Love in a Time of Digital

My father entered the room to find his boyhood copy of Gerry and the Pacemakers Greatest Hits blaring. The floor was littered with records – some out of their protective jackets, some carelessly stacked on top of one another, and some still in a bin waiting to be played. At the epicenter of the mess were his stereo system and his four-year-old son. His face grew red with displeasure – he had taught me how to use his turntable and invited me to explore his trove of music, but had apparently forgotten to stress the importance of caring for the records. I do not recall exactly what happened after my old man walked in – perhaps it is of no consequence, or perhaps I am suppressing it. Either way, I have since treated vinyl as a precious commodity, even as cassette tapes, compact discs, MiniDiscs, personal computers, and iPods have sought to make the medium completely obsolete.

A number of months ago, I was searching through the bargain bins at a local record store when I found an interesting piece: a nearly-pristine original copy of the soundtrack to Black Orpheus, considered by many to be the record that launched Jobim, Bossa Nova, and American fascination with Brazilian music. I stared in disbelief. Here in the dollar bin was a historical document – the beginning of a cultural movement – flanked by an 80’s Ozzy Osbourne LP and a ruined copy of The Dark Side of the Moon. It’s not just the obscure records, either. Just weeks earlier, I had a similar shocking experience at another bargain rack, this one involving an original Veejay imprint of Introducing the Beatles, one of the first Beatles LPs available in America.

Of course, the contents of Black Orpheus and Introducing the Beatles are readily available on CD. This is irrelevant – to compare an original vinyl pressing of a record to its CD analog is to compare a first edition Hemingway to a modern soft-cover edition. The content is essentially identical (or, in some cases, enhanced), but gone is the sense of historic significance. A compact disc – like an mp3 file, a cassette tape, or (gasp) eight-track – is merely a medium of convenience. In the immortal words of Ron Popeil, you set it and forget it.

Conversely, vinyl is the only medium in existence that demands some degree of active listening. Time must be devoted to caring for one’s turntable and wax collection. The acts of calibrating tone arms, replacing styli, carefully removing dust from albums, and gently placing records in their sleeves make for an intimate connection between media and listener. Such a tangible connection to the media seems to increase its preciousness. Since the listener’s enjoyment of his favorite albums is directly related to the physical integrity of those albums, the music becomes something to be cherished and preserved. You won’t be finding LPs carelessly strewn about the back seat of somebody’s car in the blazing summer heat. Additionally, the non-portability of a record means that its contents cannot be easily relegated to “background music” status. One cannot run on an elliptical machine or mow the lawn with a turntable strapped to his waistline.

The bottom, I am told, is falling out from under the vinyl market. I cannot provide evidence to the contrary – aside from my experiences with cheap vinyl, I have recently witnessed the closing of Finyl Vinyl, my preferred Manhattan record enclave. I wonder if the lack of respect for vinyl is tied to a lack of respect for the history of music in general. Most of us see music as ubiquitous commodity rather than art, and for good reason – it provides the backdrop for our commercials, shopping excursions, subway rides, and leisure activities. We seem lost without it, yet few appreciate where it came from. In fifty years, the people who have heard the Beatles on the tinny speakers of a mono turntable will be few and far between. Who will remember that albums were comprised of A and B sides, not 74 minutes of continuous music? Who will remember the sensation of flipping through liner notes in record stores? With the continuing rapid digitalization, who will remember that music even came on a physical medium in the first place? Who will care?

I began collecting vinyl to recapture forgotten awe. The rumble of a record on a turntable is enough to send me back to my earliest moments as a music consumer. Perhaps more importantly, it provides me with a link to the earliest moments of modern music consumerism, period.

Let the bottom fall out from the vinyl market. I’ll be standing diligently underneath, waiting to catch whatever falls.

Stephen Press is a producer, critic, and songwriter based out of New York City. He is the author of the daily blog MP3some and records under the name of Nick Adams.

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