Visitors browse an array of vinyl records on display at Music Complex Seoul, a vinyl-themed cafe in Insadong, Seoul. (Choi Jae-hee/ The Korea Herald)
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a retro cafe in Insa-dong, central Seoul, saw people chilling out on sofas, listening to music from the 1970s and '80s. Each table was equipped with a vinyl record player and a headset for visitors to indulge themselves in music from the likes of British rock band Queen to Korean legend Lee Moon-sae.
“It seems like young people nowadays like LPs more than older people do,” said the only middle-aged man in the place, who introduced himself as a 53-year-old vinyl collector surnamed Kang. “They are enjoying old tunes which they are unfamiliar with, while I don’t really listen to songs from these days.”
Kang cut a conspicuous figure at Music Complex Seoul, one of a new type of business allowing visitors to enjoy a vast vinyl collection alongside coffee or alcoholic beverages. More than 90 percent of visitors to the vintage coffee place are in their 20s and 30s, the Insa-dong store’s staff said.
“Many LP music enthusiasts around me are mostly middle-aged people drawn by nostalgia. Sharing the culture of my generation with younger audiences here makes me feel younger,” he said.
Opened in July last year, the LP cafe features a collection of more than 12,000 vinyl record albums. Visitors can listen to them freely during their stay, as long as they order a beverage that costs between 10,000-13,000 won ($8-$10.30).
For young music lovers, the old-fashioned, natural sound of vinyl is part of an exploration of a music genre new to them.
“I love a little scratchy sound in the background when playing Christmas carols and jazz songs on a record player. Of course, digital music offers clearer and more refined sound but vinyl gives out unique vibes that I can’t feel while listening to a song online,” said Kwon Jae-yeon, a 25-year-old college student in Seoul.
He added, “There is a certain pleasure in finding new and unknown music. I get to know about the popular music of my parent's generation. I’d like to come here again with my parents.”
Lee Eun-yoo, an avid record collector in her 30s, said she prefers to visit LP cafes or bars even though she has her own turntable at home.
“The store’s retro-style interior design and stacks of records add to the vintage mood that I can’t experience at home,” said Lee, who started collecting LPs three years ago.
“The whole process of browsing for what to play from stacks of records, taking one out from its paper cover, and playing it on a turntable makes me feel like I own the music I am listening to.”
Vinyl records have become a big trend in the music scene here, seeing a substantial increase in sales. According to Yes24, the country’s largest online retailer of books and music albums, vinyl sales shot up 106 percent on-year in 2021.
Some local companies have launched special experience zones furnished with vinyl records to appeal to young customers.
In October last year, Woori Bank opened a pop-up store called Won Record, at AK＆ Hongdae, a shopping mall complex near Hongik University.
Decorated in blue like Woori Bank's logo, the store provides music listening spaces where customers can listen to vinyl records of famous singers, including K-pop singer and actor IU and R＆B singer-songwriter Mariah Carey, free of charge.
Visitors can also receive virtual financial counseling about savings and loan services via a kiosk. A special photo booth shaped like an ATM is another popular zone there.
Vinyl & Plastic, a record shop operated by Hyundai Card. (Choi Jae-hee/ The Korea Herald)
Another free music listening zone at a record shop in Itaewon called Vinyl ＆ Plastic, operated by Hyundai Card, attracts many LP collectors for its inventory of nearly 20,000 records for sale.
“I can buy LPs online, but I prefer to visit offline shops like here with my friends because I can listen to various kinds of music. I love this quiet and cozy atmosphere here,” said Kong, a 24-year-old college student who visited the store Thursday morning.
Space rental providers are also riding on the sustained popularity for LPs, offering rooms furnished with LPs and turntables largely to target youngsters enthused by the retro vibes.
A studio apartment called Slow Boat in the Euljiro area in the heart of Seoul is furnished with large square shelves displaying vinyl records, antique furniture and vintage lighting where people can host a small party or spend time alone listening to music. Customers can reserve the space for a minimum of two hours, which costs 50,000 won.