Why Vinyl? Because the Physical Object Still Matters
Why vinyl? I’ve been reading a lot of think pieces from various indie music news outlets recently and everyone’s bemoaning the difficulties of vinyl. Some folks say that vinyl doesn’t sound better than digital CDs, while other folks relate the nearly-year-long wait for new vinyl to be pressed. Still, others talk about how vinyl’s the domain of the impossibly-annoying hipster (kinda true that one).
So why did I take a gig writing about vinyl music for No Depression when I don’t even have an ironic mustache? (My beard is decidedly non-ironic.) Because I like to collect things, and I like to collect music. That’s the draw for me, and I suspect the same is true for a lot of others as well. I do feel like vinyl sounds different, but I suppose some of that could be just from me expecting it to sound better. What really appeals to me about vinyl is that it got me back into music buying. Sure, I’ll pick up albums on Bandcamp all the time, or maybe do a short run on CDBaby, or toss a couple new albums in with my Amazon Prime order. Hell, I might even snatch up the new Decemberists album at Starbucks while I’m waiting in line for my over-priced coffee.
Since I work in the music business, I might not be the best indicator, but I’m fine riding the line between physical and digital sales for music. What gets me are the record stores these days. A recent Pitchfork article talked about how CDs have always looked like office supplies, and that’s even more true now. Dusty, scuffed jewel cases from the late ’90s, of boring bands, stuffed end over end into racks, just isn’t cutting it for me anymore. And then you have the new, shiny jewel cases of the recently released folk or roots albums from the last few remaining distributors. I just don’t get paying $17 for an album I don’t think the store clerks even know or care about. Maybe I’d feel different if I loved indie rock or something more popular, but I don’t. I’m a folkie through and through and CD stores today just depress me. They remind me how much times have changed.
But records are fun again! Not only does the new vinyl look heavy, important, even fancy, but the purchases feel decadent, like you’re actually supporting an artist and making a statement about the music you love. I feel like lighting up a cigar every time I pick up a $25 vinyl album. I feel like I deserve a hand-shake from the record store clerk whenever I get new vinyl. Which is all fun and good, and kinda shallow too, but the used bins have become my new nirvana. Here’s where I can pick up super obscure, weird shit that people barely cared about in the first place for cheap. (Sealed vinyl of an Inuit country singer from the 1970s in a Vancouver record shop? Yes, please!) Sometimes these are crazy cheap. The $1 or 50-cent bins at used record stores can be quite the rush.
I’m not alone. I think most young music collectors got into vinyl because it was so cheap at thrift stores and nobody cared about it. Certainly, that’s what I’ve been hearing in my interviews with artists. Of course, now that vinyl’s been rediscovered, record stores are jacking up the used vinyl prices to a crazy degree and have priced most folks out of the game. This is also why I think a lot of music collectors have moved to cassette tapes and why we’re seeing a burgeoning cassette tape revival. When records got overpriced, cassette tapes were still super cheap. Being able to pick up old music for so little, whether vinyl at key places or cassettes anywhere, means that we can afford to experiment. We can pick up that weird vinyl with a cool cover just to try it out and if it sucks, we haven’t lost much.
But more than that, collecting old vinyl just got me back into valuing the physical object again. The Napster generation saw our physical connection to music ruptured, and a decade of shitty, stolen/traded mp3s later, nobody has much trust in digital music. Sure, it’ll give you a quick fix, and there’s nothing wrong with pulling up Sam Cooke on Apple Music or Spotify or whatever, but stumbling on a Sam Cooke LP in an old record bin, dusting it off, bringing it home, putting it on the record player, and hearing something that’s just a little bit closer to the actual moment when Sam Cooke sung those words into that microphone (rather than beamed from space by some mega-corporation at a questionable bit rate) … Well, that means something more.