DJ who has been collecting vinyl to perform for over a decade the idea that it is on the comeback seems a bit silly and may only apply to certain genres of music."

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