For every ten people that bought a record today there is a writer somewhere in the world penning a piece on the resurgence of vinyl, within which they pontificate on the how and the why. Many diss digital audio in order to play up the romantic associations older listeners might have with records. I tried to take such a position with this article, asking myself: what’s wrong with digital audio? Why am I buying records that I already own on CD and/or digital download? Why do I enjoy visiting my local record store – The Record Crate in Sydney’s inner west – so damn much?
I don’t know about you but my digital library is a work of art, a thing of anal-retentive beauty. Thousands upon thousands of songs gleam in iTunes, ready to have their Apple Lossless digital audio content fired through Audirvana+ at the double-click of a mouse.
This is the culmination of years of ripping a ten thousand strong CD collection bought during the eighties, nineties and early noughties. Hard-to-find CDs aside, these days I bypass physical digital media altogether; direct purchases from Bleep, Boomkat and HDTracks are now the norm. I’m no longer forced to leave my house to buy music. I don’t even have to leave my listening room. Buying digital music is exacted in splendid isolation from the comfort of the listening chair.
A credit card or PayPal transaction leads to a fresh set of FLACs on my hard drive, which then undergoes a strict workflow process. Bliss’s library management software [Win/Mac/Linux] ensures that tags are present and correct and it adds artwork when required. The FLAC files (and their containing folders) are renamed based upon tag data, after which XLD [Mac only] takes care of the transcoding from FLAC to ALAC and adding the latter to iTunes.
The beauty of this digital music library is in the perfection of tags, artwork and file naming. It’s in the alphabetization. It’s in the availability of everything, all of the time. There are no flaws and no holes. Not very rock n roll, is it?
Digital is cheaper, easier, faster – yes. But just because it’s all of these things doesn’t mean it is necessarily better.
Homogeneity. The uniformity of iTunes’ visual presentation means no single album cover catches my eye. Digital audio gives up no war stories. Your CD rip is likely the same as my CD rip. And if it isn’t, that’s easily rectified. There are no trips to outer-nowhere or one’s local store to acquire a physical product; my vinyl buying has taken me to hitherto unvisited parts of Sydney and Melbourne as well as Phoenix, Sacramento and Portland (where the number of record stores is mind-boggling).
All records are – by their manufactured nature – unique. Their sleeves each display battles scars, each one playback surrenders different surface noise. There are memories attached to the smallest artefacts: price stickers and sleeve wear.
Digital audio might be too easy. There’s no remote-controlled track skipping with a record. It demands patience. A life with vinyl forces you to slow down, to indulge in the ceremony; it’s similar to that which the Japanese perform with tea. You must set aside time for a record and give it your fullest attention. Do you find it harder to walk away – into another room – whilst a record is playing? Some people do.
Is this why folk are buying vinyl again? For the majority of record buyers, I don’t think it’s necessarily down to a widely touted reason: sound quality. I have a bunch of mates who buy records on a regular basis but not one of their hi-fi rigs would expose differences between recordings/masters/pressings/formats. Playing back a 128kbps MP3 through these battered 90s midi/mini systems would sound the same as the black stuff. Moreover, these friends have never heard of compression, compromised dynamics or The Loudness Wars and yet they all speak of how vinyl sounds so ‘rich’ and ‘warm’ – they endlessly pay forward this received wisdom.
Like me, they also buy vinyl because they want something tangible, something to collect. With digital downloads eroding the CD market at a furious pace and with huge iTunes libraries (some tagged to perfection), we continue to find new ways of tapping the hit of a physical product, one to collect and perhaps brag about.
What’s old is new again. Vintage furniture commands a premium on eBay. Even the filters on Instagram hark back to the Polaroids of the 70s. You only have to take one look at the burgeoning vintage gear scene to know that audiophiles are nostalgic creatures.
I’m slowly amassing a collection of vinyl that reflects my very favourite albums (of all time), particularly those released pre-2000 and it’s the human interaction that keeps me coming back to my local store in Sydney’s inner west. The suburb of Glebe is cornered by two of the cities largest Universities. Along the main drag, coffee shops and restaurants dominate. It gets busy there but never too busy.
The Record Crate is both vinyl emporium and bar. You can take your sweet time: pull up a chair, have a coffee or a beer. “It’s a little bit more rock n roll”, says proprietor Neville Sergent. Dropping in after a morning of iTunes listening, I know exactly what he means. It’s altogether more personable.
Sergent has been selling records in one location or another for thirty-two years now. He is keen to emphasise that The Record Crate isn’t a small bar – it’s a record store with a small bar ethos.
The house beer comes all the way from one of Portland’s smaller breweries. This is unusual for Sydney. Bridgeport’s IPA or Double Red will run you AU$9/bottle. Beyond the seating area and into the belly of the vinyl, a Technics SL1200 MKII plays workhorse on the counter. Sergent confesses to not being a hifi guy. He’s a music fan who started this latest venture with his own record collection. I pick up a couple of mid-eighties releases from The Waterboys for $20 a pop, a copy of Lou Reed’s classic New York for the same. Yes, I own all of these on CD and, yes, they’ve been ripped to iTunes.
The more the digital world advances the more people yearn for the simplicity of an analogue yesteryear. Is this why the sheer physicality of records is touted as the fundamental reason behind the resurgence of vinyl? I suspect it is only part of a more complex picture: if sleeve artwork were all that mattered, most folk would buy an entry-level turntable and phono stage and never upgrade. But they do. In spades. However, this isn’t commentary on vinyl’s sonic merits. These are thoughts on how digital audio is eroding the sociability of buying music.
There is a lack of human interaction as a digital audio consumer. I add to cart, I pay, I download, I play. The process of getting the music from there to here is fully automated; no other human is involved. Buying a record or CD involves – at the very least – interaction with postal workers. Go to a record store and buying music becomes a social experience once again.