Full circle: Iko's Music thrives again as millennials discover vinyl
Ten years ago, Paul Hamilton stoically prepared himself for the death of his dream.
Compact disc sales, the bedrock of Iko's Music Trade, a fixture in Springettsbury Township for decades, were vanishing as MP3s upended the music market.
Digital music was taking the same toll on CDs that the shiny silver discs had taken on cassette tapes and Hamilton's beloved records, which were relegated to a backroom at Iko's.
Then something unexpected happened.
An ever-growing influx of customers began visiting his store on a quest for black vinyl, only to walk away empty-handed, never noticing the bins in the back.
Much to Hamilton's surprise, the majority weren't nostalgic baby boomers. These were millennials, born into a digital world but now embracing an analog one.
At that point, Hamilton knew how he was going to save his business.
"It was time to bring those records out from the backroom," he said.
Turning a hobby into a career: Hamilton came to value records at a young age, and he eventually began collecting and selling them as a hobby.
Soon, he learned his hobby was more lucrative than his day job. After that jolting epiphany, he decided to open Iko's Music Trade in the Village Acres Shopping Center.
Vinyl's death and rebirth: When Hamilton launched his small, independent store in January 1991, he focused on selling CDs, with a smattering of outdated cassette tapes.
By then, records had become a sentimental anachronism in any self-respecting music store, and many major music companies had ceased to produce them, he said.
Hamilton continued to collect and sell his beloved LPs, however, even as he was forced to sell Beatles records for prices as cheap as $3 or $4.
Hamilton never lost faith that vinyl records would make a comeback. In fact, he predicted their eventual resurgence but never anticipated it would happen so soon.
He first noticed interest picking up in the early 2000s; it occurred simultaneously with the rise of MP3s, which began to dramatically chip away at his CD sales.
In 2007, he decided to move forward and remodel the store with an emphasis on records.
Despite Hamilton's renewed optimism, an economic storm was brewing on the horizon as 2008 approached, and he was left with the question:
Would vinyl records be able to fill the gap left behind by CDs, and if so, would it happen in time to save his business?
Hard times: Unfortunately for Hamilton, the vinyl revolution didn't happen quickly enough to buffer him from the recession of 2008, and plans to remodel his store were stalled until the following year.
It was an exceedingly grim time, but he was determined not to let his dream slip away.
"It was either stubbornness or stupidity," Hamilton said.
Renovations proceeded in 2009, and Hamilton took a leap of faith by signing a five-year lease. His risk ultimately paid off, and he now considers 2012 his "turnaround year."
From 1996 to 2006, Hamilton estimates LPs constituted 10 percent of his business. By 2010, they were 60 percent and growing. Conversely, CD sales dropped from 90 percent to 40 percent of his profit during the same time period.
The kids decide to take a spin: As LP records began flying off the shelves, Hamilton noticed many of his customers were teenagers and young adults. This development gave the store owner the "enjoyable experience" of introducing a new generation to a foreign music format.
Hamilton attributes their newfound interest to a desire to hold something physical in their hands, something that requires them to stop and fully immerse themselves in the music.
This effort to "block out the time" and emphasize quality over convenience makes the experience more valuable, he said.
"They clutch them, they're cradling and protecting them as they leave the store," Hamilton said.
The lure of vinyl and time travel: Hamilton also noted that millennials are the first generation that can access the entire history of music over the internet via a simple Google search, a luxury previous generations never even dreamed of.
Now they want to listen to that music the way their parents did, and he's more than happy to accommodate them.
Hamilton knew it wasn't a fluke when national record companies such as Sony began manufacturing vinyl records again, decades after they had ceased production.
According to Forbes, 900,000 vinyl records were sold in 2005, compared to just under 12 million as recently as 2015. Even since 2009, vinyl has experienced 260 percent growth, and half the buyers are under 25, according to the site.
LPs vs. CDs vs. digital: One question Hamilton often hears is whether there is a difference in quality between the records of yore and modern digital music. Most people can't notice a difference, he said, unless they have a trained ear.
While digital music has a rigid, square sound, analog has a more rounded sound, one that's a little warmer and a little smoother, but not as bright and crisp as a CD, he said.
Still, an experiment was performed in the 1980s to determine if participants could differentiate between a record and a CD. The result was almost evenly split, a sure indicator that the answers were based on guesswork.
The moral of the story?
"You don't want to bet your life on what format you're listening to," Hamilton said.
A customer's take: Jeff Kelly, 64, of York,has been a customer at Iko's since its inception. Over the years, he has traded hundreds of records for CDs, but he's now embracing vinyl again.
Kelly describes vinyl records as more "romantic," a whole piece of art that included the jacket design, the liner, and the careful ordering of songs that were often tied together by an underlying theme.
"It's almost like buying a picture from a painter. It's more personal. Albums are more like an old friend," he said.
These days, the ability to download songs independent from the album has resulted in a more fragmented experience, he said.
A new focus: Now, Hamilton deals almost exclusively in the sale of newly manufactured records, but he also buys and sells old collectibles.
Over the years, he's come to rely on his keen knowledge of products and the market, as well as the relationship he's developed with his clientele. Much like the music he sells, his store maintains a small-town, old-fashioned feel.
"Sometimes it's like an old-time barber shop. People come in and grouse a lot, but they never buy anything. I don't mind," he said.
One time, a customer asked him if he liked what he did. For Hamilton, simply "liking" music would have been the death knell of his business.
"You have to love it — and you have to love it more than money," he said.