Vinyl, Something Solid In an Increasingly Temporal World
More and more of our world is being converted into electronic signals. Communication and information technology are quickly transforming our environment and our lives. Much of this sea change is positive; now music fans can listen to just about any band or artist they want with little or no effort. Often, all you need to do is tell your phone what you want to hear, and your favorite song of the moment will be pumping through your over-priced, celebrity-endorsed headphones in seconds.
And while the end of scarcity in music sounds great, it comes at a price. The burgeoning generation of music fans coming of age today usually doesn't experience the joy of peeling the cellophane off of a new album. Visiting a store dedicated solely to selling music is something many people will never experience. Digital downloads and Spotify playlists, while convenient, don't come with paper liner notes that you can flip through while you listen to a band you've never heard before.
CDs died out for a reason.
Where does one turn to solve this conundrum? CDs died out for a reason. They're fragile. They sound pretty meh. And they're a pain in the ass to unwrap. And cassette tapes, which still hold a small place among ardent independent record labels, are basically a nightmare -- assuming you can find a tape player that doesn't eat the tape as soon as you hit play.
Putting a record on a turntable and dropping the needle is a ritual. Every step of this ritual primes your mind for listening to music. It requires multiple steps, each one demanding you to interact with the physical world. You flip through your collection. You find what you want to hear, then slide it out of the sleeve. If you don't want to hear the first song on the side, you have to put your face close to the record and carefully place the needle into the proper groove. The sound of the needle making contact with vinyl triggers something in your head. It's a mystical sound wrought with some ancient meaning that we can't quite decipher now.
Vinyl doesn't necessarily sound better. That thin, flimsy copy of Wu-Tang Clan's '36 Chambers' you got at Hot Topic won't sound nearly as good as the CD-quality MP3s you downloaded from iTunes. But that flimsy disc will give you a sense of satisfaction that computer speakers, no matter how expensive, can never provide.
Many artists have caught on to this and have begun adding extra artwork to their vinyl releases. When Radiohead released 'King of Limbs,' the special vinyl edition included a giant folded-up newspaper full of original artwork, song lyrics and lots of other strange bits.
And Jack White, a vinyl enthusiast himself, made history with the release of his solo album 'Lazaretto.' It included some crazy features, including tracks hidden under the label in the center of the record. You can't hide tracks in a digital download.
Listening to vinyl doesn't really work as an afterthought. It must be an intentional act. You can't put on a record for background music while you clean the house. Listening to an album means going back to the turntable to flip the album over. And if it's a double-LP, this also means changing the record half-way through the album.
Vinyl also favors the album as a whole over the increasingly-popular single format. Albums on vinyl aren't likely to spin on the table if the deep cuts don't hold up. Filler material has no place on a record.
When I played in bands back in my younger days, pressing an album on vinyl was a point of pride. Putting an album up on Bandcamp made releasing our own albums incredibly easy, which is always good for bands with no money. But scratching together funds to pay for a small batch of records filled us with a special sense of accomplishment.
And Bandcamp gave us the option of including a free digital download with each record. We'd end up selling more vinyl than anything else at shows. With the inclusion of a free digital download, people would buy the vinyl copy of the album even while saying, "I don't have a record player at home." Records ended up being the most coveted souvenir from our shows, beating out t-shirts, stickers, and, of course, CDs.
There's no way to know how long records will maintain their place as the go-to choice for artists who want to release their album as a tangible object. For now, though, they serve as a physical touchstone in an increasingly ephemeral world.