I might as well come out and say it, before it’s too late. Before the day comes when someone walks in and finds my cold lifeless body sprawled out on the floor, one futile hand reaching towards the needle. No, not the kind that administers drugs; I’m clean as a whistle in that respect. It’s the phonograph needle I’ll die reaching for. I can deny it no longer: I am a vinyl junkie.
What is it about this long-outmoded music format that makes me and countless others continue to value it so highly? I know some denouncers of MP3s and CDs who claim that some of the more subtle nuances in recordings are lost when converted to a digital format, and others say that digital music deteriorates over time and vinyl is much longer lasting. I don’t know how true these claims are, but if you ask me, what makes vinyl so appealing is its grainy, imperfect quality, which all other formats have succeeded in eradicating. As someone raised on cassettes and CDs, when I first expressed my interest in listening to vinyl, I was warned that the hisses and pops and occasional skips might take some getting used to. However, not only do these noises (besides the skips; they’re a real pain, and apparently nothing can be done about them) not bother me, but they actually enhance my listening experience by giving the music more of a personality. Recordings on MP3s and CDs sound consistently pristine (as long as the CD is kept safe from scratches and excessive fingerprints). It doesn’t matter how chaotic the music itself may be, every time you listen to a CD or MP3 recording of that song, it will still give you the same chaotic sound in perfect clarity. Vinyl is so much more personal. A record will not only play music just fine (as long as you maintain it well, as luckily my parents did, since at least 80% of my record collection is inherited from them), but those little snap-crackle-pops give it a nice organic quality, putting the music and the listener on the same plane. Listening to digital music is like being in the presence of a god, or some higher authority that I could never hope to achieve the status of. Which can be nice every now and then, but soon I start craving the company of something more approachable. Listening to vinyl is like being with an old friend, or some much-loved older relative that I can aspire to emulate some day. At the risk of sounding ridiculous for personifying a large hunk of plastic so, vinyl just seems so much friendlier than CDs or MP3s.
As mentioned in last month’s rant on iTunes, an album’s packaging can often add to its appeal. And when it comes to superb packaging, vinyl just can’t be beat. The size of vinyl albums allows for bigger and more detailed album art, and more room in the sleeve for freebies (the posters can be larger, and if you’re Alice Cooper and want to include a pair of frilly panties with every copy of your album, there’s plenty of room. No, seriously, Alice Cooper really did that back in the early ’70s). The sturdy, yet flexible cardboard structure of the record sleeve could even allow for artistic creativity that wouldn’t work with any other format’s packaging. The sleeve of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers vinyl album has a working zipper attached to it (which, by the way, I could entertain myself for hours playing with. Hey, I’m easily amused). You can’t put a zipper on a jewel case (too stiff), or the front of a CD insert (too flimsy, and the zipper would could scratch the inside of the case, if you could even get it to fit inside the case), so a great deal of the album cover’s creativity was lost when the CD came out and they replaced the (un)zippable cardboard jeans with a boring flat version of the photograph, and — in an incredible lasp of judgement — put the previously underlying photo of a briefs-clad (and clearly stimulated) crotch on the back of the album, in plain sight of any unsuspecting child or sheltered teen (as I was at the time) who just wants to see the track listing and find out what track number “Sister Morphine” is (okay, I don’t know why an innocent kid or sheltered teen would be interested in hearing “Sister Morphine”. Maybe I should have suggested “Bitch” instead?). Another example of artistic brilliance in the album sleeve medium is Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (which is in itself an example of musical brilliance: a 43-minute-long album consisting of a single song that’s epic in every sense of the word). The front cover looks like the front page of a newspaper, and upon unfolding the sleeve, one finds several pages of phony newspaper stories. It even folds and unfolds at the bottom, just as newspaper is often folded. This could be converted to a CD insert easier than the Sticky Fingers zipper could. But as an insert, it would be hard to read and probably couldn’t be folded at the bottom (which would probably result in the bottom portion of each page being cut off). In addition, part of the resemblance to an actual newspaper depended on the fact that album sleeves are roughly the same size as the average newspaper page.
Anyway, I’ve been wanting to post about my love for vinyl for a long time, believe me. But I thought today would be the perfect day for it, as I just found out a few days ago that today is something called Record Store Day (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it; this is apparently only the second annual Record Store Day), a celebration held on the second Saturday of April every year (since last year, anyway) at various independent record stores all over this country and in several other countries, and promoted and celebrated by musicians who still believe in the power of vinyl (or at least the cause of physical, store-bought music, as opposed to music bought on the internet). There are artists putting out limited edition records and CDs especially to be sold at select record stores on this day and there’s musicians showing up at record stores that they probably wouldn’t be caught dead at any other day (not necessarily out of snobbery; the risk of being recognized and subsequently harassed is too great for most artists to walk right into some little record store any ol’ day of the week), some even playing concerts. And, as if he wasn’t already the biggest multitasker in today’s music industry, Jack White chose today to open up his own Nashville-based record store, Third Man Records, which sounds to me like the closest equivalent this generation has to The Beatles’ Apple Boutique (although hopefully White’s plans for Third Man Records won’t go sour prematurely. But since he’s not a quartet of worn-out drug-addled hippies, the odds are in his favor). So, if you’re as big a vinyl enthusiast as I am (or even half the vinyl enthusiast I am), go out and support your local record store today, if you can. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to, being stuck at college with limited transportation, but had the good fortune of sparking a friend’s interest in the event. And, since this friend has a car, I no longer have to settle for staying in my room listening to vinyl albums all day. Not that that’s a bad way to spend the day.