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New Music on Vinyl: Everybody Loves It, But It Doesn’t Make Much Sense

New Music on Vinyl: Everybody Loves It, But It Doesn’t Make Much Sense

Dj Turntable On Vinyl Background

The vinyl resurgence should be great for new music, right? After all, who buys records in 2015? Nerds. Curious, acquisitive types. People with a thing for the timeless artifact. Those who are willing to seek out sounds beyond those that the streaming services are ready to deliver right to their earbuds. And the very fact that some music lovers are spending their money on physical editions of music after more than a decade of gorging on ones and zeros has to be good news for people who sell music, doesn’t it?

As so often in life, the answer is complex, but not encouraging. Everybody loves vinyl, but it doesn’t really make financial sense.

It’s an agonizing problem, because vinyl is booming. In 2014, sales of new LPs jumped 52 percent from the year before, and sales in the first quarter of 2015 spiked 53 percent from the same period last year. Sales of new vinyl still only make up about 7 percent of album sales overall, but it’s the only format where album sales are still growing, as streaming continues to shred the market for physical music.

There is a cadre of record buyers for whom new music titles constitute sweet finds—or at least older new music does. Just four or five years ago, used albums by composers from the 20th-century avant-garde might have gone straight into the dollar bin, according to Cory Feierman, manager of Academy Records Annex in Brooklyn. * Now they can fetch big bucks. Robert Ashley albums, for example, sell well, and quickly, Feierman says. New vinyl reissues of mid-century electro-acoustic figures such as Pierre Schaeffer dot bins, and then disappear.

And new music labels are releasing new vinyl, too. Founded in 1982, Innova Records has been around long enough to have issued its first releases on LP and then watched as vinyl gave way to the compact disc. “There was a long gap in time before our next vinyl project was produced,” says Chris Campbell, operations director at Innova. “Over 20 years, in fact.” New Amsterdam Records started out in 2008 as a label offering CDs and digital downloads, but it started doing LPs for certain titles in 2013. “We started printing vinyl because we had fans requesting it regularly, and our musicians wanted to see their albums on vinyl,” says label manager Michael Hammond. (Both Campbell and Hammond are composers, and both have issued their own music on vinyl.)

But of Innova’s more than 500 releases to date, only nine are currently available on LP. New Amsterdam has released 73 recordings in less than a decade of operation, but it has only released 10 of those on LP so far.

browsing records

Uncool as CDs may be to a swath of music consumers these days, they retain certain advantages over vinyl. Analog purists can talk about ineffable “warmth” all they like, but CDs reproduce perfect digital sound every time across a far wider frequency range. (Despite all the clucking about the inevitable decay of the compact disc, the majority of CDs produced in the ‘80s, near the dawn of the format, still play just fine.) They also can offer up to 80 minutes of uninterrupted playing time—about double what the two sides of an LP will hold with reasonable audio fidelity—and obviate the need to break up a longer piece of music across more than one side, or more than one record.

And as quiet as it’s kept, CDs still sell, as do digital downloads. And when they do sell, they’re profitable.

Vinyl, on the other hand, is a finicky, expensive boondoggle from a practical standpoint. The grooves that give vinyl its sound, and its soul, must be physically produced and replicated, and “it’s a bit fussy in terms of how it’s made, how it’s cut,” Campbell says. From mastering the recording to creating a stamper to pressing copies, “there are myriad places along the way where it can go wrong,” he adds, and all those steps add up in time and cost, even if they all go right. The boom in vinyl has meant that the few working pressing plants—literal relics in a digital age—are forever backed up, leading to long lead times and unpredictable delays.

All of which contributes to a ratio of cost to benefit that vinyl loses to CDs or downloads “hands down,” according to Hammond. Producing a CD costs maybe $1.50 per unit. Producing an LP in a typical small-label 500-copy run can cost $6 or more per LP. Vinyl weighs more, and is thus more expensive to ship, and it gets damaged in shipment more easily than CDs. “And if it doesn’t sell, then you have giant boxes of records sitting around your warehouse!” Hammond says.

