Quarantine Quandaries – Vinyl

As I write this the world is on lock-down. Quarantine is in effect and the world seems to be grinding to a halt as we try to carry on daily life amid a truly global pandemic.

In light of that I find myself given more time at home, inside. And despite everything that is ongoing, music is still there to fall back on, to escape to. With that time I hope to get some thoughts down and hopefully start some discussion.

Off the back of the previous post on “The Album” I wanted to visit a closely related topic. There is a New Yorker comic where two men are standing in front of an array of vinyl and hi-fi equipment. And one speaks to the other saying “The two things that really drew me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience.”

It’s a great comic and the fact this hits so close to the bone for me is telling, but, to that I retort “You say that like it’s a bad thing?” The album is the format I gauge an artist’s work by and is what I listen to the majority of the time (as opposed to playlists). I didn’t grow up in the birth and heyday of vinyl but we have certainly entered a renaissance period. I am not alone in the worship of wax. So why, I hear you asking, should you spend money and effort on the procurement of physical when, with just a few clicks, the internet can play almost any piece of music you want? Good question. Let me break it down.

Is this inconvenient? Certainly. Is this vastly rewarding? Most definitely.

Ritual plays a role in everyone’s lives. Your morning coffee routine, that workout plan you follow, your commute to work. And music is probably there in some form or other already. Maybe it’s tuning in to your favourite radio station or finding that playlist you just made to get you through the workday. For me the whole process of vinyl is a ritual and one which, by its very inconvenience, forms an enduring bond with the music it produces. Care must be taken throughout, from removing the record from its protective sleeve, holding it by its edges, cleaning the groves before carefully lowering the needle. This is an active process for which you, as a listener, have to be present, not simply passively hitting play and forgetting. Forcing you to engage. Flipping halfway though you are offered a brief recourse, a second to collect your thoughts before being thrown right back to the second side. Is this inconvenient? Certainly. Is this vastly rewarding? Most definitely.

When I think of my favourite musicians and albums I am instantly reminded of visuals as much as I am by the music itself. MF DOOM’s mask on Madvillainy, wilted flowers on De La Soul is Dead, a throng of bodies in front of the White House on Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly. In your vinyl collection you hold a revolving gallery of visual art which more than merits a space on your wall. Art collectors spend thousands on pieces, I might spend thirty, often less.

Madvillain – Madvillainy (Stones Throw Records)
De La Soul – De La Soul is Dead (Tommy Boy)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

And the visual appeal doesn’t just stop at the cover art. Labels such as Mellow Music Group, Stones Throw, Redefinition Records, Rhymesayers and King Underground amongst others understand the entire package of vinyl can be used as a tool to further differentiate it from the digital realm. Embossed lettering, textured papers, gatefold covers, pop-up images and liner notes deliver content to decipher and connect with as you play the music that reverberates from within the groves. Posters, stickers, coasters, lyric sheets and often digital download codes too are included within the sleeve. Perhaps most striking of all are the modifications to the vinyl itself; Coloured vinyl and picture disks throw vivid hues and images atop your turntable to mesmerising effect, Etchings within dead wax or on blank sides reveal hidden images when illuminated. Plus, getting your hard drive signed at a live show isn’t quite the same is it? Do these alter the music itself? Of course not, but I’m having a great time connecting with it on a deeper level through these interactions. And that counts for something.

Quelle Chris – Being you is great! I wish I could be you more often (Mello Music Group)
Run the Jewels – RTJ 2 (Mass Appeal Records)

The process of purchasing records also separates it from its digital counterpart. Of course, online retail exists for records too, but there are still thousands of record stores out there. To enter a shop is an experience unto itself and each shop offers its own unique personality. Taking the time, flicking though box after box of records until something catches your eye. I’ve taken chances on records and discovered gems I wouldn’t have if it was digital. Of course I’ve had duds too but that’s life. A store may be playing an unfamiliar tune that catches your ear, it’s a microcosm which showcases the employees own tastes and an opportunity to interact with another human over a shared passion. Speak to them, ask what’s playing and you may just discover, not only new music, but a trusted source of further delights.

So we’ve covered the inconvenience factor, what about the expense side of the argument? Well, even if you’re averaging 15 per album that adds up fast and the problem with starting a collection is the addictive nature makes you want to grow it. Second-hand is a great resource for cheaper albums but typically you’re going to find mainly albums from the 70’s and 80’s. (I’d advise you to embrace this. Hip hop is built upon sampling so chances are some of your favourite producers have sampled what is in your hand.) But, that being said if you want new vinyl you’re going to spend a few times the cost of a monthly digital subscription service on just one album. And not to mention you now need something to play this on. Turntable, amplifier and speakers. Perhaps some stands. Why would anyone endure this? The old adage “you get what you pay for” rings loud and true here, literally. Now, I’m not one to proclaim vinyl necessarily sounds better than digital, however, with a half decent hi-fi set up you will rediscover a whole new world in your music collection. Bass that shakes your soul, intricate details you never knew existed and a soundstage that makes you believe you are right there in the recording studio.

There you have it, the pursuit of collecting a heavy, largely outdated, costly piece of plastic. It’s time-intensive, makes you work to listen, forces you to use your legs to walk to a store (oh the humanity!) and don’t get me started on organizing it. Honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way. You say it’s expensive and inconvenient and I repeat, “You say that like it’s a bad thing?”

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