The allure of vinyl

James Truitt

The introduction of compact discs in the 1980’s (along with the subsequent digital media explosion they heralded) spelled the end of the vinyl record’s golden era. CDs have since eclipsed vinyl as the dominant music medium; only to subsequently be replaced themselves by the almighty mp3. In today’s age of iPods and Internet downloads, most vinyl record collections have long been boxed up in attics and basements, sold on garage-sale lawns, or dropped off at the local Goodwill. Not many contemporary artists still bother to produce their albums on vinyl, and even fewer major retailers carry these LP’s on their shelves. Like the typewriter or rotary dial phone, the vinyl record has become an antiquated concept: an archaic way of doing things that no longer has a place in 21st century life.

Which makes sense. Vinyl records are labor intensive, heavy, and costly to ship. They are easily damaged, and vinyl albums are far more expensive to produce (a commercial-grade recording on CD costs around $150, while a vinyl one costs close to $700). More importantly, CD’s are more practical to use, more conveniently found in stores, and are better designed for a variety of listening environments (you can’t bring vinyl in the car). If you replace the letters CD with digital music file in the previous few sentences, the arguments against vinyl become even more compelling.

But despite all of these apparent “disadvantages,” vinyl is enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity, and could be mounting a comeback. While records have always occupied a marginal part of the music business: primarily on the strength of obsessive collectors and high-fidelity enthusiasts loyal to the vinyl sound: record sales have lately been noticeably increasing, along with the number of people who are buying them both new and used. Second-hand vinyl boutiques are on the rise, and many music stores are expanding their vinyl sections. In part, this trend has been fueled by nostalgic baby boomers, and young people lured by the vintage appeal of vinyl’s obscure technology. But the musicians are behind the movement as well: the Black Keys, Of Montreal, and Built To Spill are just a handful of the many contemporary artists that include an online-coupon for a free digital-version of their album when you purchase it on vinyl. And certainly, the Internet’s ever-growing capacity for uniting people of common and often particular interests (think Ebay) has also made the exchange of things like new and used records easier than ever before.

This is not a sufficient answer, however. A lot of the music that has ever been printed on vinyl has since been re-released on CD or in mp3 format; and if this vinyl revival was simply about the music, why would anyone stray from digital, a further advanced and (supposedly) superior-sounding technology? There must be something more: something which only records can offer: responsible for the obsessive collectors and loyal audiophiles, the baby boomers and hipster youths, the incentive-giving bands, as well as people like me, who keep retuning to music’s vinyl origins in spite of current technology.

What’s so alluring about these old-fashioned, ungainly, black discs?

Well, maybe it’s the tangibility of vinyl; the ritualistic interaction between you, the record, and the turntable; how you can actually hold the musical apparatus and feel it in your hands instead of merely double-clicking a representative image on screen. Or maybe it’s the way a record compels you to listen to an entire album rather than skip to individual tracks; how you learn to appreciate the lesser songs and subtle moments that might otherwise be missed, making you digest the work as a whole. Maybe it’s the gentle crack and spittle of empty noise that briefly precedes and follows each track, reminding you of vinyl’s imperfection, its mortality. Or maybe it’s the certain “warmth” of a record’s analog sound, which many claim to be unmatched by any other form of music playback.

Picture the record listener: pulling the vinyl from its sheath-like cover, he can literally feel the music: the tiny grooves on each side of the disc: in his hands. With care, he places the record on its circular bed. The vinyl is now prepared for the needle that will set its sound free. A needle that symbolizes precision. A needle that symbolizes true sound. The needle appears, set down upon the records edge, the album’s beginning, where it follows the groove outside-in. Maybe it’s Forever Changes playing . . . . . . . maybe Graceland . . . . . . . or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The listener’s eyes watch the needle drag itself along as the record gently turns and the songs develop. He marvels at the mysterious way that music, something so immense, can emanate from something so small.

Side one ends.

He gets up and turns the record over. Placing the needle back down again, he returns to his listening-post, hoping that the brief skip he just heard at the start of track one was only because of dust, and not a scratch. Because he remembers that with each play, the surface of vinyl is slowly worn down, and that a record’s life is not infinite; lots of spins will eventually cause the record to no longer sound as true. Like the bands whose music they capture, records show their age: the crackle and popping noises heard between songs accumulate over time like wrinkles.

Eventually side two ends and the album comes to a close. The listener picks up the record’s sleeve and carefully slides the disc back in, taking one last look at the cover. The large size of vinyl’s packaging can accommodate elaborate and detailed images, which often serve as a place where the artist(s) makes a visual and/or written statement to accompany their sound. Classic cover art from records like the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin’s IV, and more recently, Nirvana’s Nevermind, are iconic. With digital music, however, cover art is downsized and usually accessory.

Placing the record back on the shelf, the listener heads upstairs to do __X_ . He feels satisfied from the unwind that comes with just sitting and honing in on a set of good music. But not just any music. The experience would not have been the same if he had been listening in CD or mp3 format.

When vinyl enthusiasts try to explain why this is so, they tend to generally focus on a difference in sound quality. On a technical level, vinyl does not function the same way as CD’s or mp3’s do: the former is part of the analog tradition of sound recording, while the latter two represent the products of a more recent move towards digital playback. And while the debate between which is better, analog or digital, has supporters on both sides, the consensus among most audiophiles is that the so-called “warmer” vinyl sound reigns supreme. Of course, they also say that any noticeable differences can only be heard at high-level volumes on the highest-end equipment. So the decision for most people comes down to personal preference, between the convenience digital music offers, or the aesthetic of the vinyl experience.

As for myself, I find that in vinyl there lies a certain ineffable quality that somehow gets lost with digital music, that perhaps: to paraphrase record-fanatic Paul O’Boyle: although with vinyl “you get things that you supposedly can’t hear, you simply can feel the difference.”