Every small label feels these pains right now. Innova operates as a nonprofit, but jazz label Pi Recordings does not. Pi co-founders Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang have only pressed two titles on vinyl to date, strictly because of concerns over cost versus profit. “Our wholesale profit margin is over $6 on CD sales, and maybe $2 at best for vinyl,” Wang says. “After you pay the artists their royalties, there is literally no profit left.” Since most artists still create albums with CD length in mind, issuing an LP version that sounds decent means making a double album, which makes the pressing far more likely to lose money than make any.

There is one bright spot to selling LPs, according to Rosner. Stores can return CDs that don’t sell for credit with their distributor, and those unsold copies eventually find their way back to labels, but “stores cannot return vinyl,” Rosner says. If LPs can be sold to distributors or stores, no big boxes of records will find their way home again to haunt the label’s warehouse.

But first labels have to sell their LPs, and niche music on a niche format tends to move slowly. Academy Records in Manhattan still stocks mostly CDs with only a handful of new titles on LP. Asked about top-selling new music titles on new vinyl, manager Frank Vogl cites a recent recording of Morton Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus released by Austrian vinyl-only label God Records. It sold four copies in a month.

Mode Records still has LP copies of the first recordings it released in 1984. The label embraced CDs when they came along, and it continues to release titles on digital formats to this day, but it has yet to take up vinyl again. Founder Brian Brandt says he loves vinyl, personally, and doesn’t rule out releasing LPs again in the future, but it’s hard to get around the fact that “it doesn’t actually make financial sense.”

Brandt adds that the rise of streaming and the erosion of paid downloads and physical media sales represent a far bigger dilemma than to press or not to press. “Something has to give soon, because at the rate things are going, many independent labels will not survive this economic downturn in music sales,” he says. “And, unlike other depressions in the music business that I’ve experienced over 30-plus years of doing this, I don’t see any light at the end of this economic tunnel. Vinyl is unlikely to be the answer to that problem.”

Still, there are ways in which it appears vinyl does make sense for new music, if you squint. After all, the LP has returned at this late date in part because it’s a somewhat unwieldy physical product—larger and heavier than a CD, more fragile and particular, more of an objet d’art than a mere unit sold. In a world of data steams, “vinyl is a way to frame up the value of music,” says Campbell.

An LP still has a collectible, almost fetishistic value that a CD just doesn’t for many at this point. It carries a particularly strong appeal at the merch table, according to Hammond. A number of variables go into the decision to press vinyl, he says, and one of them is “whether or not the artist will be playing a lot of shows—vinyl sells at concerts.”

Rrose performing James Tenney

Rrose performing James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion in New York, and the cover of his recording of the work.

Contemporary composition can sell pretty well in certain circumstances. Earlier this year, Further Records released an LP of two recordings (studio and live) of James Tenney’s piece Having Never Written a Note for Percussion and sold out of its 500-copy run within months. The label specializes in electronic music, and sales were fueled no doubt by label followers and by fans of the performer, a techno producer/DJ known as Rrose, a.k.a. Seth Horvitz, who earned an MFA in electronic music from Mills College. In addition to distributing copies to record stores through the usual channels, the label took orders, and pre-orders, through Bandcamp, the current standard for one-to-one music sales. On a more bootstrapping front, crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the rest could also offer the potential for composers to solicit presales for, and fund production of, vinyl releases.

While selling records is important, it can’t be the only consideration for composers, performers, or even the labels themselves—especially since new music has never been a huge seller in any format. “My experience is that, from a business perspective, running a record label in 2015 in general doesn’t make sense, no matter what format you’re selling,” Hammond jokes.

CDs and downloads may make more money, but “vinyl as a format has an undeniable and lasting appeal,” he continues. “The historicity, the charm, the ritual of removing a record from the sleeve, flipping it over, looking at the artwork.”

And in the end, composers don’t do what they do for short-term gain. They’re making art, ideally, music meant to outlast listening formats, and even lifespans. At Innova, composers themselves pay for vinyl pressings, and the reasons they do so vary. “Some of it is marketplace-driven,” Campbell says. “Some artists know that their audience would love to sit and listen to a needle go through grooves. Some of it is purely for the joy of creating a kind of art object. How beautiful! Motivations and driving factors can be more than just the bottom line.”


 

* At the writer’s request, this sentence has been updated. See discussion here.

