I’ve really enjoyed revisiting all my old LPs over the past few weeks, despite a brief setback (the cool-looking Crosley retro turntable I picked for Christmas turned out to be a defective piece of trash, so I replaced it with a highly rated entry-level AudioTechnica, which has proven to be a brilliant decision). Listening to music this way has really proven quite engrossing, not because of any “analog audio sounds warmer, man” mumbo-jumbo but rather because it’s participatory. There’s a physical act involved in playing a record that begins with removing it from its sleeve, is punctuated with flipping the disc after 18-22 minutes of music, and ends with replacing the record in its jacket.
Again, this isn’t some mystical ritual or anything, just a practical connection. I have no intention of becoming some sort of vintage snob—I will never go back to analog video from the glory of HD digital films, thanks, and I certainly plan to listen to music on my iPhone or Spotify or whatever most of the time. This LP experience, however, definitely makes for more immersive listening. It forces me to take part in the process instead of simply hitting “shuffle” and tuning out… so while it’s not good for when I do want to tune out, it’s a nice way to wake up in the morning.
Investing an effort into something, I find, yields greater satisfaction for me than if something is simply handed to me. (Which is probably why I always bite off more than I can chew in terms of projects and ideas, but never mind that.) I don’t think this is baseless romanticism, either—this somewhat depressing article I saw this morning bears it out. When something becomes commoditized, it loses its sense of value. We saw it in the ’90s as people began accumulating a pile of thousands of classic game ROMs, and it’s true with music and video streaming, too. It’s awesome to have instant access to the greater portion of the past 50 years’ worth of humanity’s creative output, but the sheer immensity and immediacy of it all does have a tendency to render it all mundane. Who cares if recording artists can live off their work, we want to gorge on a buffet of their creative efforts! For free! Art has no value!
I’ve certainly been guilty of falling into that trap. Ironically, the LP albums I own are ones I’ve had sitting in storage for 15 years, some of which I’d never even listened to before now. They were commodities themselves when I bought them from record shops in the ’90s: Owners dumped their record collections to move to CDs, leaving used music shops desperate to move that unwanted vinyl along in turn to make room for more profitable forms of music. Most of the records I own still have secondhand shop price tags on them: $1, $2, maybe $3 in extremis. I would randomly buy records by bands I liked because they were practically free, then sometimes never bother listening them, because I could enjoy those same tunes more conveniently on CD or on my amazing Digital River Rio MP3 player. It could hold up to 2.5 hours of music at once in a box smaller than a deck of playing cards! Wow!
Now, though, I own more CDs than I care to count, have a Spotify account, use an mobile phone capable of holding several weeks’ worth of CD-quality music, and can basically listen to any song in the world whenever I want—if I don’t own it and it doesn’t stream, I can probably get it for 99 cents on iTunes. These records have acquired new import with this change in perspective. I have a limited selection of LPs (somewhere around 40, including a ridiculous number of Jethro Tull albums I don’t remember buying, because again I acquired them for the price of a single track download on iTunes), and they’re a chore to listen to.
And that’s great! When I listen to this old music, I have to make a thoughtful choice about what I want to hear, and every few songs I have to switch sides. I’m usually listening early in the morning, when my wife’s either still asleep or working, so I generally wear headphones while playing LPs, which necessarily creates a physical anchor. There’s a commitment involved that shuffling through 50GB of digital music on a pocket telephone obviates, and it’s kind of nice! And the limitations of the medium work in its favor, too. I’d forgotten how the limited length of a record side breaks music down into discrete, cohesive pieces. It creates a natural pause in the listening experience and allows you time to digest the music. That’s not so good for, say, accompaniment during a marathon writing session, when I need to concentrate without jumping up every 20 minutes to fuss with a turntable, but it’s nice for the times when music can sit forward in my consciousness.
I suppose this is ultimately a vile first-world perspective—I have such unfettered access to escapist media that I can only enjoy it by shackling myself with archaic restraints! But, whatever. There’s so much noise in the world that I’ve increasingly come to find value in exerting some control over how and when it intrudes on my life. Maybe it means I’m shaping my own sanity in an overloaded universe… or maybe it just means I’m helping to shape Generation X’s version of the clichéd surly old man.
Whatever the case, I’m just disappointed in myself for not buying more great old albums back when unwanted classic albums were a couple of bucks apiece on vinyl. I’ll never become a true hoarder. Some first-worlder I am.