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Amelia Kaufman/MEDILL

Delmark Records sees revival in vinyl; hopes for jazz, blues sales

by Amelia Kaufman
March 13, 2013

delmark records

Amelia Kaufman/MEDILL

Bob Koester selects albums at his downtown Jazz Record Mart.


Graph credit: International Federation of the Phonographic Industry

Global vinyl sales have seen a revival over the past five years.

Bob Koester sits at his desk at Delmark Records, surrounded by clippings, hand written notes, bills and records. He has 60 years worth of business clinging to the walls and piled high in stacks.

While some have claimed his record label is the oldest independent jazz and blues record label in the world, Koester says it’s actually second behind Jazzology Records in New Orleans.
Few unaffiliated music businesses remain these days – let alone truly independent ones. Many thought the record store was done when big box retailer Tower Records filed for bankruptcy in 2006. The company succumbed to pressure as digital sales began to siphon off profits.
But music industry followers  say nostalgia is driving a resurgence in vinyl sales. The question remains:
Can nostalgia turn a profit?
For Koester and other independent labels, staying afloat is a daily struggle.
“Well, we’re not doing well. We cannot pay the musicians as well as used to,” Koester said. “Guys who work are not makin’ that much money anyway, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna lower their salary.”
Koester shows that same commitment to music. His passion shows a never-ending effort to preserve and capture the sound of Chicago’s jazz and blues that he says brings joy to people’s lives.
“I think it’s one of the reasons I am 80-years-old and I’m still kicking. I think it’s listening to the music but I think having a job that I love, that helps too,” he said. “It’s fun, and I’ll maintain that there is a type of jazz for just about anybody.”
Koester estimates Jazz Record Mart sales dropped 5 percent last year, with profits totaling $850,000. He speculates the decline stems from the lingering recession and that customers are more wary about how they spend their dispensable income. Revenue at the label, however, has held steady over the past few years – bringing in around $450,000 in 2012, he said.
In a 2011 Chicago Tribune article, Koester said sales were rising, with the store bringing in around $70,000 to $100,000 in sales per month.
Record store sales constitute a lower percentage of global sales when compared to digital downloads, according to industry data, but as a new, younger generation discovers an appreciation for the sound quality of music, independent store owners have a renewed hope.
“People haven’t heard CDs on good equipment. They’re hearing downloads. If they are hearing downloads they are not hearing the whole thing. … [But downloading is] a hip thing to do,” Koester said.
Tyler Monson, 23, is one of those discovering the power of vinyl.
“I just recently bought a turntable. I visited a friends place and he had one and it was cool and it was something I was interested in. I only have four [vinyl] so I am looking to build a collection.”
Koester believes so much of the work that labels put into creating depth in a song, such as the layering of sound, are lost on a CD.
“From an audio perspective, [vinyl’s] analog quality seems to resonate with people on a deeper level than digital does,” said George Howard, chief operating officer of Daytrotter, a recording studio website, and Paste digital magazine.
“People are turning away - to a degree - from CDs and downloads because these are largely unsatisfying delivery mechanisms for music. CDs, and, even more so, downloads fail at aligning with one of the most essential elements of music: Its' social quality,” Howard said.
Steve Marquette, an employee at Jazz Record Mart, and also a jazz musician, chooses to buy vinyl. Because of increased quality in sound.
“I guess part of the reason I like vinyl is, … that it’s more inconvenient,” Marquette said. “The convenience of downloading and iPods and everything is great for some stuff but it also kind of contributes to the way the listening experience has changed.
“By it being so common and constant in your life, I don’t know if people take it for granted or if it just kinda of contributes to music being more of a background noise to your life.”
Vinyl records saw a 28.8 percent increase in 2011 from 2010—totaling $151 million, according to a International Federation of Phonographic Industry 2012 report. Sales were continuing an upward trend begun in 2007 and “enjoying reviving fortunes,” the report said.
Vinyl sales are now at their highest levels since 1997 in countries such as Germany, France, the U.S. and the Netherlands.
There were 4.6 million vinyl sales in 2012, from 3.9 million units in 2011, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Total music sales, including CD, cassette, LP/Vinyl and digital, increased 3.1 percent, surpassing 1,65 billion units.
Koester grew up in Wichita, Kansas during the time Big Band hit the nation. His first steps into the jazz and blues world came at St. Louis University, when he began to sell records out of his dorm room. The first band Koester ever recorded played a block off of campus.
He opened his first record store in St. Louis in 1952 with a partner, Ron Fister. After their split in 1953 due to musical differences, Koester went on to record the Windy City Six in his first recording session. He was 21.
Koester moved to Chicago in 1958, during the height of the city’s jazz scene, and set up shop in the Cathedral Building on Wabash Avenue. After shuffling around locations over the years, Koester’s recording studio has come to rest at 4121 N. Rockwell St., while his record store, Jazz Record Mart, is located at 27 E. Illinois St.
Jazz and blues have been at the heart of Chicago’s culture since the late 19th Century. Many musicians from New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta migrated north to Chicago to work in the clubs that were springing up across the country. By the time Koester arrived on the scene, Chicago’s South Side had taken center stage – pushing boundaries and revolutionizing jazz.
Since then, Koester has been a key player in defining Chicago's jazz and blues sound. He is one of the few non-performers to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
The Grammy Award-winning “Hoodoo Man Blues,” which Koester’s label produced, has been the top-selling album since its  debut in 1965. Performed by Junior Wells, the album sold 6,000 CDs last year and 2,000 LPs.
“People are not buying CDs in the way that they were so as a format I think it’s kind of on the decline,” Marquette said. “I don’t see there being in the future a collectable CD market in the same way that there is with vinyl, that there has always been with vinyl and that there always will be with vinyl.”
“CDs and downloads are inherently unsocial. Music is inherently social and shareable, and therefore requires a delivery mechanism that aligns with this,” said Howard. “ Vinyl is a social object. Something that we can touch and share with our friends, and/or put on our shelves or our walls so that when people see the vinyl they comment on them, and ask about them.”
That’s the interaction Koester enjoys and the one he depends on to continue his business. If he is not checking up on the bands at his recording studio, he can be found organizing his record store collection. For Koester, the music—jazz and blues—will never die.