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To Mike Steinberg, collecting records is about music and also not.

He can point to many of his thousands of records that fill his house and tell a story.

Each one, he said, is "a physical artifact of my life and has meaning."

Steinberg, the executive director of the Roxy Theater, has a KBGA radio show where he plays from his deep collection of vintage soul and R&B 45-inch records. His specialty? Singles by groups that often never recorded a full-length album. Many of the tracks don't exist online, save for bootleg versions posted on YouTube.

He grew up around records, because his father and aunt ran a music shop, The Disc Connection, in his hometown of St. Louis, for about 25 years. He counts among his irreplaceable records a Kinks promotional LP that his father played on the radio. Like many DJs, he circled a few songs on the back to recommend them as radio-worthy.

Steinberg could probably find another copy of the album if he wanted, but it wouldn't be the same.

"I can't replace that," he said.

This weekend, Steinberg and others will be selling some records at the third annual Total Record Swap at the Missoula Senior Center, as a benefit for the Roxy. It's the city's only dedicated record swap, where collectors like Steinberg offer up both obscurities and classics like Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac.

"The trend of record buying as an activity now means that there's a whole new generation of people who need those chestnut, war-horse records," he said.

That trend is one of the few bright spots for physical media. According to the 2018 revenue report from the Recording Industry Association of America, revenue from streaming services grew 30 percent from 2017 and now comprises 74 percent of all revenue from music sales.

Vinyl was the only growth area for physical media. It increased 7.9 percent to $419 million, its highest point since 1988. "By value, vinyl made up more than one-third of revenues from physical formats," the report said.

At Ear Candy Music Shop, which has been open for 21 years, business is better than ever. Owner John Fleming said that vinyl now makes up about 85 percent to 90 percent of its sales, up from perhaps 60 percent a decade ago.

Among longtime vinyl fans, there's a constant discussion about how long the resurgence will last, but he's not too concerned.

"Is the bottom going to drop out? Maybe. Now, though, there's so many people that are into it, that even if new vinyl sales disappear, the used market will always be there," Fleming said.

(For fans of the now-embattled format of the compact disc, he mentioned that people should not ever throw them away. Many titles, now out of print, are available only on the format.)

Over at Rockin' Rudy's Record Heaven, general manager Scott Storer said that interest in vinyl has increased enough that the main store stocks new records, too.

***

The Total Record Swap was set up in 2017 as a fundraiser for the nonprofit Roxy. The proceeds that organizers get from vendor fees and admission cover the rent for the Senior Center and then go to the Roxy. (Last year, it was between $400-$500 from the door.)

The "Total" in the name comes from Total Fest, the music festival that Missoula resident Josh Vanek and a crew of volunteers ran for years. There was a record swap every year, since it was the kind of festival where people were carrying around freshly purchased vinyl from merch tables. He and other organizers like collector and KBGA DJ Collin Pruitt bring in serious vinyl fans from around Montana and some from out of state.

To Vanek, who runs a record label, Wäntage USA, vinyl is the medium on which he first started listening to music, for one. The rest is "a heady mix" of nostalgia, he said, and having a large, physical object that can fill up shelves, much like a book.

Like printed books, they have space for artwork that says something about the band or the artist, and liner notes to tell you more. (If you listen to music on a streaming service, getting to know who produced, engineered, or say, played drums on Track 5, is dependent on Google and the hope that Wikipedia might be accurate.)

Steinberg said it's a more intentional listening experience, and feels like he has a sense of ownership in the music itself.

***

The renewed interest has shifted the supply and demand, making some records more difficult to find, and more expensive if you do, Storer said.

The classic example is Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours," a hit 1977 album that sold so many copies that it became a staple of dollar-bins during the CD era. Storer guesses that perhaps three years ago, they would have a hundred copies in stock and sell a pristine one for $3.99. Now, if they have a copy, they'll sell it for $15 to $25 the first afternoon it's on the shelf.

Sites like Discogs have become so popular that he compared them to Amazon, and his store has to keep its prices in line.

Even with the option to buy online, Storer said serious crate-diggers might come in and spend an entire afternoon searching every bin in pursuit of albums on their list. Since the number of some old records is so low, rarities are rare in a way that's incomparable to other media, a "whole different kind of collecting experience."

"If you see it once, you might never see it again in the wild," he said.

To Steinberg, hunting is part of the appeal. Like someone who goes thrift shopping, he's often not sure what he wants until he finds it.

"You can source this stuff online and pay hundreds or thousands of dollars," he said, but he'd rather take a road trip.

Even then, thrift stores and antique malls have often been picked through, and the holy grail is an ad for an old box of records.

Once, he and Pruitt saw a Craigslist post for some 45s for sale in Spokane.

They arrived at a commercial property, filled with thrift items, that the owner lived in. Steinberg vividly remembers hearing running water when they entered the building. For some reason, they're not sure why, the seller thought he needed to "clean" the 45s, and had placed them in a clear plastic tub and filled it with water.

"You could see all the records submerged in it. And then he takes it and dumps it out, and he's like, 'It's OK, it's all right, they'll dry off.' If we were probably five minutes more, these labels would've started to disintegrate," he said.

Just from glancing at the labels Steinberg could tell there were probably some good records in there. They took paper towels and dabbed them dry.

The effort didn't go unrewarded.

"There was actually some incredibly rare records in there," he said. "There was a $300 garage record in there."

This article originally ran on missoulian.com.

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