When I started this little series of short essays on physical media I knew I would have to cover this topic eventually. It’s blown up in popularity in the past two or so years and the results have been uh, fun I guess? I’m of course talking about vinyl records, those giant round discs of perceived auditory greatness. I’m sure the history of vinyl records is pretty well known. I mean, they used to be the primary form of music consumption for almost forty years before eventually being taken down by the CD. But there has been a weird resurgence in love for these things. So in the spirit of the new wave of physical media love, let’s compare the pros and cons of this tried and true format. And since I’m a wonderfully negative person, let’s start with a con.
Con: The Popularity Quality Black Hole
Ok, out of risk of sounding like a hipster douche I have to preference this next statement with another statement: “I am not a hipster douche”. Got it? Ok, and away we go. I’ve loved vinyl records since at least the mid-2000s when I was a freshman in high school. That is to say, I was into it before it was, cool. And even then the records that I had inherited from my Dad with varying degrees of quality. But here’s the issue, when things raise in popularity there is always the chance that manufacturers will cut corners. And I’m not saying bad pressings from the 70s didn’t exist. On the contrary, the 1973 OPEC crisis resulted in some flimsy as hell records and some garbage pressings. But that’s key here, in the world of vinyl records how the wax is pressed is everything. A bad pressing means a garbage sounding record. Essentially, if you rush the process you end up with varying degrees of awfulness. So when records being to show up at say, Hot Topic or something I can’t help but be concerned. As something becomes more and more popular record companies fall over themselves to cash in on a trend. Pair that with the insane uptick in prices the end result is, well awful sounding music that costs you $20 a head.
Pro: Record Store Revival
The days of record stores being as plentiful as Starbucks are over. And they probably will never reach that point again. But there has been a recent uptick in sales for the stores that did survive. Which conceptually is fantastic. One of the worst things about modern music consumer culture is the deterioration of just talking to people about music. Sure there are message boards on Reddit or whatever is your social media platform of choice. But it’s not the essential face to face communication that can define this medium. Record stores were (and I suppose a few still are) the hub for music communication and community. For example, Todd Terje’s It’s Album Time is an LP that is so sonically fascinating that I had to have it. That said, it wouldn’t be in my library had I not heard it and talked to the cashier about it at Music Millennium here in Portland. This is an experience that my Dad still reminisces about happening in the 70s and 80s (and accounts for a good chunk of his collection). There are of course, those certain stores that, no matter what you do, will always hate your purchase (which begs the question, why stock that music at all?). Then again I’d rather have Chad from San Francisco silently judge my music choices than have slurs thrown at me over the internet. It’s a tradeoff I guess.
Pro: Sweet, Sweet, Ownership
Here is a fun fact for anyone who has ever purchased music on iTunes, you don’t own your music. What you are doing instead, is licensing the rights to listen to said music. Want to pass that music on to your kids? Can’t happen pal, they’re not the original purchasers don’t you know. This is a topic that I am surprised isn’t more contentious than it is.* So there is something to be said about the resurgence of physical media in the form of vinyl records. When you buy that copy of Picturesque by the Decemberists, you own it and can do whatever you want with it. I have effectively inherited my Dad’s entire physical music collection. It dominates my entire living space and it always will. Something that would have been impossible if he had bought his music purely from iTunes. Are there ways around this? Sure, but none exist outside of giving another person a username and password to their account. And that my friends is true ownership of your music.
Con: The Plural of Vinyl isn’t Vinyls
So here’s the deal, records have their own personal quirks. They pop and hiss if you don’t clean them, they warp stupid fast in the sun, and they have a certain stigma attached to them now. And that’s the last part that I want to cover here, the stigma that records have “acquired” in recent years. There is an overused joke that seems to pop up whenever vinyl records are mentioned in anything. It goes along the lines of this: “vinyl records? LMAO what’s next? cassette tapes? I wonder if these stupid hipsters will pay for my CDs now.”** There is some truth to that statement. Vinyl has become the musical battle cry of the arrogant masses who claim that they sound better or warmer than other sources of media. I’m going to drop a little truth bomb on some of you. Vinyl records don’t always sound better than CDs. I am familiar with the oft cited “Loudness War” that occurred during the late 80s to early 2000s, a topic that I really won’t go into here. With that in mind, the topic of a record sounding “warm” (an argument that I admittedly, used at one time) is nothing short of lunacy. It does not in fact, sound warm because of the record itself. And if it does that’s how the artist intended it, and even then it’s how you interpret it. It’s pretty clear that the love for vinyl records is more or less a passing fad. Some of its biggest champions on the idiot are simultaneously pretentious and misinformed. All things point to something to be mocked when we look back at this decade twenty or thirty years from now on a VH1 special***.
Pro: It’s Vinyl
Except for those who won’t let it just be a fad. If you get past the initial BS that is the “it does/does not sound better” debate you’re left with a singular thing. That thing is the purest form of music consumption. Records have to be taken care of for the reasons I just mentioned above. For those of you without an automatic start/stop record have to constantly be paid attention to. The process becomes almost religious in a way. Carefully remove the record from the sleeve and be sure not to touch the grooves as you place it onto the turntable. Slowly lower the arm onto the record precisely so it doesn’t slide off the edge and onto the platter. It’s a time honored practice and it makes the music the focus. For example, the aforementioned lack of an automatic start/stop switch. You have to actually listen to your music to know when to take the needle off the record. You’re actively engaged with it rather than passively pressing play and walking away. It’s a connection with music that is neigh impossible on any other format. Vinyl may be a fad for some but if even a few people learn to appreciate the ritual, art, sound, and soul of it all can that really be so bad?
Vinyl records are essentially the first and in many ways the ultimate way of really listening to music. Do they sound the best? No, and that’s ok. Are they heavy as hell and a pain to move from place to place? Yes, and again, that’s ok. In my years of listening to music I’ve found that the ritual to listening to music via vinyl is an experience that is simultaneously universal and unique. It may be a fad whose popularity will wane as time rolls on. But I guess I’ll just happily ride the wave of fake nostalgia until that day eventually comes.
*I have to put a little disclosure here, I use Steam for all of my PC games. The hypocrisy is blinding…
**Garbage punctuation used for effect. And as a side note, cassette tapes will be the next thing. Just you wait.
***Assuming VH1 will still exist in 2045. All take “Future Failed Music Channels” for $500 Alex.