Why Vinyl? My ‘Slow Music’ Manifesto
In a music industry that’s rapidly flushing itself down the toilet each year, with dwindling CD and digital download sales and the rise of streaming services that benefit listeners but hold little fiscal promise for musicians and songwriters, the resurgence of vinyl records is a lone bright spot in all the gloom and doom. Why, in a time when we’ve got access via streaming to virtually any music ever recorded, and can listen to it wherever we go, why vinyl? Why now?
I believe that the current spike in interest in vinyl is first and foremost a bit of a fad; something the hipsters have latched onto as the latest ‘it’ thing. And that’s fine by me. Whatever gets kids into record stores to actually spend money on music is a good thing. But here’s the thing: I’m not a kid. And I’m definitely not a hipster. So what’s the deal? Why have I found myself over the last few years spending more and more time (and a lot more money) listening to music on vinyl? Let me try to explain, and maybe convince you that, if you’ve still got some old records gathering dust in an attic or basement, you might want to dig them out and join me.
But first, let me say that I’m not some luddite old curmudgeon who wants things to go back to “the way they were” when it comes to recorded music. Far, far from it. I’m listening to Spotify right now, in fact. Most of my listening is done through streaming of Spotify, SiriusXM, or some other digital service. I love music however I can get it. I grew up in a home surrounded by great music (thanks Mom!) and have always loved buying and listening to it. I worked in a job for 16 years distributing and selling CDs through a large Midwestern grocery store chain. Illegal downloading, iTunes, and now Spotify have pretty much killed the CD business, but I’ve partaken in all of them. I’m a sucker for a new format, I guess. I grew up with records in the 70’s (I became really good at scamming the Columbia Record & Tape Club at a very young age, something I’m extremely proud of), switched over to cassettes in the 80’s, then scraped together enough cash to buy my first CD player in 1987.
Back then, the allure of pure, digital sound was pretty enticing. The fact that you could take CDs with you in your boombox or car was a huge selling point too. Anything to get away from the chore of listening to those crackly, imperfect records that you had to listen to at home. I switched to CD listening, and gradually gave up LP records, trading them in as I upgraded to the more perfect CD version. (Pitching a new format then convincing customers to upgrade their albums is how the music industry made most of its money through the 1980s and 1990s.)
As the 21st century dawned, the internet became a bazaar of riches in the form of digitally dowloadable music. Napster came first, allowing users to share their music for free. The fact that it was illegal didn’t keep too many users away. In 2001,Apple’s new iTunes store introduced the world to legal music downloads (they weren’t the first, but they perfected it, and had the perfect machine to play music on, the iPod.) Almost overnight, I stopped buying CDs and switched to mp3s. Again, the convenience of being able to take thousands of songs anywhere I went was too tempting to pass up. The fact that mp3 files didn’t have anywhere near the sound quality of CDs (or vinyl) didn’t even cross my mind.
Before long, I had hard drives full of music files. Thousands and thousands of songs, some of my favorite music, and a whole lot of stuff I’d download and never ever listen to. Which is where my reintroduction to vinyl records starts…
Vinyl Records: A Link to the Past
While I got rid of a lot of my old LPs, I held on to quite a few as well. I bought a turntable in 2005 in order to convert some of them to digital (stuff that wasn’t available on iTunes and that I couldn’t find to download illegally). And something strange happened: I liked getting these old records out and throwing them on the turntable and dropping the needle. It took me back; I hadn’t played a record since the late 80’s, and hearing some of my old records brought me back. It slowly dawned on me that instead of going through the chore of digitizing these records to hear the songs, why don’t I just play the records instead when I want to hear them?
An mp3 file of a song is really just a relatively poor-sounding facsimile of a song. The computer processes the 1’s and 0’s and interprets the data as something resembling a song to your ears. That’s cool, you still hear the song. But to me, a vinyl record IS the song. The grooves on a record replicate the analog sound waves that sound best to our ears. There’s a lot of debate over whether vinyl sounds better than CDs; I’m not going to get into it here. I don’t care, basically. Both do a good job of reproducing music, they just do it differently. The analog sound of vinyl is often described as being ‘warm,’ and I guess that analog sound just sounds more natural to our ears, which of course evolved in an analog world.
This is the first reason I fell back in love with vinyl; they’re a link to the past. A real, physical link. When I put on an old Bing Crosby record that belonged to my grandparents, I’m hearing the same music they did 60 years ago. The EXACT SAME music. The same grooves that created the tunes they heard, I’m hearing now. The record cover I’m holding in my hands and reading is the very one they held. That physical connection means something to me; it links me directly to the past. Being able to hold in my hands and play on my turntable the Spike Jones record I listened to endlessly as a child at grandma and grandpa’s is priceless. (It’s Spike Jones: Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry, and it is perfection. That’s a picture of it in its taped-up glory. I don’t know which of my grandparents actually bought it, but God bless them.) The same goes for the old Rolling Stones and Henry Mancini albums my mother bought as a young adult, when starting a family was the furthest thing from her mind. They were hers, they were what she was listening to at a specific point of time in her life. To still have these artifacts, to still be able to listen to them….that’s special to me.
