Urban Legends is an online editorial/e-commerce hybrid platform launched in November 2017 by Universal Music Enterprises. The outfit sells vinyl and cassette tapes of classic hip-hop albums from Universal Music Group’s immense urban catalog and offers up in-depth, historical context with those same records. Think Jack Black’s character from High Fidelity, but with less self-aggrandizing condescension and more of a focus on spreading knowledge. One of Urban Legends critical missions is simple: bring vinyl appreciation to more of the people raised in the iPod and Spotify era.
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Andre Torres, Vice President of Urban Catalog at Universal Music Enterprises and self-proclaimed vinyl enthusiast, heads the Urban Legends initiative. Torres spoke with Digital Trends for Record Store Day 2018 about working on vinyl releases for newer acts like Lil Yachty and Migos, the evolution of the vinyl format, and how vinyl has become as much of a fashion accessory as it is a musical experience.
Digital Trends: When I think about vinyl, I think about classic, older albums. Will Urban Legends help put out exclusive vinyl for newer artists?
Yeah, we will be in the sense that the way it works — at least in the catalog versus frontline — is there’s a certain window before a record becomes catalog. So, it’s essentially only around a year and a half, two years. That’s kind of been changing a little bit over the last year, just because some of the frontline labels are working records longer than they may have. So, it will be a little bit of time before I get them. But, I am having lots of conversations, and Migos is a sort of a perfect example. On the catalog side because we specialize in these kinds of elaborate, deluxe box sets, we can kind of work more closely with the frontline labels developing products that maybe the frontline label wouldn’t necessarily be thinking of for that sort of uber fan. But that’s what we specialize in, and there’s an opportunity to kind of close the gap and jump in and work with these guys a little bit sooner than we traditionally would have been able to. For instance, Lil Yachty’s Lil Boat record is already catalog. So, that’s something that, after having put out the second Lil Boat, now there’s an opportunity to kind of do something with the first one to bring attention to the series and tie it into the new release.
So, this means we should be getting a Migos vinyl box set for the group’s Culture album in the next year or so?
Ohhh, okay. I see how you do. You picked up on that. [Laughs] I threw that out there, and that’s exactly what I have been kind of pitching; a Culture box set. It would have both of the albums, the artwork. We could really, really go hard with that one. A lot of opportunity there, and I think the fans are there for it. I just think we need to deliver to them what they want.
Urban Legends was announced by Universal Music Enterprises in November of last year and it’s been around for five months so far. What has been the most popular item sold or requested on the Urban Legends online store?
Oh, wow. We just got started, so I don’t have that much product yet. But, I think probably the thing that has been our biggest success so far would be the 2Pac Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z reissue we did. We did two versions working closely with the estate. One was just sort of a colored vinyl, straight reissue. Then we did one that was a gatefold cover where the estate gave us access to some of ‘Pac’s handwritten notes. We had photos, the cassette that he recorded the album to, and they gave us photos no one has ever seen before. So, we were able to put together a more deluxe package that had some art, photo prints in it and a nice gatefold, so you can read some of the things ‘Pac had been writing — track listing stuff he’d been working on. Of course, it’s Pac, he’s one of the gods of this whole thing here. That one went very quickly, but I got some more bangers lined up.
Record Store Day is here. Are there any Record Store Day releases you’re excited about?
I did see a Cam’ron Purple Haze purple vinyl that I’m very interested and that was done with one of our partners because that’s our catalog.
Urban Legends came at a time when it’s been 12 straight years of growth in vinyl sales. So that means vinyl has been growing during the heyday and prime of digital downloads and streaming. How has a seemingly antiquated form of listening to music been able to grow during the primes of two of the most game-changing and convenient ways to interact with music?
They’re kind of inversely proportional. As people get more sucked into this sort of digital world and they lose that connection with the physical, there is just a sort of almost subconscious or unconscious way that we have been dealing with music since its inception, and there’s a very physical component to it. Where people, from records to cassettes to CDs, were used to putting an album on and then sort of having this experience looking through liner notes and doing the research, especially in hip-hop. Trying to see what record was sampled on this beat by Dr. Dre or DJ Premier. I just think that part is something that even as this generation has come up in this sort of very digitally oriented world, they’re understanding that there’s something missing, something tangible, especially when you really want to express your appreciation for an artist or an album, in particular. There’s no way to do that when it’s just you and your phone.
“Even as this generation has come up in this sort of very digitally oriented world, they’re understanding that there’s something missing, something tangible.”
I think a lot of kids I know that are younger primarily listen to music maybe on streaming music services. But they are buying vinyl as a sort of a physical touchpoint that’s almost like merch, like a T-shirt. They may not even crack the vinyl open. They may just leave it on their desk as a sort of display item to show their affinity for this artist. It’s interesting that Urban Outfitters has become the number one vinyl retailer in America, because that’s a place that sells housewares and clothing. So you see it’s kind of removed from the sort of traditional music store and now resides in a place that’s selling home goods and clothing.
