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I’ve read a lot about why vinyl is considered a superior medium for reproducing audio. I’ve also read a lot that detracts from that view. I don’t profess to understand very much of it, as I’m a) not an audiophile and b) try not to get taken in by snake oil and douchebaggery, as a friend of mine once referred to.
For me, it’s largely a nostalgia thing. I don’t doubt that the nature of the sound is different when reproduced through an analogue system versus a digital one, but that’s less important to me than what vinyl represents. As a kid, I used to listen to my parent’s vinyl collection a lot. And there was a certain ritual involved with listening, gleaned from watching my dad do it every now and again. You’d carefully take the platter out of its dustjacket, place it almost reverently on the turntable. You’d then activate the turntable by placing the stylus over the dead wax at the start of the record, making sure for god’s sake that the arm was elevated to hover above it and you didn’t crash the stylus into the record making a terrible percussive noise OH MY GOD YOU STUPID CHILD GET AWAY FROM THE STEREO! GET AWAAAAAY!. Anyway, then you’d get the velvet brush and, while the stylus was hovering in anticipation, you’d gently apply it to the surface of the rotating record, brushing away all the lint and dust, watching it all pool on the edge of the felt. And once that was done, only then would your ears be able to take in the sweet crooning sounds of the Everley Brothers singing “Bye Bye love! Bye Bye hap-i-ness!” Or hear that thrilling but now oh-so-clichéd drum beat loop which preceded the glass-shattering tones of Barry Gibb telling us that he was a woman’s man by his walk. Yes, my parents had those records. And yes, I still love them, even though I’m an avowed metalhead.
My point is, there was a certain process with putting on a record that I missed for many years when I moved out of home and before I could afford my own audio equipment more sophisticated than a crappy boom box that barely played CDs.
And speaking of CDs…I remember, back when I was in grade 7, first listening to a CD. Or rather, watching as someone put a CD player on and then proceeded to skip to the track they wanted (it was the Beatles White Album, if I recall correctly). And while I was amazed and impressed, a small part of me felt disquiet. And I wasn’t sure why. After having made it through the “digital revolution” which has now culminated in the ultimate ease of music access - the mp3 file - I know why.
Music was, to me, always something that I felt a healthy respect for. When someone puts down something musical into playback form, it’s almost like an extension of their inner being. Without getting mystical and religious here, it’s, as far as I’m concerned, a better part of that person, glorified in a way that we can listen back to. Obviously the quality of that product is not the same across different recording artists, and I’m being an elitist twat here and largely not including manufactured-by-record-company pop (take your pick of artist and/or era, really), but by and large, I have always felt that albums should be listened to from start to end. That they should take you on an aural journey, the songs written and placed in a certain order by the artist to represent where they were musically at the time. Imagine classic Hendrix albums with the songs taken out of context or in a different order? Unspeakable!
Now, imagine my horror when I saw how easy it was to skip to the song you liked. I know people who bought whole albums just for the songs they liked, and with CDs, how easy is it to just skip to those songs and never listen to the rest of the album? And, of course, now you can just download the mp3 of the songs you like, keep them on your hard drive, and never worry about the rest of the artist’s/artists’ output. Ever. You can stay in your little cocoon of ignorant bliss and listen to the latest top 40 songs to your heart’s content, happy in your little pop bubble, never considering that there is a wealth of other material out there that is not played on the radio or gets on the charts.
Yes, there were always singles on vinyl format, and on long play albums. In the 70s, there was a trend whereby bands would not put their singles on their long play albums, but release them separately in the form of 45’s. And due to the length limitation of the vinyl record (50 minutes or so, tops), the full-length album was always digestible in a single sitting and, I generally find, thequality of the songs means you rarely feel the urge to skip songs. These days, however, CDs have a much larger storage capacity. Now, this does not necessarily mean that there will be more filler on a CD-length album as opposed to a vinyl-length one, but I find in practice that this happens more often than not. It’s almost like bands know that there will be certain songs that will be listened to more than others, but they feel obliged to fill up an album with forgettable pap.
As an example, as I write this, I’m listening to an original vinyl pressing of Iron Maiden’s Piece of Mind. A classic from 1983. To my ears, it sounds vital, inspired, and (in my opinion) not a bit dated. Every song has its place, every song is carefully constructed for maximum impact (not just the singles), and there’s not a bit of filler. Not only that, it’s an album I only recently (in the last couple of years, actually) listened to. Yet, after many repeated listens, I know each song intimately. However, contrast this with Maiden’s most (as of writing this) recent album, Final Frontier. One hour and 16 minutes of it. Most of the songs utterly forgettable, turgid, bloated constructions with a few memorable riffs here and there but largely going through the motions. Now, you could argue that a lot of that is because of the age of the band and the sheer weight of the number of albums they’ve released in their prolific career, that they’ve finally found their groove, so to speak, and are releasing what the fans want. I’m not what you’d consider a hardcore fan of Maiden, so I can’t speak for those fans, but I know that when I listen to Final Frontier, even multiple times in an effort to “get” it, I immediately forget most of it. Somewhere in that over-an-hour album is a shorter, much more focussed album, with songs that could be pared down and made into a 40 minute-or-so fun romp, but the length of the medium makes it necessary to fill the whole thing with extra fluff. Is that entirely because of the medium or are there other factors at play? I’m not saying that the former is the entire reason, but to me it’s a large part, something that was instigated a long time ago and that many people probably aren’t even aware of.
And this is the crux of my (poorly-realised and probably a bit tenuous) argument here - with the digital age of music came the disposable nature of it. It became easy to skip songs one did not like and/or at first did not “get”. The record music industry at first probably loved it, because you could get more content out there and sell more on the basis of that promise, always knowing that most people would not let a laser beam grace those more inaccessible microscopic bumps on plastic, but that the single, like “Black Hole Sun” off Soundgarden’s Superunknown, would be played over and over and over and that no one would ever hear the more epic, beautiful and masterful songs like “Limo Wreck” or “Like Suicide” off that same album. Now, there’s a push back to vinyl by record companies, because it’s becoming more popular amongst the hipster crowd (ironically, in my case, largely because of the reasons I’ve set out here, even though I am by no means a hipster and would like to set fire to a lot of them) but also because, I’m sure, they realise the hole they’ve dug for themselves with digital music. It’s so damn easy to pirate stuff now, even with so-called copy-protected CDs, and the mp3 format has made that even easier. Bands and their labels are haemorrhaging due to this. But, that’s not my primary concern - it’s that the music itself, which I hold sacrosanct and consider one of humanity’s enduring accomplishments, is itself becoming so disposable that it’s scary.
And that’s why I love vinyl. I’m much more likely to sit and listen to a vinyl-format album from start to finish, because of the ritual. This is probably mostly my own nostalgia. But I also believe that it’s partly because the ethos has changed between the formats. To me, vinyl represents patience and an era where music wasn’t as throwaway as it is now.
And in this long ramble, I haven’t even touched on the artwork and presentation. But just briefly, this:
is, to me, much more desirable than a pile of small, largely cracked CD jewel cases, or a list of songs on an iTunes view.