***

Lee Gardner

 
 
 
Lee Gardner has been writing about music and film for more than 25 years. He is the former editor of Baltimore City Paper, and is currently a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
 
 
 

34 thoughts on “New Music on Vinyl: Everybody Loves It, But It Doesn’t Make Much Sense

  1. Jim Stokes

    Great article. Here are other considerations when going back to vinyl from the playback side. Back in my good old days, I could buy a Shure M3D or M7D phono cartridge for well under $10. Later on, it got expensive. $25 or more. And the needles price skyrocketed. I won’t even consider buying a new turntable/tone arm combo nowadays. The records themselves are fragile beings. Grooves get worn. There are the skips and stuck grooves. Just not worth it.

    By the way, just what ARE the figures? To state a percentage means nothing without comparing dollar signs before and after the huge rise in record buying.

    Having said all that, I endure CD sound. It can be harsh and distorted because it is so easy to overmodulate in mastering CDs. But a CD won’t get stuck in a groove or sound scratchy.

    Reply
    1. Lee Gardner

      New vinyl sales jumped from 6.1 million units in 2013 to 9.1. million in 2014, per Billboard. The initial source article didn’t have sales figures in dollars, but a separate Billboard article reported new-vinyl revenue growth from $213.7 million in ’13 to $320.8 million in ’14, and both sources seem to be citing the same RIAA data.

      Of course, vinyl is still a tiny fraction of overall sales (plenty of *individual titles* used to sell more than 6 million units a year), but, again, it’s the only physical medium for music where sales are actually growing.

      Reply
  2. Jason Emry

    CDs are the real dinosaur. They hold digital music. We now have digital players. There is no reason for CDs.

    Vinyls, however, offer expansive artwork, nostalgic physicality, and are a lovely watermark in history. If you want to listen to music, buy mp3s. But if you want to physically enjoy sight, sound, and poetry together, buy the richness that is big beautiful square billboards with vibrant artwork and corrugated discs inside them. Like nerds.

    Screw CDs.

    Reply
    1. mbhaub

      No reason for cds? Sorry, but for dedicated, serious classical listeners cds are still the only way to go. There’s not one online streaming service that handles classical well. And there’s no portable listening device that comes close to the sound of a great pair of headphones or speakers driven by a high quality tube amp. Cds are great. I’ve never once in 30 years missed LPs: distortion, crackle, pops, warp. Not to mention the degradation the record experiences with each playing.

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      1. Jason Emry

        Streaming is an unfair comparison as it is not meant to replace high-quality audio. Any digital encoding – be it flac, wav, ogg, mp3, etc – will have the same audio quality whether it’s played from an HD or a CD. It does not matter.

        As a musician, CDs also mark a bleak period in auditory art – homogenization and commoditization. Digital audio downloads freed us from that tyranny, and I pay homage!

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        1. Billy D

          Do you sell download cards at your merch table? People like to take something home after the show. You can’t sign an MP3.

          Reply
          1. Jason Emry

            Yes I have. You can take home any number of items – shirts, posters, stickers, VINYLS, etc. If you already have the music, it’s moot. As in this case, you wouldn’t be buying the music, but a physical keepsake.

            I was flippant with my original response. Have at and enjoy your compacted discs! My point only is they’ve been superseded by newer tech and our link to physical manifestations of music is evermore nostalgia emerged from the vacuum of cyberspace.

            Reply
  3. Paul H. Muller

    I think this article nicely points out the real problem: the value of the content of a record or CD has always been tied to the transaction price for the physical media. Under this system, as the cost of the media approaches zero – as with downloadable or streamed digital files – then the value of the content has been similarly discounted. It may be that the only way for the market to determine the true value of the content is when there is no physical media to obscure the issue. In our materialist society, we seem to have lost the ability to judge value in the absence of a physical product.

    Reply
  4. Mike Davis

    The author here totally misquoted Cory from Academy records. Nobody who had any clue as to what they were doing, Academy included, was putting Harry Partch and other notable 20th century composers in the dollar bin 4-5 years ago. If anything, records by those composers were selling for more back then than they do now and Cory never said the quote attributed to him. Unfortunately, sloppy ‘journalism’ like this has become the norm in these endless vinyl insight articles.

