Participatory media

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.

6 thoughts on “Participatory media

  1. When we moved in here, the guy who sold us the house also sold us all his music gear for like $100 so he didn’t have to unplug and move it. Which was great, because I have nowhere to plug in my grandfather’s old stereo console, which was what I used to play my (like ten) records. Unfortunately, the record player needle was broken, and I haven’t gotten around to replacing it. I’m not even sure it works, so I’ve done some looking myself and have heard nothing but bad things about the Crosley turntables. If I do have to get a new one altogether, I’ll consider yours another warning — and some advice on what to actually get.

  2. Random aside that struck me while reading this: it never occurred to me that you could listen to an LP on headphones.

    I mean, *of course* you can, but the only record player I’ve used, in my parent’s house, was hooked up to the big old speakers. Playing a record meant magically filling the downstairs with music. The sound just wafts right off the vinyl, surely. Headphones were for tape decks and then portable CD players and other more “electronic” forms of music storage.

  3. This was a great read – I’ve had trouble putting my finger on why I enjoy listening to vinyl, but “participatory” as the experience is perfect. We recently replaced an old cheap turntable I bought when I was at university a fair while ago, and the difference between the old and new units are huge. Have you looked at some of the releases from Data Discs? They’re releasing licensed video game OSTs on vinyl and have been fun to listen to!

  4. This is great, because I think the same thing could be said about ebooks. Don’t get me wrong – I love both my Kindle Fire (for comics) and Paperwhite (for text), and they sure as hell made it possible to transport some 2000 books in my move to Japan – but still. I don’t care about how much anything “reads” better on paper (it usually doesn’t, certainly not with text), and I don’t care about the “weight” of War & Peace compared to a 1mb text file, but you are definitely missing that participatory act, as you say. Convenience still trumps all that for me personally – that’s life in Japan, for you – but still, very good point.

    On the other hand, I definitely do not feel that way about games. I love older games, but I certainly don’t get any similarly special feeling by inserting a cart into an old console (manuals, boxes, maps, etc… that’s another story).

  5. Hi Jeremy,

    I just wanted to say I really enjoyed the Anatomy series, and I’ll miss it! It was a treat for me to explore some of the games from my youth with you, and you helped me appreciate things about them that I had never seen before. I’ve been (very slowly) replaying Super Metroid and reading your articles as I go.

    I personally would love to see you make an occasional foray into that kind of writing on USGamer–maybe not a series of articles like you’d been writing for anatomy, but a breakdown of an in-depth breakdown of an individual level or play mechanic, either from a current game or a classic. I’d love to read your analysis of, I don’t know, Yoshi’s Woolly World or the new Tomb Raider or something. Of course you have to decide what you want to write about and think about what would have an audience; all I can say is that you’d have an audience of at least one.

    Anyway, thanks for the informative and enjoyable series of articles.

  6. I still buy almost all of my vinyl for a buck or two. Just go dig through a thrift store. It’s still very cheap.

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