Vinyl, Vidi, Vici

Treble staff
Diggin' in the crates

On Saturday, April 19, music retailers and musicians across the world celebrated Record Store Day, the first annual event of its kind in celebration of independent record stores. At various indie record stores from London all the way back to Treble’s home of San Diego, Calif., music fans were treated to DJ sets by members of Love and Rockets, Interpol and Pinback; live performances by Regina Spektor, Nada Surf and the Black Angels; and even personal recommendations from Jello Biafra, signings with Lupe Fiasco and meet-and-greets with Will Oldham and David Berman. Essentially, it was the biggest little music festival the world has ever seen or vice versa, and brought some much-needed lovin’ to the brick and mortar heroes that made us the music fiends we are today.

Some of the most notable draws to Record Store Day events, however, were the exclusive vinyl releases being issued by labels in honor of the event, from artists such as R.E.M., Death Cab For Cutie, Vampire Weekend, Stephen Malkmus, Built to Spill and the Black Keys. Plus there was a free Merge records split 7″ being distributed, in addition to other fun bonuses, like 7″ releases from The Breeders and The Teenagers. Given that each of these limited, exclusive releases is on vinyl, the event becomes not only a celebration of record stores, but of records themselves.

Yep, records. Somehow, throughout the years, when, on several occasions, people were decrying the death and/or obsolescence of vinyl, the medium managed to survive. Furthermore, people still buy it. For decades, vinyl has been a necessity for DJs, though iPod deejaying has become a little more common these days. Still, purists stick to the 12-inches, not just for cutting and scratching, but for the versatility it lends to the art. Spontaneity doesn’t necessarily jive with mp3 deejaying, let alone the issues with fidelity that you can run into.

Of late, however, there has been greater focus on vinyl, on the part of both those who make the music and those who listen to it. This is probably the 108th article of its kind, discussing vinyl and its resurgence and how the kids, who should be bound by their iPods, are buying 12″ records in droves. But I’ll be honest, this is less of a news analysis or roundup of expert testimonials than a personal reflection.

Call it a Comeback

Across the country, sales of LPs have gone up considerably over the past few years. According to GEMM.com, the music marketplace website’s vinyl sales have increased 20 percent since 2005. That’s a fairly considerable figure, given that compact disc sales are on a steady decline, and GEMM specializes, to some degree, in a collector’s market. It won’t take too much digging to find some items for sale well past the $100 mark. Nielsen SoundScan may not register much of an increase in vinyl sales, due to its lack of available data from indie record stores and DJ specialty shops, but a look at the Insound.com Top 100 Sellers page tells a different story. Of those 100 albums and singles, 54 are vinyl releases, making more than half of their best sellers vinyl records. And four of those are in the top 10, no less.

For vinyl to be so ubiquitously popular a commodity is a fairly recent development in the digital age (are people calling it that? I feel like a loser for saying it). Still, records themselves are one of the oldest forms of consumer music media. Their popularity has waxed and waned over the years, with cassettes, eight tracks, CDs and MP3s all vying for format superiority. But somehow, vinyl keeps on fighting. In 1994, an RIAA report showed that vinyl sales had gone up 80 percent, thanks in part to bands like Pearl Jam making their releases available on vinyl before releasing them on CD. In fact, I know at least one person who bought Vs. on vinyl, despite not actually having a record player.

The funny thing about the ongoing shift in musical formats is that the enormous rise of downloaded music has potentially changed the way people look at music. For some, free downloads mean never having to pay for it again, thus devaluing it significantly. On the other hand, there are plenty of paid download services, such as iTunes, eMusic, Rhapsody, and even Amazon, who offer music for a per-song or subscription basis. Apple’s iTunes even goes to the extra degree of offering a digital booklet with some releases, which is laudable for their effort toward giving a more complete package to those who seek it.

Yet when music is reduced to data on one’s hard drive, it is left to pile up to the point where one may never listen to all of it. If you’ve been to college in the past ten years, you know this phenomenon. I, myself, had a few roommates who amassed large collections of mp3s, though seemingly listened to the same songs in a cycle while ignoring the rest. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a similar pack rat mentality when it came to loading songs on to my computer, but I prune as necessary, as to leave room for any new promos that cross this desk. In any case, music has become less personal, less special because of the increased focus on convenience and portability. This might be one clue as to why more people are buying vinyl now than they were a few years back.

Ever Since I Was a Young Boy…

My first experiences with music were with cassettes, dubbed mixtapes that my brothers made me when I was just a lad (or “Only a Lad” if you will, which was probably on one of those tapes). But while CDs were readily available at the time, if still a fairly new development, much of the source material for those tapes came from 12″ singles from the likes of Depeche Mode and New Order, often with extended remixes that some still prefer to the originals (I’m not necessarily one of them, but it happens). And while I didn’t know how to use the players or how delicate to handle records at the time, I still remember being awed by them, with their large cover sleeves and artwork. My sister even had a copy of The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys, with the song titles printed on the back sleeve as images rather than words.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school in which I sought out a record player of my own. I don’t know what compelled me to do so, perhaps the availability of cheap LPs at local record stores, or maybe it was that free Rage Against The Machine promotional seven-inch I got in the mail once. Either way, I felt I needed to get one, and so I did, and the collecting began soon thereafter. I didn’t buy anything new at first; my goal was primarily to expand a back catalogue of classics. Some of the first few albums I purchased were The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, which was especially cool for having embossed artwork mimicking the appearance of actual corrugated steel.