    Reply
    1. Lee Gardner

      I recorded my brief interview with Cory, and this is exactly how he answered my first question about whether he’d seen a resurgence in interest/sales for modern classical composers (though here I did omit some of the “like”s that many of us sprinkle throughout our speech, and added an “it” where he appeared to leave it out.)

      “I will say that I do feel in the last, like, however many . . . four or five years, there is a bit of an emerging interest in more modern classical kind of stuff, and [it] sells better for us than it used to in the past. However, I still don’t think . . . it’s just, like, the big names, you know. Like John Cage records and Partch records, like kind of famous avant-garde composers. Which, granted, is kind of a world that I don’t know very much about. Like, Robery Ashley records are expensive and sell very quickly. They’re like well sought after, and they move, but I feel like a couple of years ago, they were dollar records, you know?”

      I see your point, and your concern, but if anything, it appears he might have meant to say that *Robert Ashley* records might have gone in the dollar bin, rather than any/all modern composers.

      Reply
      1. Mike Davis

        Thank you for amending the quote. The fact is that Roberts Ashley records, for a time, were very slow to sell while Harry Partch records have been collectible for decades now. I know it might seem like nit picking, but the effect of the inaccurate quote you posted initially is to make us at Academy look like buffoons who don’t know anything about records. In fact, I only became aware of your article because a friend was (good naturedly) making fun if me over that quote on another website.

        I’ve been interviewed a couple dozen times for various ‘vinyl comeback’ related articles and I feel like I’ve been misquoted in half of them. People who write about subjects they aren’t intimately familiar with can sometimes change a few words around without realizing they’ve changed your meaning in a fundamental way.

        Anyway, thanks for clearing things up and for thinking of Academy for your article.

        Reply
  5. gerald brennan

    No one is talking about the sound.
    Analogue recordings that are kept out of the digital domain in post-production and mastered to high-quality vinyl pressing sound better to many listeners, than they do when remastered into the digital domain (CD, streaming, audio file). However, DIGITAL recordings taken into the analogue domain makes no sense.
    There’s magick in a good analogue setup. If you cannot hear it, don’t be dissing on the ones who can. There’s always someone out there with better ears than you (or I) have.

    Reply
  6. Clarke Bustard

    Beyond their “nostalgic physicality” (nice term, Jason), vinyl records are the most durable medium for recorded music. A scratched or worn record, even one that’s not too badly warped, can still be played. So can one that’s pressed off-center, if you can stand listening to it. Comparably damaged tapes or CDs, or corrupted digital files, are unplayable.

    Reply
    1. Andrew W

      Of the thousands of CDs I’ve handled and played in my life-time I had one that wouldn’t play, at least until I fixed it with a toothbrush and toothpaste. The CD that got pinched until a chair leg still played. On the other hand, out of the first 2 dozen records I bought, 2 of them had defects, and several of them have permanent crackles and pops. CDs are not more delicated than records, they’re simply several orders of magnitude more abused than records.

      Reply
  7. Richard Stevens

    I’m afraid that its the other way round – its easy to make a PERFECT copies of digital music to different storage media, and therefore we can avoid any loss of quality through time.

    Analog things degrade with time, dust and dirt and any copies of analog information necessarily lose information compared to the original.

    For example, written text (letters) are digital, so Shakespeare’s plays have not degraded with time. Indeed we have Greek plays and Roman books that are (essentially) perfect.
    Paintings are analog so their colours fade, paint falls off, and we do not see the same image that Leonardo painted. Even worse, they are destroyed by theft or fire.

    Reply
    1. Mario Chávez

      I think you are comparing apples to brussel sprouts, as if everything today is digital and everything before the Internet is “analog.” Paintings are analog? That’s a sloppy argument. Written text are digital? You’re making this up as you go along.

      There is no such thing as perfect anything. Sure, a digital file of an audio recording can be played thousands of time without degradation, but the playing part is just one link in the chain. If you have 4 ohm computer speakers, the sound will be degraded the moment you try to play over a certain level of loudness. Have I mentioned the soundcard? Yes, that’s another portion affecting the sound of a digital audio recording in whatever format it is.

      I don’t mean to sound condescending but any argument about vinyl vs. digital recordings has to go beyond what you or I like, and beyond the medium the recording is etched or written on.

