My mom, God rest her soul, hit the nail on the head. She always used to ask me, “Why must you do everything ass-backwards?” She had a point. Shoes went on before pants, finalizing efforts always preceded initializing efforts, and have you ever seen me get out of the backseat of a car? It’s like some horrid recreation of a breach birth.
So in this modern age, you can put a shiny, silver disc into the face of your car’s dashboard and hear wonderful sound. You can put a machine the size of a candy bar into your pants pocket and a headset the size of dental floss with tiny tumors into your ears and hear wonderful sound. Me? I like records.
I’m not alone, as there is a small but loyal following who still doggedly cling to “The Vinyl.” In fact, in 2007, there was an industry wide surge of sales for records, roughly 1%. You may not think that’s a big deal, and it ain’t, but considering how the music industry overall declined many times over in the past year, sales of any kind was enough to have execs wetting themselves with joy.
Let me reiterate that we’re talking about brand new releases here, and not just the boutique labels like Classic Records, Sundazed and Mobile Fidelity who reissue older titles. Last year, I wound up with offerings like Bruce Springsteen’s Magic, Foo Fighters’ most recent Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, Porcupine Tree’s Fear Of A Blank Planet, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible and Plant & Krauss’ Raising Sand. These are far from the indie individualists who doggedly cling to “The Vinyl” as sacrosanct. If you were so inclined, you could have also glommed up recent collections by Modest Mouse, The White Stripes, Wilco, Spoon, Katatonia and many more.
So I’ve once again admitted my inherent geekiness with copping to another minor cultural obsession. But what, you may ask, is the attraction? Is it the size, the big black platter and the huge sleeve art? In part, perhaps. There certainly is something to a well-designed product that complements an audio release. With these new releases, designers have a chance to go thematically nuts. Legendary designer Storm Thorgerson used to do it with Pink Floyd’s albums, specifically their Wish You Were Here album. Illustrating the relationship between presence and absence, photos of objects existing without owners, suits without bodies, water without ripples, etc, carried forth through the front and back sleeve, through the inner sleeve and right on to individual label images for side one and two. On CD, you have most of the images, but those fine details are lost to the Shrinky Dink diminution. Digital music purchasers get none of that, and perhaps, at this point, they could not care less.
Digital distribution has pretty much destroyed the music graphic design field. Your album needs only two elements for the cover now: a monstrously huge portrait photo and an equally monstrously huge logo. It’s the only way your product will “read” on the iTunes page and the only identification you’ll get on your tiny iPod screen. And no matter how big her picture might be on her new release, Celine Dion still looks like a man in drag, so smaller size definitely is in her “plus” column.
What the digital medium has over the mystified analog model is sound quality. Sorry, purists, but I call bullshit on your assertion that vinyl sounds warmer, truer and more lifelike. That’s called “surface noise” and is generally considered a detriment. Depending on what company cut your vinyl record, even a shoddy MP3 will sound better. It’s not always the case, as both the aforementioned Porcupine Tree album and Rush’s Snakes & Arrows sound fantastic on vinyl, but my LP of Of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer sounds like my answering machine. Also, unless you carve your Thanksgiving turkey with your CDs and use your hard drive to play Whack-A-Mole down at Chuck E. Cheese’s, your music won’t degrade through usage. Skipping is highly infrequent and dust and artifacts (otherwise known as “crud”) can’t affect a soundfile existing in the computer ether.
So, in defending my analog favoritism, I’ve said that records are oversized, bulky, prone to sounding bad from the beginning and likely to sound worse over time. No wonder I have no future in advertising. But let us now consider the one thing the vinyl LP has over every other medium making it the true venue for music lovers: because of the limited access you have to the works while it is playing, and its inherent non-portability, you have to actually listen to what’s playing, straight through, start to finish (of each side). You can’t scan to the chorus. You can drop the needle on only specific songs, but what a pain that is! You can’t jog to it because you’ll make the damned thing skip. Essentially, when you play an LP, you’re engaged in the experience of listening to that music. You can take the time to pour over cover graphics and liner notes. You can turn the lights down and stare into space with a glass of Amaretto on the rocks for all I care, but that music has been placed there for a reason.
Nowadays, songs are sold pre-licensed to television soundtracks. Many first heard O.K. Go’s “Here It Goes Again” as a commercial jingle before hearing it as an actual song. Ditto for Feist’s “1234”, alongside the ubiquitous Apple iPod commercial that promoted it. Music rings your phone, wakes you up, puts you to sleep, vibrates in your toothbrush, accompanies you in airports, doctor’s offices, grocery stores and even serenades you in Hallmark greeting cards. It is mostly pre-programmed and shoved down your throat, pasted on your brain like bumper stickers and, above all, sold to you during every waking moment of the day. With vinyl, you have to make a conscious decision to listen, and you have to make a commitment to hear it through. On CD, you can play The Who’s Tommy and skip straight to “Pinball Wizard”. On LP, you can as well, but you’re more likely to allow a natural progression of music, from outer groove to inner groove.
Once upon a time, music was entertainment. I find that, with the vinyl LP, it still is, and forces me to sit and enjoy. Yes, it may very well be ass-backwards with the times, but what, really, has modernity offered you? Hannah Montana?