Is vinyl still a viable format or as obsolete as pager technology in the age of smart phones?
Today, the Denver Record Collectors Spring Expo is taking place at Ramada Plaza in Northglenn (I-25 and 120th). For a $2.00 admission, you can sort through a treasure trove of vinyl from over forty dealers from all over the country. While there will also be CDs, posters and other stuff available at the expo, it's the vinyl that got us into a heated debate, particularly with all this talk about records lately, and in the shadow of Record Store Day. The primary point of contention: Is vinyl still a viable format, or is a relic of the past that's becoming more and more obsolete? Josiah Hesse and Britt Chester mix it up below. Feel free to weigh in with your take.
Vinyl's Is Still Very Much Alive
I'm not going to tell you that digital music is wrong. When Napster opened the door for MP3 file sharing back in the late '90s -- essentially democratizing music ownership -- I couldn't find anything wrong with it (mostly because public libraries had been offering the same thing for nearly half a century).
Today digital music is terrifically more popular than any physical form of music recording, and I say hooray. Laptops and iPods have allowed the casual music fan to effortlessly enjoy their chosen music from a practically infinite library with endless mobility and perfectly sanitized music quality. But those who get their creative/cultural nutrients from music -- their equivalent of a cigarette or 6 a.m. triple latte -- purchasing vinyl has quickly become the preferred paraphernalia.
Whenever this argument comes up in casual conversation, the digital music fan will often destroy the vinyl junkie with the assault of one word: Pretentious. And for good reason. Most fans of vinyl are terrible at defending their love of such an anachronism. The most common defenses are 1) Album art is a tradition of rock music, and it's not the same on a CD or iPod screen, 2) It reconnects you with music as a product, which makes you treasure it more, 3) The record looks so cool when its spinning, something you don't get with a laptop DJ. Unless you are a turntablist (an art that makes vinyl as essential as guitar strings), this last argument is endlessly embarrassing. The other two are both true and -- somewhat -- relevant, but neither comes close to explaining the real beauty and necessity of vinyl. And that is: sonic quality.
Not to say that vinyl sounds "better." It doesn't. Unless you're spending a fortune on the perfect needles, amp, speakers and fresh out of the package (non-remastered) records, the vinyl experience doesn't sound "better" than digital. In order to fit a sound recording into a digital format, it must be compressed, with the highs and the lows smushed together -- giving the song a tight, smooth sound. The sound of digital music is safe, clean, perfect, like a bouquet of tulips on the glass dinner table of a suburban townhouse.
The difference between vinyl and digital music is like the difference between raising a living child of your own bloodline, and caring for those rubber dolls with crying voiceboxes they give you in Home Ec. The former is a fragile, changing organism with the potential for illness or inspiration, the latter is a disposable, inconsequential replica of the former.
The same dangerous sexual energy that frightened parents of Rolling Stones fans is found in the wild, expansive sound of an LP. It's a sound that licks the inside of your cranium, daring you to ignore it. It's a living sound. A captivating sound. A sound that changes slightly with each day (like a growing child).
Listening to an album on vinyl and then listening to it on a CD or digital file is like looking at a picture of Axl Rose in 1988 and then one in 2012: They both have ripped jeans and long, red hair, but the rips in the jeans now are too perfect, too intentionally placed by a designer who charges as much for the jeans as many people make in a month. The long hair is dreaded -- but not dreaded like Peter Tosh's or Dr. Know's wild locks, but in a clean, smooth, pony-tale and highlights sort of way. He is perfect, and therefor looks terrible.
It's like when PBR began marketing to hipsters, or when a Broadway Theater design team tries to dress its actors in "punk" costumes -- all of the details are there (the piercings, the eye-liner, the tight pants and chain wallet) but it looks all wrong. What's missing is the danger, the energy, the wild unpredictability of Iggy Pop cutting himself or the flick of Elvis' greasy hair.
