Spotlight: A love for vinyl

BY LUKE VOELZ | APRIL 22, 2011 7:20 AM

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Kirk Walther gazed into the briefcase of a man known as Warren Peace.

"It's a little warped," said Peace, plucking out a plastic-wrapped parcel from within the leathery confines. "So I'll give it to you for $5."

Walther had done business with the old man, who wore faded jeans and a dirty brown jacket, several times in the past. Most of the time his prices were too high. But that day, at a 1985 Chicago record convention, this offer seemed too good to pass up.

"Deal," said Walther and walked away with an original vinyl copy of the Jimmy Hendrix Experience's Axis: Bold as Love. He later priced the album at more than $2,000.

Walther, who owns the Record Collector, 116 S. Linn St., has made many shrewd deals to make profits in an industry with uncertain futures: FYE and Real Music have closed and left his shop as the only independent music vendor in the Iowa City area. Meanwhile, digital album sales in the United States rose 13 percent over 2010, and CD sales declined by the same amount, according to the Nielsen & Billboard's 2010 Music Industry Report.

Yet Walther remains unshaken by the shift toward downloading music, legal or illegal.

"I've never been bitter about it — it's just the way it is," he said. "You can't blame kids for wanting to get music for free. I would probably have done it at that age, too."

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Record Collector employee Luke Tweedy has a more cynical view of illegal downloading.

"Just because you think you have the right to [illegal downloading], it's still stealing," he said. "It's immoral, unethical, and there's no honor in it. If I go to my buddy's house, I wouldn't steal his bread and pizza just because I'm hungry."

Digital albums did not exist for a young Walther. At age 7, he would travel to the Iowa City Younkers and buy 45s for 79 cents apiece. He opened Record Collector in 1982, consigning albums through a comic book store, Barfunkle's, on Burlington Street. The store moved to Prentiss Street two years later and to Linn Street in 1995.

Walther said his main concern these days is the financial stress on recording musicians.

"They always get fucked over," he said.

Some artists are fighting back, he said, by cutting back on CD sales and just releasing vinyl records with coupons for digital downloads. He estimated a 20 percent increase in vinyl sales at Record Collector, thanks to more people becoming aware of records' collectability and improved sound quality.

"[Records] are cooler by definition," the 55-year-old said. "They're something you can hold in your hand and appreciate the artwork."

UI senior Heather McKeag, who buys vinyl at the Record Collector, agrees, at least partially, with Walther's theories.

"[I buy vinyl] if I want to own something tangible, something that I can look at, like an artifact," said the 28-year-old. "If I purchase from iTunes, it's something new, perhaps an artist I'm not familiar with, so I don't feel like I have to own the record."

The turbulent music-store industry has seen Iowa City through eight music stores since 1995, of which Record Collector is the sole survivor. Walther admits, although he's glad to receive all of the town's business, the rapid changes came as a shock.

"It's a bit weird being the only guy left," he said.

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