The week of April 20th marked two significant historical events. The first was Record Store Day, an annual promotional event targeting independent record shops and vinyl enthusiasts since 2008. This year saw the best one-week sales performance for records since Soundscan began keeping track in 1991.
The second event -- admittedly of lesser historical significance to anybody besides me -- was that my iTunes library exploded for no apparent reason. There are 170,000 tunes meticulously organized, dispatched into one thousand playlists and spanning the complete history of recorded music; my iTunes library could have been played end-to-end, without repeat, for more than 500 consecutive days. You could have conceived a baby, taken it to term, given birth to it and taught it to crawl before circling from ZZ-Top back to ABBA.
Thirteen years worth of Psychedelic Blues, Latin Jazz, Polka-Punk and sweater-wearing Dad-Rock. Italian Disco, Swedish Death-Metal, Tuvan throat-singing and Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Thru the Tulips." Thomas Edison's spoken-word recordings, Jack Kerouac's beat verse and Sweet Brown's "Ain't Nobody Got Time For That." Thirty-six guys named Blind something-or-other, 14 bands with the word 'Big' in their name and -- no exaggeration -- 200+ versions of "House of the Rising Sun."
Then one morning, I started up my computer and it was gone... all gone. iTunes was just like, "Welcome. Let's Get Started." Or something. I don't remember. I was blinded by rage.
Now that iTunes is dead, I have to find another way to play my digital library. Spinning my hard-drive around at high speeds seems to have no effect whatsoever.
Point is, before I launch into a screed about why the vinyl resurgence is reaching dizzying new heights, just understand that I am not doing so from a position of audiophile snobbery or hipster douchebagerie. I am an equal opportunity junkie and I collect music in all its forms.
But my recent loss reinforced something that I suppose I always felt, and something that may actually help to explain an analog resurgence in the age of digitization. There's no substitute for the real thing; for the sense of security; the feeling of hard, heavy permanence; the assurance that a fierce virtual wind can't just whip in and blow it all away.
From 2011 to 2012, vinyl sales increased by a dramatic 18 percent while CDs continued their equally dramatic descent into antiquity, declining at a rate of 13.5 percent. The success of titles like Mumford and Sons' Babel, Jack White's Blunderbuss and Adele's 21 suggests that vinyl is mainstream once again.
The steady uptick in vinyl sales across the last eight years is no threat to the continuing reign of digital music. At 4.6 million vinyl units moved last year, the medium still only accounts for 1.4 percent of the total market. But its performance against the general downward trend of physical media is worth considering. As a music-buying community, we have chosen to resurrect just this one medium from the dead. This act of cultural retrieval may say quite a bit about what we've become and whether we want to stay that way.
We are programmed for easy access, rapid response and instant gratification. And who can blame us? Vinyl travels terribly compared to my iPhone. In the unlikely event that you ever get your hands on a 1961 Chrysler DeSoto, it actually had a 45 RPM record player built into the consul. You just have to decide if your vinyl fetish is worth getting 40 feet to the gallon.
There are a million reasons why vinyl went out of style and most of them have to do with convenience, not just in how we listen to music, but in everything we do. I'm as spoiled by modernity as the next guy. But maybe not everything should be so convenient.
The act of purchasing, picking out and playing vinyl is an attempt to reclaim the process of music listening as something more than convenience; as something planned, engaged and revisited. Point of fact, you can't put your vinyl collection on random and let Pandora do the thinking for you. You can't queue up the next 400 songs on your record player and forget who sings them. You can't accidentally think America's "Horse With No Name" is by Neil Young just because a bunch of irresponsible Napster users labeled it that way all those millions of downloads ago.
I won't romanticize the listening experience. If you have a good stereo, and a good record player, you will enjoy greater sonic richness than you would on your iPod. But your run-of-the-mill thrift shop beater will not necessarily enhance your appreciation for the finer nuances of Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell. As far as interference goes, I like pops and hisses better than blip and blops. But that's me.
