[Click here to read Side A – Dear Science]
In this post, I’m not going to argue the relative fidelity of vinyl LPs in comparison to CDs, MP3s, or any other medium. I’m not going to posit what I see as the multifarious positives to vinyl records. (If you wish to discuss these things, by all means feel free to leave a comment or call me or something. Or maybe not; it turns out that despite getting Virginia to marry me I am still anti-social.) This post simply describes some observations I have made in the past few months, and a couple of the thought processes that ultimately led to the decision to begin purchasing music (yes, even new music) on vinyl records, and buy a nice turntable on which to play them.
It all began a few months ago. Virginia and I received coupons entitling us to 40% off any and all CDs at Borders for one weekend only. Being an enthusiast of recorded music I was pretty excited about this, as was Virginia, who had not shopped for CDs in a long time. Finding ourselves in the Salt Lake area that Saturday evening, we dutifully went to the Borders located in Murray near Fashion Place Mall. I remembered from visits in past years that this store had quite an extensive music selection, unlike our nearby Provo Borders location. With great anticipation we climbed the stairs to the second floor, skipping the books entirely (unusual behavior, especially for Virginia). And, where I had distinctly remembered a rack upon rack expanse of CDs in almost every conceivable musical genre, we saw only two or three pitiful racks. They were being perused on this special weekend sale night by only two other customers besides ourselves, both men in their sixties. Virginia and I both found some CDs that we wanted to buy, and although we had fun, we thought it was rather strange and sad. Virginia declared the place Dinosaurland. I guessed that all the cool kids were somewhere downloading Lil’ Wayne tracks onto their phones, or something, and it made me feel stupid. However, that idea didn’t seem any more appealing to me than shopping for CDs in an empty store. I had the distinct feeling that something was missing, or that something had gone terribly awry with music consumption.
Since about 1993 I have been ensconced in the collection of CDs. During that time I did occasionally buy old records for their cheapness and quaintness, but for the most part I bought CDs. In recent times I would occasionally buy mp3s online (I have an eMusic subscription because it’s a great way to get a lot of indie music on the cheap and be legal about it), but for the most part I have been very resistant to iTunes because of DRM and the fact that you can purchase hard CD copies of albums, which have liner notes and superior sound quality, for the same or similar prices as the iTunes editions. I mostly listen to artists who craft albums, rather than collections of singles and filler, so that makes a difference in my buying choice as well. In the interest of full disclosure of my history of music consumption, I also confess that in my superpoor college days (2002-2004) I downloaded a large amount of music through file sharing, and I admit I still occasionally do this for evaluation purposes: I listen once and if I like it, I end up buying it; otherwise, I delete it.
A remark made in an interview by a member of one of my favorite bands made the “CD problem” I had been ignoring for several years kind of blaring. Referring to the large amount of album art inserts featured with their new CD At Mount Zoomer, the Wolf Parade bandmember (I think it was Dan Boeckner and I wish I could find this interview again) said they wanted to include a lot of art in it as sort of a bonus or reward for the few people who still buy albums. With one my own bands acknowledging the demise of the CD, I quit kidding myself. I came to the realization that almost all of my music shopping experiences at various stores for the past year or two had been “dinosaurland” type experiences. I quit pretending that I hadn’t noticed the increasingly unaesthetic qualities of CD packaging. I am referring to things such as the security tags that block the inner album art and that, even after you have successfully taken apart the jewel case without cracking any plastic, often cannot be removed without major damage; the increasingly large “FBI Warning” badges and banners that cover the back of the CD case and often ring the actual CD itself; the smallness of the album artwork; the gunk from the sometimes impossible to fully remove stickers on the CD cases; the ease with which the cases crack or get scuffed up, occasionally coming that way out of the package.
I began to think longingly of my old vinyl, and of the vinyl I saw being sold anew at a few good music stores. I began to remember the warmth and ambiance of the analog sound (I know that the “warmth” is technically a “distortion,” but it’s a pleasant distortion that many musical artists seek after and consider a part of the ideal listening experience of their work.) I remembered the pleasure of gatefold sleeves and large album covers that could be put on display in the real world, not only as a 50 pixel wide icon on an iPod screen. Although LP sleeves are by no means infallible, they eschew many of the gunky, patronizing and ugly problems of CD packaging mentioned above, providing a far superior aesthetic package. I realized that my CDs, despite sounding better than mp3s played through an ipod, gave me none of the pleasures of vinyl. I noted that many new vinyl LPs include coupons for free mp3 downloads of the albums, and that even in the case of those that do not, I still have the right to digitize them myself for a backup copy. With mp3s providing far more portability and LPs providing the most enjoyable listening experience, my beloved CD had indeed become the true antiquated relic.
Okay, so I guess I lied at the beginning when I said I would not be enumerating the virtues of vinyl. I will end with this observation. Recently, I’ve begun frequenting actual record stores on a regular basis. It is very interesting and heartening to note that the experience at these stores is far from the dinosaurland feeling of Border’s CD section, or the CD sections at Best Buy, or FYE, or Circuit City, or pretty much any store. Walking into local Salt Lake store Randy’s Records (900 South between State and 200 East) or even, on one occasion, the rather fusty and incense-filled Record Collector (2100 South in Sugarhouse) on a random Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, as I have a few times recently, I fought for browsing room with numerous customers of all ages, sexes, and ethnicities, from teenage girls to guys in their sixties. The majority of them are, like myself, flipping through the new and old vinyl, while the CDs are pretty much ignored. This is not just a one store fluke phenomenon: Smith’s Marketplace/Fred Meyer, FYE, and some Best Buy locations have started carrying vinyl again in 2008. (Here is a funny article about the means by which Fred Meyer came to be selling vinyl again.) I just prefer places like Randy’s and Slowtrain because they have far deeper selections and I like to give my money to local businesses as much as I can.
In 1993, when I felt I had finally entered the pinnacle of music consumption when I received my first CD player as a birthday present, I never envisioned that nearly sixteen years later I would find myself buying brand new albums on vinyl.