It always seemed in the past like vinyl and digital don’t work together, with one trying to take the other one out. But they seem to now coexist. Yet, there’s attempts to make them merge. Have you heard about high definition vinyl?
Yeah. It’s crazy, somebody sent me that story last week and I went to the guy who kind of handles the high-def audio initiative [at Urban Legends]. I was like ‘Yo, you heard about this?’ He was like ‘yeah, I just did today.’ It’s definitely brand-spanking new. I’m looking forward to hearing more about it. Any kind of changes in the vinyl market that can bring better audio quality, people are always looking for. It’s been an unfortunate part of this sort of vinyl resurgence that a lot of the vinyl being pressed is an analog format but it’s being pressed using digital files. It’s great being here, at a label, and have access to master tapes and we can go back and properly remaster these things and put them on vinyl in a way that they’re supposed to be heard. I’m very interested in hearing more about this hi-def vinyl initiative and hopefully getting to actually use it, as well.
Could you explain a little bit for our reader what you meant by vinyl being pressed using digital files? Can you explain the process of how that happens and why that might not be the best for vinyl?
“I think vinyl has become the sort of de facto way to make that statement of ‘I’m really feeling this. ‘”
Before, when an artist went into a studio it was recorded onto actual two-inch tape. That tape was used to transfer onto a plate, which vinyl was pressed from that. So, it was a completely analog process going from the recording all the way through to the manufacturing of the actual music. Once you begin seeing Pro Tools, and digital production studios becoming a larger and larger part of the recording process, there’s again a disconnect, because you have to take those digital files and sort of analog them in a way where you’re now mastering these digital files for vinyl. So, it’s almost counterintuitive in a way where there is obviously a sort of missing link there where you’re not able to sort of capture some of these recordings; the original master tapes. That could be because they’re lost, they’re destroyed, and that goes from the biggest labels world down to the tiny ones. Those things will wear out and deteriorate. A lot of times people have to still press vinyl records using an old copy of a record or a digital DAT [digital audio tape] Tape or something. A lot of times we’re not getting the sort of true analog sound that you would if you were literally taking master tapes, having them remastered, and pressing vinyl in that way. That’s some real high-end audio stuff that lot of people who are sort of casually listening to vinyl may not pick. But, for some of the real heads out there that are sticklers about this stuff, that’s definitely become problematic for them in a way.
So, there are guys out there who are going to some crazy extremes pressing records on 200-gram vinyl and then doing all sorts of craziness to get these master tapes, and then the technology involved is archaic in a sense. But it’s kind of like going backward to go forward.
Have you noticed streaming leading to more vinyl sales or vice versa?
I think the way that people’s relationship with music has worked, it’s primarily been something that we have owned and kept. But, like much of the other objects and physical positions in our society and world, we are not as into having to accumulate as much anymore. Just having the access is good enough. That is a change that this millennial generation has brought to the forefront. It’s definitely made it easy, in regards to be able to access these things, but if you want to make that jump to ownership I think vinyl has become the sort of de facto way to make that statement of “I’m really feeling this. I will buy this.”
Urban Legends, like you said, is not just an editorial site, it has an e-commerce side where it sells vinyl and cassette tapes. How closely does the editorial side work with the e-commerce side in terms of coverage and vice versa? How does that affect what’s being sold? How are those decisions made about what to sell and what to cover?
“I’m not trying to sort of force a circle in a square creating a physical product around something that most of its fans are listening to digitally.”
They’re very closely related. They’re kind of almost like two sides of the same coin, in a sense. As we’re kind of mapping out the year, I’m looking at where are the big anniversaries. The five, 10, 15, 20, 30 anniversaries that we’re going to celebrate. Some we are going to be doing some physical products for, so there’s a way to be working editorial around that anniversary as well as the actual product that we’re creating and going to be selling in the online store. Then on the flip side of that, there’s probably well over a hundred big anniversaries and cultural moments that we could potentially celebrate, but it would be impossible for us to actually produce that much product in one year. I do realize a lot of the younger kids are streaming music and some of these records or albums that they’re listening to, that’s the primary mode of the way that they’re listening to this music. So, I’m not trying to sort of force a circle in a square creating a physical product around something that really, most of its fans are listening to on streaming music services or digitally. There are those that are getting those kinds of looks on digital platforms and then they also have a fan base of people who are looking for that physical product.
Are there any notable albums from Universal Music Group’s catalog that you hope can be turned into to vinyl that haven’t been sold yet?
Oh my god, this is like literally what I bang my head on a wall about every day. There’s several Kanye West titles I’m pursuing heavily. There’s a few Drake titles I’m also pursuing heavy, as well. There’s a lot of stuff that maybe has been pressed at some point, and we may be looking to something a little bit more deluxe. There’s some Jay-Z … there’s pretty much everything Jay-Z. You talk about Reasonable Doubt, that’s now 22 years old. In regards to doing something really proper as a deluxe box set, that has not been done [for Reasonable Doubt]. I’m definitely speaking pretty often with a lot of management teams about making this happen, hoping this year you’ll start seeing some of that coming out. So, stay tuned.
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