In most ways, Sarah McCarthy is your average high schooler. She has a job, college plans, but also a peculiar passion for a 16-year-old: She's a vinyl junkie.
That's right, analog. And none of that hipster new stuff or a USB-ready turntable from Urban Outfitters.
To this senior from Centreville, Md., there's nothing like the raw crackle, the depth of sound, her delicate hand on diamond-tipped stylus to spin from the dusty stash of records she found in the basement of her grandfather — yes, grandfather.
"He gave me his receiver and speaker system and told me to listen to it the way it was made to be listened to," McCarthy said. "I've turned a lot of my friends on to it. They come over a lot to listen with me."
At a time when parents feel positively prehistoric as they explain how to use plastic ice-cube trays or speak of phones with cords and dials, this teen knows what a record is. Not only that, she knows the difference between a 45 and an LP. She met her boyfriend in a record shop and now works there!
Sure, she has an iPod, but she also has a vinyl collection of 250 records and counting. Sure, there's a broader '70s renaissance in the air, but buying bellbottoms doesn't touch the commitment of teens unearthing old turntables and records, then convincing friends to listen, too, like a pack of crazy little anthropologists.
"Listening to old music remastered to a newer format is almost comical," Sarah said. "They weren't meant to be digitalized. Listening to Jimi Hendrix on my iPod doesn't capture his endlessly deep guitar solos quite like a 33 LP of 'Blues' does."
This girl's in love with vinyl, and she's not the only member of Generation Digital with an ear for analog.
"My dad always had these old records in the garage and I never got to use them until just recently, when my uncle let me have his old record player," said 14-year-old Nick Spates, a Los Angeles eighth grader who plays guitar and piano.
What'd he find in his dad's two milk crates?
A lot of George Clinton — "He's a genius. I swear," declared Nick. And Funkadelic. Of the band's Eddie Hazel: "'Maggot Brain' is like my favorite song ever. The original is a 10-minute guitar solo." There was also "Spiral" by The Crusaders. "It has a lot of horns. I love horns." And "Carmel" by Joe Sample, Hendrix on "Voodoo Child" and a trove of Stanley Clarke.
"My friends think it's cool," Nick said. "Before I had the vinyls I used to Google older musicians and see what songs they made, and I'd look for them on YouTube. We're all musicians and old music is like our favorite stuff in the world."
Wayyyy back when, he said, the message of the music was "definitely more to benefit society and people's knowledge and what's going on in the world." Now, he said, "It's more about what rappers have."
Jeremy Robinson, co-owner of the plantation-size Ditch Records & CDs in Victoria, British Columbia, has up to 20,000 records in stock — half old and half new pressings from reissue labels and indie bands.
"Our vinyl sales have probably doubled in the last couple of years," he said. "The bulk of that has been young people, the iPod generation. They want to collect things, own things, which is the opposite of digital culture. They want to belong to the past."
The uptick in interest over several years includes nostalgic "nerdy superfans" looking for a way around the more sanitized sound of digital, he said, but also savvy young people with Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Iron Maiden and a host of obscure post-punk music on their minds.
"The younger kids that come in the store know what they want," Robinson said. "They usually want the best albums by the best classic bands."
Matt Melvin, a 22-year-old college senior in Orlando, Fla., began taking vinyl seriously when he was 17 and still in high school. His interest was fed by buddies in search of pressings from new artists but also his dad's collection of old staples like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Dylan.
"With vinyl, one is forced to slow down and take in an album as a whole piece of work as the artist intended," he said.
Melvin's constantly on the hunt for exclusive, hard-to-find tracks like special B sides or limited-edition color pressings. The White Stripes, for example, released a series of singles on vinyl from their last album with acoustic and Spanish versions on B sides. A vinyl version of Radiohead's latest album can be ordered from its website.
But he's interested in older music, too.
"Going through the countless stacks of different record stores, my eyes usually get caught by old funk and jazz records that I would have otherwise had little exposure to had it not been for their eccentric and colorful cover art."
While the recording industry dukes it out over downloads and mourns the CD, 2.5 million vinyl LPs were sold in 2009, up 33 percent from the year before. Vinyl sales are a blip among total revenue from U.S. music sales and licensing, but that's a healthy increase in its own right.
"Young people are leading the way back to analog through vinyl and turntables," Melvin said. "I think young people are demanding a product that is more tangible, the thrill of hunting through a store for that perfect record, the simple satisfaction of turning that record over."
Young people who listen and young people who mix.
Tina Turnbull, 28, travels the world as a DJ. Last year, she opened a weeklong DJ summer camp in Ojai, Calif., for tweens and teens, many who attend on scholarship. Coming up in the business at age 15, Turnbull carted around crates of vinyl to gigs. "Now I bring two records with me and my laptop. Technology has taken over."
At Camp Spin-Off, she and a staff of working DJs try to bridge past and present through vinyl. "We use records. We teach them the fundamentals. Where they go from there is wherever they want."
On the first day of camp, her charges watch a documentary tracing the birth of hip-hop, when the first DJs inspired break dancing and rap, and invented scratching and "beat-juggling" on vinyl. The movie takes them straight through to "turntablism," the more recent explosion of using one or more turntables combined with one or more mixers to create original music.
Turnbull invites guest DJs young (Samantha Ronson will stop by in August) and older to share their expertise and memories of decades past with the 50 campers, ages 12 to 17.
"You have to learn the basics on turntables," she said. "It kind of bums me that people who are learning how to DJ will never touch a record, but that's an opinionated thing."
Sarah McCarthy, who like Nick plays guitar and piano, holds the same opinion. She doesn't have much use for the vinyl-to-MP3 converter her mother, Mary, gave her as a gift.
"It doesn't come from me," mom said. "She's just kind of an old soul and always has been."