What was once called a revival is now hailed as a renaissance. The vinyl record has had its ups and downs over the last 100-plus years, but the classic method of musical enjoyment is still setting record sales numbers in the high-tech 21st century.
During the pandemic, several North Bay record shops reported an uptick in business, even as social distancing forced stores to offer curbside pickup, delivery or extremely limited shopping opportunities.
Filmmakers Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone recently crisscrossed the country to document the record renaissance in the new documentary Vinyl Nation, which screens virtually as part of the seventh annual Alexander Valley Film Festival, which opens online on Friday, April 23.
Vinyl Nation talks to record collectors, musicians, shop owners, manufacturers and others to find out what drives generations of collectors to collect, and how the latest vinyl craze is more inclusive and diverse than ever before.
Based in San Francisco, Smokler is the author of three books about pop culture, including Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies. When that book came out, Boone—an Albuquerque-based filmmaker and college classmate of Smokler’s—reached out about hosting movie screenings based on Smokler’s book.
“We worked well together, and I had seen some of Chris’s movies,” Smokler says. “I’m a documentary fanatic and I’ve always wanted to make movies, and I had one idea that was nagging at me, and that was, ‘what do we have to say about the resurgence of vinyl records?’”
With the title Vinyl Nation already in his head, Smokler approached Boone about collaborating on a feature-length documentary, and soon the two were flying to locations in the Bay Area, Baltimore, Detroit and Louisville to interview all manner of enthusiasts and experts, such as San Francisco musician and Tiny Telephone recording studio owner John Vanderslice and Bay Area–raised DJ and podcaster Ashleyanne Krigbaum.
From those interviews, Smokler and Boone worked with editors David Fabelo and Jason Wehling to successfully track vinyl’s resurgence through the eyes and experiences of those who make, sell and buy records.
Vinyl Nation includes plotlines ranging from the vinyl community’s turns towards diversification and inclusivity, to the record industry’s thoughts on its environmental impact, to the emotional connection collectors feel to their records.
“My favorite scene in the film—and a scene I knew was going to be in the film the moment it happened—came in our first week of shooting,” Boone says. “The last person we interviewed in the Bay Area was Ashleyanne Krigbaum, and Kevin had decided to ask everyone what they hoped would happen to their records when they were gone. I didn’t expect that question to evoke an emotional response the way it hit AshleyAnne. She had thought about it; she put a lot of thought into it and she got so vulnerable in that moment.”
Vinyl Nation was set to premiere early last year, though the pandemic changed plans for the film, much as it did for Record Store Day 2020.
“Record Store Day was coming up in April  and we were hearing from our friends at record stores, ‘This is bad,’” Smokler says. “‘This is our biggest business day of the year and we are legally barred from opening our doors.’”
In light of that fact, Smokler and Boone partnered with Record Store Day organizers to offer a digital premiere of their film last April to independent record stores across the United States on what would have been Record Store Day if stores hadn’t been closed.
Over 200 record stores came on board, selling a collective total of 3,690 tickets and raising nearly $37,000 for their businesses. Record stores kept all of the ticket proceeds from this one-weekend-only digital premiere.
Now, Vinyl Nation is getting larger premieres at festivals like the Alexander Valley Film Festival, which will be conducted virtually Friday, April 23, through Sunday, May 2. The AV Film Festival will feature a diverse array of films and filmmakers from around the world with 30 feature films, 38 short films, more than a dozen panels and Q&As—including a panel with Smokler and Boone on April 27—and 14 student works.
“The resiliency of the film festival ecosystem has been essential to the life of our movie,” Smokler says. “And communities like Alexander Valley—where people really give a shit about arts and culture and their neighborhood—are making sure that even under the worst conditions, people have things to enjoy and keep their minds open and refreshed. Those kinds of communities are the perfect representatives of ‘Vinyl Nation’; people who care what they put in their ears, eyes, minds and hearts. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this festival.”