“Vinyl? Like, records? Those are still around?”
I had told my mother that I was collecting vinyl records.
“First of all, they never went away,” I said perhaps a bit too defensively, “CDs tried to kill them in the ’90s, but they’ve never gone away completely. But yes, they are making a resurgence lately.”
I could see a slight sadness in her eyes, as though she thought she had finally joined the modern era and we were making old technology cool again just to mess with her. She had just discovered Pandora, for crying out loud.
“Digital is still good though,” I placated. “I mean, it’s necessary. I listen to too much music for it to all be on vinyl.”
This is, I think, where most people go wrong. They are looking for a single music media to rule them all like the ring of fucking Mordor, but like the works of Tolkien, this quest is a fantasy. I have a digital music collection so vast and meticulously maintained I use the work “curate” when I talk about it and don’t even feel like a pretentious asshole. Collecting vinyl doesn’t make me want to quit on digital, I have an iPod like everyone else.
But no matter how much data you heap into a digital collection it will never be a physical, tactile object. If you take the view that crafting a true album- music and packaging- is a work of art (which you should, cause it is), then at some level you must admit that a physically present work of art is more of a statement and makes more of an impact than something digital. For me, this isn’t theoretical. I spent years unsuccessfully trying to make digital files as rewarding as physical media.
When is a physical package worth getting over the digital, and why prefer vinyl over CD? The answer to that first part is personal. Buy what speaks to you. If an artist creates a truly inspiring package and you like that artist, get the physical version. Most come with digital downloads anyway or can be ripped. Also, there are still quite a few jems out there cut on record and CD that haven’t been transferred to digital marketplaces. If you want to dive deep, you kinda need a record player. Do CDs fit into the ecosystem? Sure they do.
Nobody would dispute that CDs are more convenient and portable than records. That is why, in a nutshell, they almost killed off the vinyl record. As a grunge obsessed teenager of the ’90s I have a healthy CD collection. Durable and consistent, I can remember driving around town with my friends from high school and tossing in the latest Stone Temple Pilots album that had been sitting on the passenger floormat outside its jewel case. After brushing off the pebbles and whatnot mashed into it, it would play fine. True, at some point abuse can cause skips in CDs, but it takes a lot of abuse.
A vinyl record is positively fragile by those standards. Even with a pristine record you have to constantly work to remove dust, and you will never, ever, go though a listen without at least some clicks and pops. Not to mention that they have the possibility to skip or scratch if the player is jolted. Records are heavy and large- not easily portable. You have to get up and flip them all the damn time when you are listening to them. Basically, records require a lot of care and attention. They are needy little bitches.
But what if all those negatives are actually positives in a certain context? A vinyl record is a piece of personal artwork that demands attention. If you aren’t in the mood to provide this attention, spinning records sucks. If you are in the mood though, you get to develop your own relationship to the album, and it will always be a deeper connection than digital, or even CDs.
An ode to vinyl wouldn’t be complete without at least some mention of warm analogue goodness. Whether or not analogue has real measurable effects on human enjoyment of music is a debate that has been raging since the CD exploded onto the marketplace (remember that even CDs digitize music into a binary representation, however hi-resolution that may be). Personally I can more “feel” the difference rather than “hear” it. Digital is slightly more hollow in a way that is hard to articulate, but very real. Records also have a more balanced and mellow mix. I just listened to Broken Bells first album on vinyl and it struck me how compressed and punchy the mixes were that I was familiar with. You don’t truly know an album until you hear it on vinyl. I ordered a record online recently which came with a sticker that sums it up nicely:
“Vinyl, For People with Ears”
If you are a music lover, you owe it to yourself to invest in a record player. It won’t take over your musical life, how can it? You can’t go skiing and listen to your vinyl. You can’t listen to it in a car. You can’t (or shouldn’t) bring it on vacation. No, you will slowly acquire a relatively small collection of music on the medium, but those albums you do have you will feel closer to than any others, and you will be more proud of your little record collection than all the digital files in the world, because you will have curated the essential musical “you” through them.