Put The Needle On The Record

At parties and work functions, I am often asked, "Why collect vinyl records?" So, I decided to write down exactly why I feel the way I do about music and the vinyl medium. Not only so I would have an answer to this common query, but also so I would understand my own obsession a tad bit better. This essay seemed a great way to kick off our features section with a bit of a mission statement vibe.

There is a magical, scratchy popping sound in my life.  It's got a warm, sort of fuzzy yet etched gritty tone to it that fills me with anticipation and happiness.  My thumb made it happen.  That cushy ball of flesh on the outside of the opposable digit on my right hand lifted a metal arm on to a spinning disc of grooved vinyl and made this sound - and that sound is excitement.  Songs are coming; the sounds of a real live record, started with actual hands and played through actual speakers.  This action and its consequences make me unspeakably pleased.

I love my records.  I don't mean my compact discs or the shit cluttering up my iTunes disk space.  I mean my vinyl records.  If, like me, you are over the age of 30 you have at least some vague recollection of a smoky Saturday night party in your parent's rec room that involved a Boston LP or a greatest hits collection of some band you could give a damn about now like The Doobie Brothers or The Eagles.  But you remember that party.  You remember everything seemed dark and mysterious yet simultaneously bright and vibrant.  There were buckets of laughter going on almost all of the time even though no one was telling anything that seemed like jokes.  The room smelled like a summer night filled with stale beer and house plants. 

Like most people, specifically most Americans in these pre-pubescent years of the 21st century, I own a great deal of junk.  My house is stuffed to the gills with stuff I don't need and things I will likely never use to their full potential.  I have shirts in my closet I will never wear and used books on my shelves I will likely never finish reading.  There are leftover magazines I store for no particular reason and board games I have played but once - and that episode of use was probably obligatory as that Jenga box came from a thoughtful relative on Christmas Eve and my wife might point out that "it would be a shame not use it at least once".  Most of this crap is just that: crap.  My records somehow have achieved a station above my other belongings.

There are something like 1600 records in the cabinets in the upstairs hallway of my humble house.  There is a series of nice shelving that I specifically purchased (and assembled) for the purpose of holding my myriad LPs.  For the hardcore record collector, this number seems shamefully small.  Any self-respecting collector in their early 40's (as I admittedly am) should be much farther along than just 1600 odd LPs.  This may be true, but I am not a collector.  My records are not all stored in high end polyvinyl sleeves and are not purchased for their "future value".  None of my LPs are viewed as an investment and at no point have I ever once considered buying a duplicate copy of a record just to get an earlier pressing or a limited edition version.  These are not artifacts or display pieces.  They were purchased to be listened to, shared with others and mostly to be enjoyed.

“Music listening is not, or at the least should not, be an endeavor whose principle source of enjoyment comes from its convenience. ”

To the uninitiated, the idea of housing and listening to this many physical records probably seems idiotic.  The cynical vinyl neophyte would most likely assume that I still obtain addresses and phone numbers by flipping through a physical copy of the yellow pages in lieu of getting online.  Anyone who would wholeheartedly embrace such an antiquated technology must also drive around in a car that still uses leaded gasoline, right?  A device like an iPod takes up almost no room and holds as much storage as the entirety of my myriad cabinets and stacks of vinyl.  For those who grew up after the age of vinyl or are simply sycophants for the fancies of technological advancement and seek primarily to expedite and consolidate all cultural experiences my vinyl stores must seem a colossal waste of time and money.

Music listening is not, or at the least should not, be an endeavor whose principle source of enjoyment comes from its convenience.  If things were only about convenience we would have pizza delivered for dinner every night.  I don't want my connection to all of the music ever created to be conducted through a tiny little device that is primarily designed to be used as part of a one person experience.  Sure, an iPod, - and we have two of these devices in our house for the record - can be attached to a stereo or the sound system of an automobile and dispensed for those within earshot to hear it.  Yet, the idea of the iPod and other devices like it is to regain control of our music; control over what songs we want to omit from our records; control over what order we want our songs to be played; control over what genres play nice with each other; and control over the idea a tiny digital image or series of zeroes and ones compressed into a degradable format with a little jpeg attached for a visceral experience.  There are times when this model of convenience and portability comes in handy.  Road trips, jogging and walking are certainly times when it's not only inconvenient to listen to old fashioned records, but it is indeed fabulous to take loads of music in my pocket.  That is why an iPod should be in existence; so that my records can still come with me to a place where records don't make sense.  The iPod is a Plan B for when the vinyl of Plan A is impractical.  It should not be a way to make Plan A unnecessary or obsolete.  This control has its place, but the impermanence of the equation takes too much enjoyment away for me in a place like my living room.

Perhaps the most nefarious use of the iPod is that it's changing the idea of music listening forever, whether it means to or not.  I will not, absolutely will not, go on some audiophile diatribe about why vinyl sounds better.  In very much the same way that I would never waste my time and yours to cover the merits of large format HD televisions or rave about the impracticality, nay stupidity, of the 3D television craze.  This will not become a discussion of fidelity, bass frequencies or listening quality.  Frankly, I don't care about any of that.  The quality of the sounds coming from your stereo is none of my concern.  What frosts my cookies here is that music has become a virtual thing.  It has come to be perceived like air.  It is out there floating around and if you want it, you go get it - sort of.  You open up iTunes or Grooveshark or a bit torrent site and get your fix.  As a consumer, even if we pay for the music we listen to there is almost no sacrifice.  There is no wait.  There is no sense of accomplishment.  It is all too available and it's all too easy to get at.  Because of this, we tend to view music through very much the same lens that we tend to view the stuff piled up at a weekend garage sale crammed in a weathered Banker's Box with a big sign marked FREE STUFF.  If it was any good, we wouldn't be able to get it so easily. 

