Friday, March 15, 2013

Thoughts on the Vinyl Revival

Something Is Happening Here and You Might Know What It Is: Thoughts on the Vinyl Revival

The media, that vast nebulous barometer of the relative worth of all we love and hate, lately has been reporting that we are in the midst of a “vinyl revival”.  Some sources, including one that’s been making the social media rounds this week (,93610/) are even daring to suggest that said revival is over; its author, Jason Heller, wonders about the future of the vinyl revival.  A former record collector himself, Heller attempts to understand why people are listening to records in greater numbers now than they were, say, ten years ago and whether they will continue to do so.

First, let me say that, for me, vinyl never went away.  Sure, it stepped aside a bit, but I have always preferred the sound of records to that of CDs and mp3 (not to mention cassette tape).  (The warmth and fidelity of records played on a good (or even mid-level system) is a subject for another time.) I started buying records in earnest when I was ten; by eleven, I considered myself a record collector.  By college, my friends and family dreaded the thought of helping me move the collection.  But by graduate school, new releases were only coming out on CD and cassette, and the assortment of apartments, dorms, garrets, offices, and couches where I would awaken demanded that my listening habits be more mobile (as well as less loud), and I put my records in storage.  I didn’t completely stop buying vinyl, but I bought maybe twenty albums a year rather twenty a week (used albums, lest any of you think that I was or am wealthy).  Most of my listening was to CDs and mp3s, but I always knew that, given time and space, I’d get back to vinyl, and, indeed I knew many people who never left vinyl: they were mostly musicians (or former musicians) or people in the arts or who cared a lot about art, the occasional academic, some of them Luddites, some not.  And, even in my biggest collecting days, as a teenager, only some of my friends and family listened to vinyl; most listened to cassettes and, eventually, CDs, even the radio.  Vinyl has always been here, sometimes less visible than it is right now, but probably never quite as ubiquitous as professional nostalgics and the mass media would have us believe.

Cream, Disraeli Gears: an album that's travelled with me for decades.

I first realized there was a “vinyl revival” happening four or five years ago when an acquaintance who was neither a musician nor an academic (nor, I must say, what the nameless, faceless media would call a “hipster”) insisted, at a social event, with no foreknowledge of my record collecting past, that I listen to his records: a small stack of obvious classic rock titles (CCR and the Dead, I believe: neither big favorites around these parts) played on his ghastly lo-fi Crossley turntable recently purchased from Urban Outfitters (or possibly Best Buy).  We duly listened to “Fortunate Son” or something similar through a layer of distortion on the machine’s three-inch speaker while this acquaintance gushed about the greater sound quality of vinyl compared to CDs and mp3s.  For our purposes, let’s say I bit my tongue, felt myself superior, and acknowledged that something was happening here but I wasn’t sure what it was.

My current modest rig.

In the years since, on some level, I’ve asked myself many of the questions Jason Heller poses in his A.V. Club piece.  He sidesteps the most common argument made for the new rise of vinyl, nostalgia either for the music of the golden age of vinyl (from the 50s to the 80s) or for the performative act of revisiting the simpler, slower times that produced such music by playing it on antiquated technology. To be sure, embracing a form of technology abandoned by most of one’s peers inevitably carries some whiff of nostalgia, if we were present for vinyl the first time around.  However, the large number of younger vinyl collectors who have no memory of the omnipresence of vinyl suggests that the revival is not merely one of nostalgia.  Heller proposes that instead the rise in vinyl listening is a combination of marketing and community.   His description of the community of record collectors he remembers from his past smacks of nostalgia; just because record stores were, as Bob Mould had it “bulletin boards” for musicians in the 80s doesn’t make them intrinsically superior to the ways in which musicians now meet. And he worries that the marketing of overpriced and limited edition vinyl will destroy the current revival by causing burn-out among buyers. In particular, he sets his wary eye on a new reissue of Kenny Rogers’s The Gambler.  While I also will not be investing in old or new copy of this thrift-store perennial, I can’t fault either the record label for releasing it nor listeners for buying it.  And I deliberately say listeners and not collectors.  Sadly, I think this is where Heller’s article fails to get to the heart of the vinyl revival: his article concentrates far too much on the acquisition of vinyl, the collecting, and its cost, and not nearly enough on the listening.   It is the experience of listening, finally, that draws the vast majority of vinyl revivalists and old hands alike.


As a teacher of writing, I try to emphasize the fundamental importance of attention to detail.  Great writing, great literature, and great art require extreme attentiveness: every word of a great poet or novelist or essayist, every comma, every line break, every semi-colon must be accounted for.  Our duty as audience, if we are to enter into a conversation with a work of art, literary, visual, or musical, is to engage with it, if possible, with a similar degree to that of its creators.  But we are busy people in a busy world, bombarded by information and art, good and bad.  Too often we read haphazardly.  We skim.  We talk during movies and text through Mad Men or Breaking Bad.  Music might suffer the most; it is background to our commutes, to doing the dishes, to having a post-work drink.  It’s heard beneath the clinking of glasses and the chatter of strangers, and, when we do listen “seriously,” we most often do so with low-quality headphones playing low-quality mp3s while we jog or ride or pay bills or grade papers.  And the art, the music, becomes an accessory to our lives as lived, our soundtrack.

More art.
The act of listening to music on vinyl records, however, is not an entirely passive one, nor should it be.  It demands that we participate in the choice to respect art.  That is to say that the steps in the process demand our singular attention in the way that streaming audio, mp3s, or even CDs do not.  We must locate the physical record album in a record store or a thrift store (or it is ordered online and we wait for it to be delivered), We must choose, match, and maintain a stereo system (turntable, cartridge, stylus, receiver or amplifier, pre-amp, and speakers).  Finally, the disc must be removed, gently, from its protective sleeves before it is placed, gently, onto the turntable and the stylus is placed, oh so gently, onto it.  Some collectors liken these steps and their observance to the practices involved with other hobbies; many compare the playing of vinyl records to a tea ceremony so great is the importance placed upon its rituals.  What these comparisons miss is that, while the ritual elements may offer some comfort in their value as nostalgia or some ersatz connection to a world in which more people worked with their hands, they are not and should not be the end product or the aim: the aim is the music.  

Playing vinyl is like, in a secular sense, creating a space for performance, or, in a religious sense, creating a sacred place, in which we focus, for a brief amount of time, that of a fifteen to twenty-five minute album side, our attention completely upon Glenn Gould deconstructing Bach or Charlie Christian inventing the vocabulary of the electric guitar, on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or on the Dead Kennedy’s “Holiday in Cambodia” or even on Kenny Rogers crooning “The Gambler.”   In a climate in which everything is for sale, is louder, faster, cheaper, and one in which art is increasingly constructed as “data” for transfer, through legal or illegal means, the vinyl record demands that we treat art, its creation and its reception as sacred things, that we make space, in a too-fast consumer society, for art. And that is why people still listen to vinyl.