      Reply
  8. David Toub

    I don’t buy CDs. Or LPs. CDs take up space, are not great for the environment, and at this point I do my listening via my computer, iPhone or iPad. Not in my living room (where we don’t have a CD player anymore either; it went with the VCR via Craigslist).

    I hear all the time that people prefer a physical object, and that’s their right. But it’s my right, and strong preference, to avoid CDs. My laptop doesn’t even have an optical drive anymore.

    In the interest of transparency, I was very loathe in the 80’s to embrace CDs. I kept my LPs and even bought cassette tapes of albums (including The Well-Tuned Piano; I still have those cassettes). But that was ludicrous; LPs had noise and deteriorated over time. Even CDs are not the perfect, forever-durable items as suggested in the 80’s.

    So I’m fine with downloads. Each to his or her own, but the CD/DVD is dead; some folks just don’t realize it yet.

    Reply
    1. James

      they said the same about vinyl. Cd is a cracking format but sadly was never done correctly en-masse. Mp3’s was just a further decline in quality.. Downloads is a hit and miss but getting better with HD Tracks and so on..

      Reply
    2. Mario Chávez

      Avoiding media because it’s bulky and for lack of space at home are two valid reasons to prefer downloads and audio streaming. I still have my Pandora account.

      I take issue with LP records deteriorating over time. If a record owner doesn’t take care of the media, any media will deteriorate. Even in my medium-sized collection of good-quality CDs there’s the odd number that won’t play or rip correctly to MP3. Case in point: a Sade’s Greatest Hits CD I purchased new, played a few times and then converted to high-quality MP3s with (I think) Nero or other retail CD player/recorder software. One of the songs came off with the equivalent of a vinyl record being scratched on one spot. Very ugly results.

      I have purchased very old vinyl records that were dirty and had scuffs. After proper cleaning and proper playing on a properly set up turntable, they sound great: no distortions.

      Reply
  9. John

    I’m not convinced about the quality of downloads because most of them are such appalling quality that I have never downloaded a song in my life. Give me vinyl any day, it sounds better, I can convert it into FLAC files and play it on a decent systems using a DAC and amplifier. The record companies have really made a killing with crappy MP3’s for years and are only just getting around to producing decent HD downloads. If you look after vinyl it will last you a lifetime, it doesn’t wear out as quick as some people are suggesting.

    Reply
    1. David Toub

      Sorry but as someone who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s with LPs and even 78’s, there is no way vinyl lasts. By definition, the turntable needle is creating damage every tin an LP is player. I had a Discwasher, took great care of my LPs, but they just cannot last.

      I rarely have any issues with downloads. I’m not disputing anyone’s personal experience but please do not dispute mine nor dispute materials science.

      Reply
      1. Mario Chávez

        And what needles did you use on your well-cared LP records? I don’t see a definition but an opinion (no disrespect meant). Sure, physics indicate that two solid objects rubbing against each other will cause friction. I wonder if someone actually measured the wear on vinyl records caused by the friction of a needle, all things being equal (excellent record, needle in excellent shape, etc.).

        The needle is just one of several components of an audio equipment. Perhaps we could all take a step back and make allowances for other circumstances and factors that caused deterioration on a vinyl record.

        Reply
        1. David Toub

          Seems like you are in denial. Doesn’t matter if you change a diamond needle every time at great expense; by definition, you are degrading vinyl with every play. That’s physics and neither of us can change that.

          Prefer vinyl or CDs? Great. I don’t care. But please let’s stop denegrating those of us who long ago gave up both for purely digital media.

          Reply
          1. Mario Chávez

            No denial. You give your opinion as if it were a fact. Just adding ‘by definition’ you are not saying anything. And I’m not denigrating anybody, so don’t take it so personally.

            Reply
            1. Mario Chávez

              Sorry if I don’t take your word for it. You just pointed me to a blog posting written by someone. This posting entertains expert opinions. Again, no demonstrable or repeatable facts.

