Pet Grief: A vinyl resolution

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Treble's editor airs his grievances

In about a month, it will have been five years since the last time I bought a CD.

Note that I didn’t say that I didn’t buy music for the last five years. In fact, I’ve bought a lot of music in the last five years — 90 percent of it on vinyl. And I’m not even saying I didn’t buy digital music in the last five years. Hell, if it were up to me, more labels would put their catalogs on Bandcamp, though we’re certainly seeing that happening with greater frequency (latest revelation: every Fela Kuti album on Bandcamp!). I’m talking about the physical compact disc — the oft-touted vessel for perfect sound — which a dwindling marketplace, shifting consumer preferences and this very writer couldn’t help but rule as an increasingly disposable format.

In a way, it’s sort of my own fault that I ended up falling out of love with CDs. Back in the mid-‘90s, as a junior high student, I upgraded my meager cassette collection to CD after wearing out some of my favorite tapes or seeing them get eaten by cheap Walkman players or old, poorly functioning tape decks. My first actual CD purchase was Helmet’s Betty, an album that’s faded a bit into obscurity over the years, though I still enjoy its riffs and quirks a great deal. And since then, my collection began to expand like rapidly reproducing bacteria. Trips to Lou’s Records in Encinitas, California started out in high school as special-occasion events; in college I found almost every excuse or opportunity I could to thumb through its overwhelming racks of underground finds and sought-after imports.

And then it got worse. One of the first things you discover when you start writing about music is just how many free albums you have access to — and before everyone else. I’m going to be totally honest with you here. This is still one of the reasons I love doing what I do, but about six or seven years ago, I began to see a downside to that. Not only will you get access to an abundance of free music, you will have access to more free music than you can possibly ever listen to. And when it comes in CD format, there’s a physical reminder, right there in front of you, of how dangerously close you are to becoming a hoarder.

Somewhere around the fifth or sixth box of CDs I placed out on the curb with “FREE” written in Sharpie on the outside, I decided my money was probably better spent on those larger, black (and often other colored) analog discs that people once deemed obsolete. By that point I had already been buying LPs for quite a few years, so it’s not as if I were tossing aside my baseball cards in order to focus on Faberge eggs. I bought a refurbished Sony belt-drive turntable from Best Buy after graduating from high school, and started small with used, bargain records from local haunts in San Diego and Riverside counties. I picked up some gems early on — Led Zeppelin’s II, a fairly beat-up copy of The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, and an LP by Treepeople, featuring a young Doug Martsch. Plus a Rage Against the Machine 7-inch with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which I got in the mail from being in the fan club (which I don’t remember signing up for).

Over time I started filling holes in my catalog with essentials — and cheap, used items that seemed like they’d be cool to have. In fact, at first it was mostly the latter, but eventually that transitioned into good-quality copies of Bruce Springsteen, XTC and Elvis Costello albums. The first actual new LP I bought was Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights in 2002, which in a few years led to me picking up new vinyl copies with some regularity. And after paying $5 to download Radiohead’s In Rainbows during their memorable market experiment, I skipped over the CD copy in favor of a vinyl one, which was as much of a practical decision as it was a personal one. After all, I already had a digital copy.

From that moment on, vinyl was my number one choice for buying music, and had been for at least a year or two when I found myself at a record store at 7 p.m., passing the time while I waited for the power to come back on in my neighborhood. Alone in a dark house with nothing better to do, I made the ten-minute drive and impulse bought Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone — a decision, I should add, I do not regret in the slightest. But the only reason I did it was because they didn’t have an LP copy in stock.

Nobody ever really questions my reasons for preferring one format over the other. Not anymore, anyway. In 2007 it might have seemed quaint, but vinyl sales have grown pretty steadily every year since, so there’s some comfort in knowing I’m not the only one. And better yet, it’s proof enough to labels that vinyl is worth the effort and cost to press. Not that every label does a great job with it. The upswing in vinyl consumption in recent years has also produced a boom for reissue labels that get by with a bare minimum of effort in sound preservation — which is to say, they don’t sound great. It’s provided some “I told you so” fodder for staunch CD defenders who will always point to the numbers when it comes to which of the two sounds better. Of course, that’s subject to any number of variables. Mixing, mastering, pressing and the quality of your stereo equipment can all play a significant role in whether or not vinyl can sound as good or better than its CD counterpart (in the ‘80s, CDs were mostly the weaker of the two, for instance). That and whether or not a label gives a shit.

You hear a lot about how vinyl is “warmer” and all that, which the experts will tell you is technically an imperfection in the sound. It’s really a mild form of distortion that causes that sound, but it’s an appealing sort of distortion. I liken it to eating at your favorite diner or greasy spoon café. Yeah, maybe you don’t really taste the beef for exactly what it is, but something about that layer of grease makes it taste that much better. Not that vinyl always sounds that way, necessarily, but a great deal of the time it does sound fantastic, even if some labels aren’t always on the up and up with quality control. I’m not saying vinyl is a more accurate representation of live sound; I am saying I like it better.

Sound is one — I should note, highly subjective — reason for choosing vinyl. Another is the artwork, which is always more impressive on a larger scale. Then there’s the ritual, which on its own isn’t really that interesting. But for me it’s about spending better time and better appreciating music that means something to me. Taking it out of its sleeve, placing it on the turntable, flipping from side one to side two — it’s almost hypnotic in a way. But it also compels you to pay closer attention to the music you’re about to hear, and to me that’s the most important thing. When so much of the music I owned began to feel like clutter taking up space in my house, I needed something I could form a closer relationship with. And it’s one that I continue to value highly.

At the beginning of the year, I did something a bit out of character — I made a New Year’s resolution. And that resolution was to listen to vinyl every day (that I’m home) in 2014. So far, so good — even on the day that my wife and I moved into our new home, we plugged in the stereo and put on Unknown Pleasures. And starting #treblerecorddaze this month certainly helps. But I want to mention that I’m not a fundamentalist seeking to convert anyone. Listen to what you want to, and enjoy it.

Oh, and don’t call them “vinyls”. Think of the children.

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