Maybe audiophilia is not the reason that vinyl has gone mainstream again. Perhaps it has more to do with the simple feeling that what you hold in your hands cannot be taken away from you. What's more, this thing in your hands is a cultural artifact with its own story beyond the sweeping cover art, song sequencing and wax grooving.
To speak nothing of the fact that newly reissued records are suddenly so cool that you can buy them at Urban Outfitters, the recent trends in record sales only touch the tip of the vinyl-culture iceberg. In the way that digital download sales tell a small part of a larger story called Music Piracy, the record sales that concern Soundscan will tell you pretty much nothing about scoring a first-run Velvet Underground & Nico at somebody's yard sale for three bucks, about spending $300 to get Demon Days shipped from Germany (glad I bought that for $19.99 the day it came out) or that there are so many unwanted copies of Frampton Comes Alive in circulation that it could be a suitable currency substitute for the penny. Seriously, stores could have a take-a-Frampton/leave-a-Frampton dish at the front counter.
For all the talk about how many radio-friendly units we're shifting on vinyl (I actually saw a Kelly Clarkson record once), classic rock lives on in bargain bins, swap meets and rumpus rooms across America. In the midst of the industry's highly visible vinyl revival, the less obvious used-vinyl trade may be far larger than we even realize. Hopefully the music industry doesn't sue us for it.
Speaking of which, after much unsuccessful toiling with iTunes, I resolved to upload my digital collection to Spotify. The process took about two days. As the digital transfer initiated, I walked over to my record shelf and searched for the right album to bring my temper down.
I scanned the rainbow wall of spines, some bright, colorful and thick, others flaking, flattened and split. Some, like Beck's now very difficult to find Midnite Vultures, were brand new when I got them. I was the first to pull back the cellophane just as they entered the universe. A far larger portion of my collection, though, had been my father's, somebody's uncle's, or the Salvation Army's.
Putting on Ray Charles or Miles Davis or any record that had wandered the earth for half a century before becoming mine, I could imagine its previous place of residence. A place I'd been. A place I'd never been. A place I might find myself in the future. Somewhere where the record had been loved and grooved into or somewhere where its sleeve had been used to scrawl a phone number no longer needed, perhaps no longer even in service.
I selected the Allman Brothers' Eat a Peach and threw it on
I turned the sleeve around in my hands, felt its textured cover, pored over the Hobbit-on-mushrooms village in the gatefold, beheld the unmistakable odor of dust and plastic. I never had this kind of relationship with my digital tunes. I try to hold my MP3s but fingering the USB port just doesn't bring the same tactile pleasure.
This vinyl had a life before me, several lives in fact. It has a ring on it where some inconsiderate jerk -- possibly its first owner -- placed a drink. Perhaps this individual played the record as the backdrop to a preponderant speech about the decaying social mores of the United States. Or maybe it was from the mellow part of an evening that eventually got a little out of hand.
There's an area of smudging on the back of the album that looks suspiciously like somewhere cocaine might once have been.
There's a Tupperware sealed-by-such-and-such-a-date sticker that says the record at one time belonged to Janet and that she lived in Glendale. The sticker didn't say what state Glendale was in.
There's a price-tag from a South Philly record store that went out of business 11 years ago, suggesting that Janet either fell on hard times, or fell out of love with the Allman Brothers or had to sell the record as part of her rehabilitation program.
Somehow, it found its way to the thrift shop where I purchased it for $4 in reasonably decent condition.
Unlike the version of this album that I once had on iTunes, this copy is mine and nobody can take it from me. This piece of media in my hands is 40-years-old. Before it ever got to me, this object played at parties, played while couples made love, played while couples broke up, played while the TV was on with no sound.
And it plays perfectly. Like a champ. It plays through scuffing, scratches and gouges. Forty-years-old and the music remains stubbornly, persistently and magically stored on the surface of this object. Forgive my non-scientific fascination with the actual howzits of the record player, but I dare say if we manage to keep ourselves on the electrical grid to that point, my Allman Brothers record will play 40 years from now.
Records aren't convenient. But perhaps nothing worth holding onto is.
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