The discussion about vinyl and its place in the current state of the music business isn’t a new one. There are plenty of ideas and more than a surfeit of information out there regarding the actual and perceived popularity of the medium, whom it is that’s actually buying it and how people consume music today.
As a product of the so-called millennial generation and as an avid music listener, I’ve found myself having a similar discussion with people over the years that more often than not ends up in this agreeable disagreement about wether or not vinyl is worth anything anymore as a medium. I’m just old enough to remember when independently owned record stores in suburban Phoenix, Arizona were closed down almost by the month, only to be replaced by chain multimedia stores selling CD’s, movies and games. I’m old enough, that the first bits of music I owned were on cassette. I’m young enough though, that while I grew up with four-track recorders and tape machines, I initially learned how to record and edit music on a Mac laptop. As far as digital production goes, I appreciate what it is to be able to program an Endless Rotary Encoder to do whatever you want. I appreciate what the digital world has done to make music more accessible for people, not just to listen to, but to make. Yet, while novels could be written about the transformation of the listener from generation to generation, or why the UK saw a 40% spike in vinyl sales in 2011, there are a few aspects of vinyl’s place in our current culture that have fascinated me over the last couple years.
There are, of course, technical aspects that people talk about. When you put a record on a turntable you’re hearing every bit of what the master mix sounded like at the very end of the production process. Nothing is lost in the translation of copying the actual record over to a new physical medium. In the digital world, as the files get copied and converted in order to take up less space you run into what is called data compression. For music to translate in a relatively small, internet service friendly format – a lot of the sound is actually taken out of what you end up listening to in your car or on your laptop. Every semi-avid computer user will tell you about higher quality audio formats like .wav and FLAC, and those are great options for your digital collection, but they’re still not even remotely commonly used for every day digital releases. Even while Neil Young is on the case to find a way to better the digital format, these days plenty of bands and labels are putting out higher quality, analogue versions of what they also release digitally.
Working in the production process myself, I appreciate the amount of work that goes into crafting the spaces and tones one hears as art. From the standpoint of the person who makes a record, it makes sense to want the listener to absorb every last bit of what you worked so hard to create.
The controversy about mastering techniques that has emerged in recent years, and the steps artists have taken to avoid excessive compression and limiting of their music points to a more concerted approach to achieving a quality end product. For the fact that plenty of the records you might buy today also come with digital download codes, the nostalgia we have about it is almost the only thing that makes vinyl seem anachronistic.
Services like iTunes and more recently Spotify have created a fantastic venue for nearly endless music listening and discovery. The portability and accessibility of these services has certainly made a lot of music easier to get to, but it also leaves little consideration for where the music came from. There are even new websites like Discogs.com that provide an online community where people can find out more about artists they like, their releases, who put out their music and other places to find them. Boomkat, Juno, Insound and numerous other online retailers sell vinyl releases of new music where you can often find things that have only been distributed in that format.
There is a sense of locality and community record stores inherently have and almost need in order to survive. There’s something about going to a place to find a copy of a record you’re looking for, or simply exploring to find something new that is absent while clicking around on the internet. Living in Chicago I got to know which shops to go to for specific kinds of things. If I wanted an old Al Green or Supremes record, I’d go to Dusty Grooves – the soul and R&B shop in my neighborhood. If I wanted an old Cure record I’d go to Permanent records who had a great selection of left-of-the-dial rock. If I wanted a new Indie release I’d go to Saki up on Fullerton. One of my favorite places to go for electronic music was Gramaphone. I found everything from old drum and bass singles to brand new promotional releases. At every one of those shops I would end up talking to the people who worked there about new things they got in that week, or what they happened to be listening to at the moment. I also found out where to go see music played, and what venues or bars were good for different kinds of music. Music culture has always depended on people participating, and vinyl carries that spirit in a way CD’s and mp3’s never have.
It’s also, quite simply, nice not depending on something you have to charge, to play or access your music. There are no LED screens on turntables. Maybe that’s not the most modern sensibility, but in today’s age of hyper-consumption and online socializing, there’s something refreshing and personal about a community that values music in that way.