              By contrast, here’s a posting on PVC thermal degradation: http://bit.ly/1ThC2MY

              I am not saying that vinyl records do not degrade with play, but I don’t take anybody’s say-so as irrefutable proof. If I wanted to do that, I’d joint a religion where authority is not supposed to be questioned and doctrine is expected to be received without doubt.
              I also am assuming that our ears get used to a certain way of music being played because our hearing adapts to it. It’s like your eyesight going from 1980-era VHS movies to 2010-era HiDef screens. As point of opinion (not fact), I remember how noticeably better I sensed a certain stereo-recorded song played on my Walkman, having been accustomed to listening to monoaural up to that point. Now, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference going back, meaning, if I were to hear a song in monoaural, I would know that there’s a missing dimension.

              Keep enjoying your digital records.

            2. David Toub

              I do enjoy them. I don’t miss the pops and scratches at all. I’m not aware that the physical degradation of vinyl when repeatedly played needs proof in 2016 any more than evolution or climate change, but whatever. Peace out.

    2. James

      I agree with you John.. I use all formats 1. Vinyl cheese and wine time 2. Cd’s to rip to my hard disk and play through my Naim amp 3. Digital files for party and mobility.

      1. Quality time and quality listening time
      2.Convenience and to protect my precious vinyl at party time lol
      3. Mobility, my only draw back is the storage and quality..

      Reply
  10. Jeff Joseph

    The statement that CDs have a far wider frequency range isn’t correct. They are sharply cut off just above 22khz by an anti aliasing filter.

    Lp’s have no such filter, but each format imposes its own colorations and limitations. And the odds of having a properly adjusted turntable playing a properly mastered and well engineered recording does narrow the sonic advantages to those who really care.

    For classical listeners the combination of Roon music server wrapped around the Tidal streaming service is the best way to explore new music. But it doesn’t replace the connection forged between the listener and the music by the physical act of selecting a record off the shelf and setting it on the turntable, the ritual and attention required demand a deeper involvement. I scan the millions of files on my server wondering what to play. there’s far too much to hear! I need more time!

    Reply
    1. Guillaume

      22 khz is above the human hearing threshold which is theoretically at 20khz but is more likely to be around 19 the older you get. While probably technically true, it is nonsensical to claim the “sharp cutoff” caused by an AA filter changes anything in what you can actually hear.

      Reply
    2. Mario Chávez

      Your last paragraph point to a very real problem with Internet-based music (and video): the dizzyingly wide selection of tracks to listen, genres to explore and audio formats to indulge in, choosing MP3 or Ogg Vorbis or some Apple lossless format. We could end up spending more time on those aspects instead of enjoying the music.

      Paralysis by analysis sets in because we are faced not with a few dozen classical tracks or hundreds of R&B, house or rap songs, but thousands. Who has the time to listen to all of that? Of course, someone could point to me one downside of creating a collection of vinyl records on just a few genres: say, the several versions of Goldberg Variations made by different pianists across the decades. I guess it depends on my level of satisfaction and my priorities.

      Reply
  11. Mario Chávez

    If audio technical aspects were the only consideration, of course most audiophiles would stick to the best technology available: lossless audio formats such as Apple’s and avoiding compression rates that would destroy the subtle details in a recording.

    There are other considerations the author does not address. Some old tracks, cuts or albums never see the light of day on a CD version or even on a streaming version because, you guessed it, of the lack of economic incentive. That’s why the solution —ripping old LPs to MP3s— is left to the consumer.

    I own thousands of tracks on my iTunes library. I also own many of the CDs. But there are albums that only exist on vinyl. I began buying and collecting vinyl records not because it was cheaper, or more convenient, but because I find more information on the cover, from the circumstances that led to a certain recording to who composed what or arranged this or that. Some of this historical data is not to be found on Wikipedia or the Internet. And in this age of maximum device portability, a vinyl album and its cover, however unwieldy in size (c’mon, it’s just 12 x 12 inches) is a treasure trove of tangible information.

    And where does the author get that vinyl records are more fragile than CDs or other formats? I see magnetic cassette tapes completely absent from this discussion. Ever had a tape recorder eat your cassette, Mr. Gardner? A vinyl record is made of PVC, one of the more durable plastics ever fashioned. For all the talk of record track wearing, it’s all in the audio equipment used to play the record. Use a blunt needle and you will definitely wear and destroy your vinyl record for sure.

    Reply
    1. Michael Heneise

      Point made!let’s all play something we like,2 each his own. Most importantly, we all have a choice.

      Reply

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