a digital realist rethinks the future for vinyl
Since this site became active over a year ago, I recognize that I’m somewhat of a lone wolf when it comes to my feelings about listening to music digitally. Oh, there’s quite a few of you who embrace the mp3 and can see the cloud technology coming at us on the horizon, but for the most part we have many readers and posters saying that they won’t let anyone pry their dead cold fingers off of their CD collection, or will only listen to 180 gram Japanese-pressed vinyl. And there’s still one or two of you who romanticize the mini-disc and one inch tape any chance you get.
For me, I’ve finished uploading most of the old stuff. The new stuff that lands on my desk gratis from bands and label folk who are kind enough to keep me on their mailing lists immediately gets digitized. Downloads are purchased from Amazon, iTunes or CD Baby based on whoever offers the best price at the moment. And I’ve discovered many websites that offer free and legal music downloads…artists, label samplers, live archives, public domain, the aforementioned Amazon and more.
As far as sound quality goes: I grew up listening to broadcasts from WSM, WWVA, WMCA, WABC and CKLW late at night on a plastic Remco crystal radio kit I built, and the headphones were made out of cardboard. When I got older it was a transistor radio with a one and a half inch speaker. I saw and heard the Beatles, Stones, Rascals, Spoonful and every other sixties artist on Ed Sullivan through my parent’s Dumont entertainment center with the teak finish. My old ’62 Dodge had only AM radio and when I replaced it with an English Ford Cortina, I laid out the dough for an 8-track player. I skipped getting cassettes until a deck was thrown in for free with that new ’86 Toyota and I didn’t own a compact disc player until ’91 when my boss at Capitol Records gave it to me as a gift because I was the only guy in the office without one and it embarrassed him. (Hey Vyto…did I ever thank you?)
The point being: I’m not a dog. I don’t have ultra-super-fine hearing where I need to have the biggest, the best or the greatest. People complain that digital music is cold. That it’s compressed. That it takes off the highs and messes with the lows. That it’s not natural sounding and you can’t touch it, stare at the cover or read the liner notes. (As if I had the time to do those last two things.) “Digital files can be lost!” they scream with fear…as if having multiple backups in safe places doesn’t exist or that whatever is acquired can’t be replaced. It can. Almost everything is out there in digital-land.
So to be clear, I like the sound of music that the iPod and laptop deliver. For me, it sounds great coming through my Shure Sound Isolating Earphones when I walk the dog or make it to the gym, or the Klipsch dock that I picked up at Costco which sits right here on my desk plugged into the laptop. I have lost interest in ownership of physical goods, and I spend more time listening to music now then I have since I ran a record store back in the early eighties. And while I know digital doesn’t work for many of you here, it does for me.
Did you know that iTunes is now America’s number one music store? Amazon (physical and digital combined) is tied for number two with Wal Mart (which I now boycott thanks to a “Grant rant”. See dude…you do make a difference). Add in all the illegal downloads and file sharing (Spain reports that 96% of ALL downloads there are done illegally to give you an idea of scope) and what you got is a digital tidal wave. So although here in our little No Depression World y’all like your plastic, it’s coming to a close eventually.
Or so I thought….because here is where we get to my new thought about vinyl. Finally.
Sort of. I need to meander for a moment.
I had 16s and 78s when I was a kid. I collected 45s starting when Elvis left for Germany. My first LP was a Ray Charles budget release with only one vocal and a bunch of piano solos. In ’72 I had over a thousand albums and within eight years the collection was well over 15,000 . Twenty years later I sold off most of it so we could have a down payment for our first house and now all I have left are maybe three or four hundred titles of what might be considered “rare and collectible”. They’ve been in my office closet along with a huge dusty unused sound system I received many years ago as part of a severance package.
My oldest boy has been hounding me for over a year to let him listen to my albums and I kept bobbing and weaving. Don’t know why I felt so reticent but I kept putting him off. Last week he asked again and I looked over and said…”Why don’t we take that sound system of mine apart and put it up in your room? And while we’re at it, if you do the heavy lifting you can move the albums up too.” And so he’s been sitting up in his bedroom listening and enjoying and it’s all cool with me.
Last Sunday we drove down to Venice for lunch, spent an afternoon at Amoeba Records in Hollywood and planned a night at the Grand Old Echo (which I had to unfortunately skip because this bronchitis thing is kicking my ass). For those who have never been to Amoeba, it is the world’s largest record store and a force unto it’s own. In addition to having the most titles you’ve ever seen under one roof, they have a huge, knowledgeable and approachable staff, great live performances, charity events, a clientele that runs the gamut from tourist to celebrity and I have never ever seen so many customers in one place. Ever. Even back in the heydays of record stores. I’ll guess that there were roughly 500 or more shoppers there. There were fourteen cashiers on duty and the line stretched from the front to the back most of the time. It’s simply amazing, and keep in mind this was a holiday weekend.
It’s been a few months since we last visited and as we strolled in I immediately noticed there have been a few changes. When they opened years ago, the vinyl selection was small but over time it’s slowly been taking up more and more space. Now it’s been expanded, alphabetized, genre-ized and imports and new releases have been aggressively added in to the mix. They merchandise it along with the compact discs and people both young and old are browsing and buying.
Hmmm….despite that vinyl sales have steadily been increasing these past few years and last year sales exceeded 2,000,000 units of new product, I have often made fun of the claim that “vinyl’s back!” because in the overall sales metric, it’s just a drop in the bucket. But for what it’s worth, I’m now thinking that there’s something happening here that I didn’t quite see.
The kid came in specifically looking for a limited 500 unit pressing from Canadian post-rock unit Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Just as he reached the section, three other kids came along and pulled all of the records out from under his nose. For the next hour he kept an eye on those boys and finally it paid off, as one returned it to the bin and my guy grabbed it. He paid $14.99 and considers it more than just an album. The cover is simple but handcrafted. Inside there are little slips of artwork that are unique and unusual, as well as liner notes. He views it as artwork as well as just music. You wouldn’t get it in a download or a stream, and if it was a CD it would have lacked a certain visual that only an album cover can convey. So yeah…I get it.
A few weeks ago Mick Jagger made an interesting comment about the music business to Billboard Magazine (I think that’s the source). To paraphrase, he noted that in the sixty or seventy years of the post-WW2 recording industry, artists have only had a relatively small window of about twenty years where they actually derived income from record sales. In the beginning they were just plain ripped off. Eventually they were victims of recoup-able advances and outrageous charges posted against their accounts. And finally as they started to see some income…the world started believing that music was either free for the taking or worth no more than $9.99 per CD. So sales slowed down, the record stores closed up and if you want to earn (barely) a living in music, the only chance you get is performing live and selling stuff from the merch table. And the point Mick spoke to was that in a digital environment where it’s easy and generally accepted to copy files, an artist should no longer expect to make a buck from their recordings, and he’s at peace with that notion. (Of course, he can afford not to be outraged at this point.)
While there is only one Amoeba (well three actually, but I specifically mean the big one in Hollywood)
and the concept wouldn’t necessarily fly in Peoria, I am now thinking that there could indeed be a “back to nature” movement. Small indie record stores selling unique artist-made vinyl albums that will compliment what will no doubt be an almost all-digital landscape in the coming future. Artists selling them at shows and through their websites. And it won’t be driven by sound quality per se, but the creative packaging and the feeling one gets in having an opportunity for ownership and connection. It’s already happening to some extent (see Paul’s Marah post) and I can see the growth chart.
It’s a concept I lost sight of but it’s coming back into focus.