Unfortunately, Aftermath had a scratch that crossed over into a handful of songs, including “I Am Waiting” (d’oh!), but that’s what you get for paying $1.99 I suppose. It was around this time that I learned that records are very fragile things, and require the utmost care. Years later, I went to the extra trouble of finding a cleaning kit, which is also essential for vinyl listeners, as you quickly find that dust clings to albums like ants on a pool of honey. But $10 for a brush and the occasional cleaning fluid refill is more than worth it to keep your LPs in good shape. A stylus can actually make skips from dust particles permanent, so the better one cleans that vinyl platter beforehand, the more likely it is to last for a lifetime of spins.

Since investing in some maintenance kits, I’ve gone on some record binges, myself. While I received a promo copy of Beach House’s Devotion a good three months before it was made available to the public, I couldn’t help but think that CD wasn’t the proper way to listen to such a gorgeous piece of music, and picked up the double-LP version, which was well worth it. Similarly, I purchased Unwound’s Leaves Turn Inside You, even though I already have the CD version, merely because it seemed like the kind of album that needs to be experienced on a larger scale, and hot damn, was that ever a good choice, and pretty cheap if you buy from BuyOlympia.com, I might add.

I Found A Reason (or Four)

So, the one thing that I need to address that I feel I haven’t, thus far, is why anyone would regress back to a decades old musical format, when technology keeps advancing toward new, digital ones. For those who strictly download free MP3s and don’t bother buying music anymore, the prospect of a vinyl collection probably isn’t very attractive. After all, sometimes they cost more than CDs (though often less). For others, however, vinyl can be an enticing luxury, and for several reasons.

The first argument for listening to vinyl over CDs comes down to sound quality. A CD or an MP3 library can sound good, even great. On some stereo systems, you might not be able to tell the difference in fidelity. The truth of the matter is that CDs are a more accurate representation of the actual recording because digital formats can contain more information and a greater dynamic range, but there are downsides to that as well. Digital aficionados dismiss it as mere “distortion,” but the “warm” sound of vinyl gives it more depth. It’s a more nourishing and comfortable listen. It has more soul. CDs, meanwhile, have been in a steady process of bring up levels to be as loud as possible, reducing the space between the subtleties and nooks and crannies of sound that a record can capture. Notice I said ‘subtleties’; upon first listen, the differences may not be great, but when you go back and forth between records and digital music, the differences become far more noticeable. Studies have even shown that with people who have listened to music on vinyl for hours vs. those who have listened to CDs for hours, the vinyl listeners were less fatigued, more relaxed, had lower blood pressure and lower heart rates.

The second argument for vinyl lies in the packaging. Simply because a record with a 12-inch diameter is so much bigger than a five-inch CD, the artwork is going to look that much more impressive. In the ’60s and ’70s in particular, LP sleeves were designed as works of art, rather than a utilitarian form of packaging. Classic rock fans from back in the day can point to sleeves such as those on The Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach or Santana’s Abraxas for prime examples of the visual appeal of an album sleeve. Those may not be the hippest examples, but screw it, you can’t deny the awe-factor when viewing them. Gatefold art, in particular, always makes an impressive display, such as that of Funkadelic’s Free Your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow. The sleeve depicts a woman’s face on the front (“Free Your Mind…”) and, what else, her ass on the rear panel (“Your Ass Will Follow”).

The third argument, while not as appealing to everyone, is the collectability factor. Long out of print albums yield high prices, and a higher level of respect from your geeky friends. And there are countless singles and EPs with limited pressings, thus making ownership of their kind more special to anyone who can track them down. This is particularly common among underground metal acts such as Boris and Jesu, whose limited edition 10″ releases can yield prices of $50 on occasion. That said, some of these releases offer more evidence of the argument for packaging, as the artwork is almost always jaw-dropping. I, myself, am not immune to this aspect. I dropped $30 (not really all that much in the greater spectrum) for a vinyl copy of Broadcast’s haha Sound, which is now out of print. It took two months for the seller to notify me that they didn’t have it in stock. Drat. I got a refund, which is fine, but I wanted the record. Not so much because of its rareness, but because of how much I like the album, and the anticipation of hearing its ear candy on a greater scale.

Lastly, there’s a lot to be said for the ritual of listening to vinyl. Slipping a record out of its sleeve, dropping it gently on the record player, lifting the tone arm and dropping the needle with ease…there’s something therapeutic about the process. Where one is likely to be exercising or working while listening to mp3s (or FLACs if you’re one of those Phil Lesh and Friends types), there’s a commitment in listening to records, in soaking in the music and taking in every note. Personally, I like listening on Saturday or Sunday mornings on the couch, maybe with breakfast. It’s a thoroughly comforting feeling, and most vinyl enthusiasts will say the same thing. Records tend to demand your attention, and chances are, you’ll be happy to surrender.

Vinyl won’t become the format of choice for the majority of music listeners in America anytime soon, mainly for the reason that mp3s have. Convenience still wins in the long run. That more and more people, especially younger folks, are becoming interested in analog sounds, is encouraging. It essentially shows that people are looking for more when they listen to music. As long as there is no flawless automotive record player, digital forms will remain dominant for many. Yet as long as there are people who have an insatiable passion for recorded sound, vinyl will have an audience.

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