There are other aspects of vinyl worth noting (the social aspects of a dusty record store comes to mind), but it's the visceral aesthetic of the medium that has kept it alive well into the twenty-first century. It is perhaps even more essential today than when it was the common apparatus for the disposable pop records of Donny Osmond and the Bay City Rollers. Beyond being the sonic alternative to the decaff sounds of an iPod, it is one of the few resources for young rock fans today to have a truly helmet-free music experience.
In an age of parental warning stickers and politically correct performers, when live concerts are loaded with guard rails and Russian novels of regulation, and your "authenticity" can be package purchased, where else but listening to a Chuck Berry 45 on headphones can you find yourself in a truly unsafe rock moment?
-- Josiah M. Hesse
Vinyl Isn't Dead, But It's Definitely Dated
Why is vinyl dead? It's not dead. It's dated. It's that grungy old dot-matrix printer in the back of the warehouse. It's that old guy in accounting that hasn't been fired yet because he gives out Hershey Kiss candies to all the women. It's the nostalgic remains of the past that we all really wish we wanted to hold onto, but just can't find a good reason to.
You realize eventually that vinyl will go the way of the music box, and just become a null and void dust-collecting object on some coffee table at your grandmother's house, right? If you haven't made this realization yet, maybe you should recognize how and why music keeps changing, and why vinyl records are merely used for the hipster at large, or the DJ who is unwilling to let go of the past.
First, take into consideration how music is sold nowadays: Digitally. Nearly all music is now downloaded, transferred to a thumb drive, and transported to wherever it will be played. Even the most high-end turntables have thumb drives now because companies know that nobody likes lugging a box of records around. Back to the digital age: It's time to catch up with the times.
Let's take a look at how music is sold now, and how music has been sold in the past. With the birth of vinyl, came a need to outsource your music supply to someone else whose company will most definitely turn a profit on your tireless work. When tapes came into play, artists could record their own tracks, crank out a mix-tape, and sell it for whatever price they thought their work was worth.
Then CDs came out, and musicians started bending over and taking a stiff one from record companies offering to press and distribute their albums. Then we have the lovely era of digital music. This era allowed artists to create their own music, distribute it for free, or at whatever cost they determined, to their adorning fans.
Entire catalogues of music are now available for free on the internet, or they can be bought from the artist. Either way, this money goes straight to the artist, instead of some distributing company looking to turn a huge profit on a minute service that they can afford to provide. It's scary really.
One of the biggest arguments by music buffs unwilling to change is that vinyl sounds better. As this is an obvious myth that is only debatable under the circumstances that you like lower quality sounding music, the best retort is that: No, it does not sound better. One truth is that it sounds different. It is mastered different.
The sounds are layered differently. The way the data is read and transferred is very different. In no way, however, does vinyl sound better. With technology evolving faster than we can make music these days, it is a completely ignorant statement to argue that vinyl sounds better. This is the equivalent of saying VHS movies are higher quality than DVD presses -- it's not true.
For the true hip-hop heads and nostalgic hipsters out there, it makes sense why vinyl is still used: The scratching is unmatched, and the "experience" is impossible to fake. Since vinyl records literally scratch on a needle, there is almost no way to completely emulate that sound, and that skill -- massive kudos to all the DJs still using vinyl, but that doesn't mean it's better, or even needed. It's a technique used by a dying field of artists who want nothing more than to hold onto something because society and "The Man," are telling them not to.
In order for music to continue evolving at this rate, we must embrace the change and see where it can take us. Sure, there are lots of reasons to for companies to press records, but those reasons are selfish and directly related to the profit hungry corporate ass-bags who are trying to sell things to make rent/mortgage/car payments.
Picasso didn't have a distribution company for his work, why should Pretty Lights? The smart artists are the ones creating their music and doing what they want with it. If, at any point, a musician is getting into the field to make it big, well, sorry, we can call out the fakers from a mile away (looking at you, LMFAO).
If vinyl isn't dead, it's certainly about to croak. Embrace the change, ignore the hipsters, and go download some music. Who knows? The next step might be hologram music platforms that play directly in front of you. We would just need those old vinyl pressing plants to create such technology.
-- Britt Chester
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
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