As part of the writing workshop I am in right now, I decided to dive a little deeper into a topic I touched on last year.
Its all just a little bit of history repeating.
I fell upon an incense-filled, Marley-shirt stocked, dusty, musty record shop in Wicker Park the other day. I went in and perused the colorful glass-blown display case ornaments, smelled the Lavender Dreams incense, and wondered what my hypothetical child would look like in a Janis Joplin onezie. I ogled over old Beatles live albums. I filed through rows and rows of The Wailers, Floyd, Zeppelin, Clapton, The Stones, and all variations of 1960s nostalgia. Then I came upon The Shins, Radiohead, The White Stripes, and an array of current indie rock bands. After initially pinching myself to ensure that I was not lost in a space/time continuum, I learned from the store owner that many bands today are recording onto vinyl. According to John Sepulvado from NPR, sales of new vinyl records are closing in on $1 million and there has been a spike in used vinyl sales as well. Where is this increased distribution coming from? I initially just thought this was a Wicker Park trend to buy records because retro and hippie chic is so hot right now. But there are a slew of reasons for the sales insurgence in today’s culture, each one varies with music lovers varying lifestyles and passions.
The sale of 7” vinyl singles has gone up in the last few years, due in part to the growing popularity of DJ mixing. The singles are the perfect size and length to mix hip hop beats with indie pop and techno songs. Why not modern up Sly and the Family Stone with Beck and his two turntables and a microphone? There are no anti-piracy laws to stop mix enthusiasts from tweaking a song to create their own sound with the help of Otis Redding. The pops and hisses of the vinyl on the turntable give the sound more character as well.
Another reason for the vinyl revival is the physicality of the product; there are still people out there that want a hard copy of albums. As the media industry becomes increasing digital, people are still looking for something they can hold in they hands, something to show off at a dinner party. Even the act of scratching a record on a turntable can be more fulfilling than sitting in front of your Mac digitally creating a sound. Plus, digital downloads of songs and albums have taken away from the importance of album cover art. The 1”x1” pixels on the iTunes Store screen doesn’t evoke the same emotions that a 12”x12” cardboard canvas does. In the past, the cover art was part of the feel of the album, meant to evoke certain emotions and supplement the story that the music told. The story behind the iconic Abbey Road cover, the Fab Four walking away from the Abbey Road Studio, is symbolic of the end of the Beatles’ pop culture reign. The memories of that era go hand in hand with the album cover.
If the industry continues to support the vinyl medium, and as digital continues to change the future of the industry, the need for CDs may become extinct. Most people download CDs to their computer and lose the CD in piles of old software discs and user manuals. Vinyl records may push CDs into extinction. Records give the user a better sense of the music it holds with the grooves in the vinyl. CDs, with the sterile indestructible material, are less connected to the listener. Even the wear and tear of the vinyl record can bring back memories that CDs can’t. How often do you hear Sympathy for the Devil on 97.9 and sing along, sounding like a broken record because your old album always used to skip at “pleased to meet you meet you meet you”?
New indie bands today are expanding their fan base and distribution by recording their albums on vinyl and selling to specialty record shops. As a classic rock junkie sift through the records, looking for a lost copy of Kansas’ Leftoverture that, last he remembers, was spinning in Chazz’s turntable in 1975. As he looks he comes across Kings of Leon Because of the Times. He had heard the band toured with Dylan once and decides that if Dylan can vouch for them, they must be worth a listen. By sticking current albums in amongst these music legends, new bands are increasing their credibility among the rock gods true critics; their loyal fans.
But how has vinyl kept from falling to the same fate as CDs to digital music? It’s about more than the surface of the material or the industry. It’s the sound, the time, the story, the scene, the act. Its about sitting down in your room after standing in front of your shelves of records trying to decide the perfect one to fit the mood you are in, or the mood you want to be in, because you know the perfect key to your inner self is tucked somewhere amongst these pillars of albums. It’s about sitting down in your overstuffed La-Z-Boy that has made every move with you since college. It’s about pulling the lid off your old turntable. It’s about hearing the pop and spin as needle hits vinyl and the record takes off. It’s about not leaving the room, consciously allowing the music to take over your time and thoughts. You may read, you may write, you may smoke, you make drink while listening. But every action is changed because you are sharing the room with the sound. You can’t leave it. You don’t want to leave it. It’s about the need that the turntable has for you, the help it elicits from you when it needs the record to be flip before it can go on. Neither of you will be satisfied until the music starts again. It’s about not just putting your 10,000 song MP3 player on shuffle and going about your day with a subconscious buzz as songs wiz past you. It’s about not missing a beat. It’s about the experience the artist intended you to have while listening to the sound they created just for you, just for your mood, just for your moment in your room.