“I’ve said many times one of my favorite aspects of vinly is that it forces you to make a choice and commit to it, and I stand by that. It’s more than ceremonial or nostalgic. That small bit of limitation prepares me to sit down and listen for real. Otherwise, as I do in my car, I’m just flipping through hundreds of albums and songs and not being satisfied with my own choices.”
Vinyl is the beginning. Sure, wax cylinders came before, but the true concept of the album is a vinyl joint. The record player dominated the pop music scene for longer than any format, which may say more about the geometric increase in the speed of technological development than it does for the supremacy of vinyl in itself. Whatever the reason, several generations fell in love with music through the same ritual: Thumb through the carefully organized shelf, admire the sleeve, slowly extract the record, lay it gently on the turntable, set it spinning and then, with but a feather-light, one-finger lift, bring the needle down for today’s latest beauty.
There are certain realities of convenience that make the vinyl experience unique. While there’s nothing stopping a listener from consuming an album from start to finish in any format, vinyl records make track-skipping an imprecise and laborious process. Selecting a record is like planning a meal. It’s a full plate of music that comes loaded at the start and it’s practically impossible to forego particular tracks without losing a small segment of those surrounding them, much like it’s impossible to have all your mashed potatoes without catching a little bit of the gravy from the roast. CDs, by contrast, are like ordering individual items off a limited menu, making a meal a la carte. And digital formats? That’s pretty much going to the grocery store and eating whatever you want right then and there, no mind paid to the bites you took from the foods you didn’t even finish. It doesn’t matter if you’re hungry or not, you just want all the food because you can have it all.
“People think I’m crazy because I’m buying $50 metal records in blue and white splattered vinyl complete with a poster and back patch, simply to enjoy the coolness of it, not really to listen to it. But I open one of these records and see the full size artwork, the 20 page color booklet, cool colors on the records and more and I know that some combo of the band and the label took great care in making this packaging something really great, rather than just tossing it out there a million at a time. Ever time a new record shows up in the mail, I get excited about music again.”
There’s no work for glass-blowers these days except for the novelty of collectors. The factories shut them down. Who wants to wait a week and pay through the nose for crystal when there’s a plant on the outskirts of town that produces a thousand wine glasses every hour? Vinyl used to be the law of the land, bringing all the particulars of its experience as a matter of course. In 1965, nobody bought records specifically for the lived-in pop and hiss of physical imperfection, for the way the format forces an ear to accept an album as a whole work of art, for the idiosyncratic joy of collection. In 1965, people bought records because they were the most efficient, affordable way to own music.
Today, vinyl is a collector’s game. Some do it in defiance of more convenient formats, others just like the history. Whatever the motivation, vinyl in the 21st century is an acquired taste. We’re at the point now where a lot of listeners never knew vinyl to be anything other than a collector’s item. There are folks settling down, having kids, paying their mortgages today who were born in a time of cassette tapes. The children of CDs are careerists, political activists, graduate students. The digital babies are starting to hit freakin’ puberty, the game has changed. Of course, this also means that vinyl is now and forever after shall be special. It has a real community now, one that loves its unwieldy discs like art hounds love skilled reproductions, scoffing at poster prints. It’s the age of the enthusiast.
“…when all is said and done, the Album Era will have been a footnote in pop music history.”
When I was 16 years old, I borrowed a portable record player from a friend. It was a little, yellow Big Bird record player from when she was toddler. Ya know, the kind of thing that accumulates in suburban basements but nobody is really willing to throw away because if it was built before 1985 it was built to last. Yeah, your smartphone from two years ago is a very nice paperweight today, but those wood-paneled speakers from 1977 are still functional if you know how to wire them.
I took the Big Bird player home along with a nice cross-section of albums, all of which I had never listened to before. Vinyl was the format that introduced me to David Bowie’s Station to Station, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Billy Joel’s The Stranger and The Police’s Synchronicity. To this day, I can hear the appropriately rinky-dink distance of the vinyl cut of “TVC 15”, even if I’m listening to it in a digital format. There’s no doubt I would have found all of this music eventually, especially in today’s ease of voraciousness in music consumption. Still, I can understand where the vinyl enthusiasts are coming from. Those albums I played on the Big Bird machine are special to me precisely because I experienced them for the first time on vinyl. I don’t mourn the end of the vinyl age and I love the openness and potential in the digital era, but special is still special. Some media are just more personal than others.