Even an old LP picked up at a record store, previously owned by a complete stranger, is a link to the past. The very smell of an old record brings us back. When I open that old Andy Williams Christmas album, to me it’s the smell of 1963. As a lover of vinyl, there’s nothing better to me than the dusty smell of an old record. It’s the best. If that makes me weird, so be it. I can live with that. Until mp3s and CDs replicate the comforting smell of an old vinyl record, they will always fall short for that reason alone. (I’ve got some 30 year old CDs, and they’re developing their own ‘old’ smell, but it’s nothing like an old record.)
The Joy of Record Stores
Not long after I made the switch to CDs, I kind of stopped visiting record stores. In high school, I picked up a lot of records at Vinyl Solution, a cool record store in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While I was away at college, I spent a lot of time at a couple other great record stores in East Lansing, Wherehouse Records and Flat, Black and Circular. Wherehouse is long gone, but FBC is still around. If you’re ever in town, check them out.
But just as I stopped buying vinyl in lieu of CDs, the visits to record stores slowly stopped. I graduated, got a job, and got busy. Big box stores like Best Buy moved in, with their large CD departments and low prices. The effect that these big box stores had on small independent record shops can’t be overstated. Vinyl Solution closed up shop here in town. The internet, and online retailers like Amazon, did even more damage to independent retailers. You all know the ‘Walmart’ effect on mom-and-pop stores. It’s ugly.
Like many, I moved from small record stores to the Best Buys, and then to Amazon and iTunes. With the internet, it’s pretty easy to find whatever music you want without leaving the house. But yet again, another transformation was about to happen to me. In 2010, I dropped into a local record store just for the heck of it. I had my cheap USB turntable and was thinking about checking out some used records. As soon as I opened the door, it all came back. The smell (again with the smell…what’s my problem? Vinyl lovers know.) The rows and rows of new and used vinyl. The wall of records. The interesting music playing on the store hi-fi. Almost instantly, I remembered all the great things about independent record stores that big retailers (including the one I was employed keeping stocked with CDs) and the internet just don’t have.
Over the past several years, I’ve become addicted again to browsing record stores, digging through the crates for new and used treasures… looking for things I didn’t even know I wanted, or needed. And that’s the thing about physical record stores: stumbling across a record you didn’t know you were looking for, or maybe didn’t even know existed, is so much more rewarding than google searching the internet for a title. In a store, browsing will always be unexpected. The album you went in looking for is out of stock one day, in stock the next, but there’s always something else to catch your eye. The randomness of record store browsing is something I’m addicted to. Spending a couple hours in a store, just looking, and listening, is a perfect afternoon to me. While vinyl is making a comeback, many independent retailers are struggling, and that’s a shame. I don’t want to live in a world where all commerce is done on Amazon.com. I don’t have tons of money, but I’m always happy to spend what I can supporting a record store. It’s an investment I’m happy to make, every single time.
There are hard-to-find albums that I can go online and buy with a click right now, but to come across a copy, FINALLY, after years of searching in record stores, is a very rewarding experience.
I urge you to check out your local record store, if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby. They need your business, and will be grateful for it. And if you love music, you won’t regret it. A great time to start is the annual Record Store Day, an all-day celebration of independent music stores held each April. Click the link for info and a list of participating stores.
I’ve noticed that since the resurgence in vinyl, many large retail chains like Barnes & Noble are starting to sell vinyl records. That’s nice, but resist the urge!! Their selection is limited, their prices are too high, and they’re taking money out of the hands of the local indie mom-and-pops that have survived the lean years and are more deserving of your dough.
Vinyl is the Perfect Format for Music
When it comes to listening to music, vinyl to me is really the best format. The other surviving formats, CD and digital, have portability going for them. That’s true. But for the experience of listening to music, at home, vinyl rules. The large cover is perfect for artwork and detailed liner notes. CDs are too small for decent artwork. Digital files? Forget about it. With a vinyl record, you can scratch them and they will still play (within reason.) Scratch a CD or corrupt a digital file and it’s ruined forever. If you’re going to buy music, you might as well buy vinyl. (Most new releases on vinyl these days come with a free download code to get a digital copy of the album for on the go. It’s a win-win for all involved.)
Vinyl records are a tangible thing. They are real, which is another reason vinyl is catching on again. Digital music is wonderfully convenient, and a great way to listen to new music without a heavy investment, but it’s not there. It’s invisible. A record collection is a visible, curated physical manifestation of one’s musical tastes, and memories. I rarely listen to them anymore, but I can pull out those old Billy Joel or Men at Work albums and remember the time when I DID listen to them,on my parents old Fisher stereo system… I can remember picking them up at Musicland in North Kent Mall, or Believe in Music. Records can be held, looked at, smelled (I know, I know.) and cherished. They can be passed down to the next generation. ‘Here kids, here’s a hard drive with my music collection on it’ is something I hope never to utter. But records? They mean something.
Vinyl is ‘Slow Music’ for a Chaotic World
This all brings me around to the main reason I’m enjoying my rekindled love affair with the vinyl record, a 67 year-old format that just won’t die. It’s the simple fact that listening to music on vinyl requires my undivided attention. It requires a bit of work. It requires a bit of money.