I can remember being in my teens and early twenties trudging down to the local record store at midnight on a Monday to snag a copy of the brand new Morrissey LP or the next R.E.M. record.  It was as much about the experience of buying the record as it was about the music itself.  On the car ride home there was the frantic removal of cellophane to reveal liner notes, lyric sheets and photo spreads.  All these things were then pored over meticulously both on the way home and during the first few nascent listens of the new purchase.  There was a physical joy and a sense of success in the purchase of a new record.  Now, it's a simple megaupload click at 2:41 in the morning something like three weeks before the record actually comes out.  No anticipation and no communal experience - just a meager and minimized reward with no interaction or genuine effort.  To a grizzled old record buyer, this seems a sad and lonely substitute for the mild satisfaction of having to wait a few days fewer.

“[Record collecting] is exactly like bird watching or antique hunting or going for wine tastings, except that when you do those things you are almost assured of never scoring a clean copy of the White Album for five dollars at a small town library sale while on vacation with your kids.”

There is also a magical creative captivity of listening to a record on vinyl.  There are a handful of carefully sequenced songs crammed into fifteen or twenty minutes on a grooved side of wax.  The technology is designed to keep you from manipulating it.  There are no options for custom playlists or shuffled songs.  You put the needle down and you listen to those records until the side is over.  At our house, we have a vinyl only on the stereo policy and with it, a game that we inherited from some friends.  That game is known as "Flip It Or Skip It".  When the side of a record is over, the person who gets to choose the next record is welcome to flip the record from Side A to Side B or to take the record off the table and choose a new LP to listen to on one side.  My youngest daughter seems to especially appreciate this game and it's a blast to watch her ruminate over whether to flip or skip.  But, even when she doesn't like the record being played, she never tries to take it off early or skip the songs she dislikes.  She waits the side out and makes her selection.  The game teaches her patience and the understanding of how a record works in the concept of extended creativity.  Music to her is not something only seen in three minute chunks.  It has a beginning, a middle and an end.  Furthermore, the actual physical act of taking a record in your hands and being careful to flip it or put it back in its sleeve ever so carefully imparts a respect of music in a concrete way.  She sees music as an actual thing, not as blips on laptop or a list of files on a device.  Music is a thing you can scratch and see and touch and feel and smell and flip.

“Record hunting can remind you that there will always be more great records out there than you can keep up with and that finding a fifty cent collection of Conway Twitty hits is far more memorable and interesting - at least to me - than downloading a pirated version of the latest Rascall Flats album.”

I openly acknowledge that I have spent a lot of money on my records.  Everyone that you have ever known has spent stupid amounts of money on something you thought was bereft of value.  Everyone - even you.  Mountains of cash have been squandered on alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, massage parlors, gambling, tickets to Michael Bay/Ben Affleck movies, alphabet soup books by Sue Grafton (A is for Awful by the way), gasoline tinged yet vaguely citrus-like energy drinks, $7 coffees and a whole lot more.  Are you aware of the estimated value of the NASCAR racing league?  I mean I have no idea what it's actually worth, but I guarantee you that it's more than the $3.57 value it has in my head.  Right now, if you think for just a few minutes you can think of at least one thing you waste money on regularly.  Ever bought some rare Beanie Babies, gone "antiquing" or scored an authentic Happy Days lunch box?  How about that Star Wars figure I see on your computer desk?  If that's original and you didn't get it when you were 9, you paid the street value of half of my records for it.  It's all relative and we live in the same nerdy, ramshackle glass house of cultural guilt.  Let's move on and stop judging each other.  Beanie Babies?  Really?  Jesus Christ!  But I digress.

Yes, I have spent - even wasted at times - lots of money on records.  However, vinyl is still the most cost effective way to build a sizable collection of music you want to own.  From used bins at local stores to record shows, estates sales and flea markets, record deals are out there for the intrepid music buyer.  For the record buyer with a bit of adventure, a hunt for used records can lead to interesting conversations, finds of an Indiana Jones style proportion and even a few new friends.  Yes, it is exactly like bird watching or antique hunting or going for wine tastings, except that when you do those things you are almost assured of never scoring a clean copy of the White Album for five dollars at a small town library sale while on vacation with your kids.  Record hunting can remind you that there will always be more great records out there than you can keep up with and that finding a fifty cent collection of Conway Twitty hits is far more memorable and interesting - at least to me - than downloading a pirated version of the latest Rascall Flats album.

If you were there, at that party in that rec room way back when, you know what real records are and you know that they aren't something you file with thumbnails in some bullshit program that recommends more virtual files to you based on algorithms.  If you were in that room, you know the way the record sticks to the inner sleeve with a palpable static electricity the first time you slide it from it's shiny paper womb.  You know the gentle balancing act of the edge of a vinyl record resting on the cushy butt of your palm while your carefully extended fingertips cradle the label in the record's center as you ferry it to the turntable.  You know that holding a 12" x 12" record jacket comes with a musty overtone that is the aroma of youth and freedom and feels like promise in your own two hands.  And you know, more than anything, that in some way, when the moment is just so, vinyl can take you back to that room and you can smell that smell of summer and hear that laughter and flip (or skip) a record or two.