Most of us experience music today while we’re busy doing something else. The ability to play or stream anything, at anytime, anywhere, means that it’s always on. But I’ve found that all this music isn’t REALLY being listened to. It’s just there. While we’re working, reading, cooking, driving, shopping, it’s in the background. It is literally background music.
To listen to vinyl requires more from a listener. It, to me, is a romantic ritual that I find incredibly relaxing and therapeutic. To listen to a record means that I can’t really be doing anything else but ACTIVELY engaging in the music, and really listening.
It starts when I get home from the record store with a new purchase. If it’s a used record, it’s got to be cleaned before it can be played. CDs and mp3s require no effort to be played, but that’s not the case with records. They must be kept clean, and they must be cared for properly. My kids think I’m crazy when they see me doing it, but the act of getting out my record cleaning gear and cleaning up old records is so relaxing. I can turn off my mind and just clean records.
To play a record requires some work as well. Good music requires good equipment, something else that separates vinyl from other formats. Too often these days our music is consumed in low-quality situations: poor quality mp3s played back on tiny computer speakers or cheap headphones. The fact that decent stereo equipment requires at least a bit of a financial investment (but not as much as you’d think) and the fact that quality records cost more than CDs or digital demands a listeners’ attention.
Taking a record out of its sleeve, placing it on the turntable, cleaning it off with a brush, dropping the needle….it’s a hands-on experience. And 20 minutes later, when the record side is finished, you have to get up to flip the record or put on a new one. This engagement makes me appreciate the music more. It makes me sit down and listen, without doing anything else. No checking emails, no updating facebook, definitely no driving around town. Just me, and the music, played through a nice-sounding stereo system with real speakers. It’s heavenly.
So while I still listen to music most of the time the same way most others do, through computer speakers or crappy headphones, I have grown to cherish the time I get to spend with the vinyl. It’s my ‘Music Appreciation’ Time. It’s the musical equivalent of the Slow Food Movement… It’s my Slow Music Movement. The time of the day (or evening, usually it’s in the evening) when I can retire to my den (it’s really my office, but it’s MINE), pick out a record, cue it up on the turntable, then relax on the couch, preferably with a nice drink) and listen to the music. Ahhhh…… Some people have yoga, some have a day at the spa, some people have meditation; I have my records. My Slow Music Movement has helped me get back in touch with my music. I’ve come to realize that in this age of having everything available at anytime, there’s something to be said for quality over quantity. I still have hard drives full of music, and I still love listening to new music through streaming services, and that unlimited availability is great, but the time I get to spend with my hand-selected vinyl record collection trumps it all. Hearing the needle drop and that little bit of satisfying crackle, and watching the stylus move across the grooves is incredibly soothing.
This current vinyl revolution is, like I said, likely just a phase we’re going through. But I think, I know, that vinyl and the stores that care about it and sell it, will remain. It will probably always be a niche market, but then again who knows? Buying vinyl is an addictive, but in a good way. Perhaps all these youngsters picking up records today because it’s the cool thing to do will catch the bug, and never stop. The CD is dead. Good riddance. Digital music is here, streaming is catching on, and will be the dominant way most people, including me, listen to music going forward. But there will always be plenty of room for the vinyl record.
If you’re thinking about getting into vinyl, I say do it! Here’s a few resources to help you out.
Vertigo Music – Grand Rapids, MI. One of the finest record stores, ANYWHERE.
Corner Record Shop – Grandville, MI. Great store, lots of used vinyl.
First of all, if you’re in the market for a new turntable, I’d suggest skipping the cheap, retro-looking turntables made by Crosley sold at places like Target and other large retailers. These are low-quality turntables that look cool, but may end up damaging your records. I’ve owned a couple cheaper Crosley turntables and had issues with both of them. Avoid them. If you’re going to invest in vinyl, play it on something that’ll make them sound good, and at the very least not wreck them. Check out a new company, U-Turn Audio, with very nice, affordable turntables made in Boston. Another higher-quality entry-level turntable is the Pro-Ject Elemental. I currently own a Pro-Ject Debut III, and am quite happy with it.
Records require care and cleaning, but there’s a lot of snake oil out there. I’ve found that Sleeve City has a lot of quality cleaning and storage products and other accessories at fair prices. Many retailers charge ridiculous prices for these types of products.
For more turntable equipment and accessories (replacement belts, stylus upgrades, etc.) I’ve had good experiences with LP Gear.
A great resource for information on vinyl records is Discogs. It’s an online community of vinyl buyers and sellers. You can find good deals on new and used records here, as well as other places like Ebay and Amazon. But for me, part of being into vinyl is supporting local independent record stores. Start there first. Garage sales and flea markets are other places you’ll often find used records at dirt-cheap prices.
Dust & Grooves is a great website devoted to borderline-obsessive record collectors. It’s great fun to learn their stories and dig into their amazing collections.
Last Shop Standing: Terrific documentary on the state of the independent record store.
¡Viva la Vinyl!