The Subculture of Vinyl Record Fans

After I wrote Back to Vinyl I started buying used LPs again and playing them on a hand-me-down JVC direct drive turntable.  I quickly realized there’s a psychology to loving vinyl records.  I can identify several common behaviors that vinyl record collectors share, and I’m slowly discovering a subculture to vinyl record fans and collectors.  It’s not a big subculture, the majority of its members are older and they’re dying off, but a new generation of record fans are emerging as sales of vinyl records increase, and young people discover the joy of “owning” music they can hold in their hands.  Some members of this subculture have collected huge archives of music history, while others just like records because they are fun way to play music.  And sure, some fans are just stubbornly refusing to accept the new technology they consider cold and impersonal.

Overall though, record fans remind me of other dying pop culture fandoms I’ve belong to, like pulp magazine collectors, silent film buffs, old time radio enthusiasts, pre-code Hollywood movie fans, who become guardians of popular arts of the past.  Much of the music vinyl fans preserve has been converted to newer digital formats, but far from all.   It’s a shame copyright laws are so restrictive because these people hold thousands and thousands of forgotten treasures that will be lost.

I’m not trying to proselytize for vinyl, or even convince my readers to start playing records again, I just want to describe the subculture a tiny bit, it’s quite fascinating.  But if you do have some old records, you might get them out and try playing them again.  And maybe some of these behaviors are ones that will appeal to you.

Shopping

Record stores have all but disappeared. Even music sections in stores like Target and Walmart are shrinking.  Back in 1965, when I was 13, I developed a passion for haunting record stores, and I think the older record shoppers today have stuck with vinyl so they can maintain this pleasure.  Shopping for digital music just isn’t the same experience.  Devoting a Saturday afternoon to record shopping appeals to a certain kind of person, similar to people who go antiquing every weekend or those who routinely shop at garage sales and flea markets.  Most vinyl aficionados love finding used 78/LP/45 bargains and often hope to stumble upon a rarity at a babble-to-your-friends low price.

Internet shopping, subscription music and digital downloads are extremely convenient, but that kind of music buying isn’t a fun activity like shopping for records.

Collecting

The instinct to collect is animalistic, like a squirrel hoarding nuts, and some collectors amass gigantic collections that represent library or museum level archives of musical history.  Like a baseball fanatic with their stats, record collectors know thousands, if not millions of datum about songs, performers and recordings.   They become music historians.  Just read “The King of 78s – Joe Bussard” and admire the photos of Joe’s collection that include over 50,000 records.

Dust & Grooves]

There are many kinds of record collectors.  Some just seek everything recorded by a favorite band, or collect one kind of music, like Motown or soundtracks.  Some people might be like me, just a nostalgic old fart looking to re-find all his old favorite albums that he lost contact with over the decades.

Like shopping, collecting triggers our hunting instinct.  It feels good to have an elusive album to pursue and find.

Sound Quality

The most fanatical of record collectors are the audiophiles that claim vinyl is the best medium to listen to recorded music.  I don’t think this is true, but I don’t want to start any flame wars right now.  I’ll ignite this battle over high fidelity in another essay.  However, I do think vinyl has a quality to its sound that appeals to certain people.  They often describe this quality as warmth.  Highly skilled audiophiles swear they can hear details in vinyl records they don’t hear on CDs or from listening to .mp3 files.  For example, read Ariel Bitran observations about Rush’s bass player in “Enter the Void of Cygnus X-1: A Vinyl vs. CD Comparison (Kinda)” or Beatles fans discussing the latest vinyl releases of the Fab Four in “The Ultimate Beatles Sound Test.”

I aspire to have listening skills like these audiophiles, but I don’t have them now.  When I read Bitran I admire his ability to discern details in musical performances.  I have zero musical skills on my own, but I passionately love hearing music.  Mostly I passively consume music as a way to energize my brain, or stimulate various emotions and feelings.  Generally, I digest music whole, letting it make me high.  But sometimes, when I have the time to concentrate and study, I like to observe all its parts, admiring the components of a song like studying how a clock works by examining the gears and springs.  The parts to study take many forms – the sound of the instruments, composition, lyrics, melody, the performance of the musicians, the way the song was recorded, and so on.  People who love vinyl often have these skills.

Gadgeteers

At first I was going to include playback equipment in with sound quality, but the love of gadgets is a behavior by itself.  Most people are happy to listen to music on an iPhone or car stereo and never give the equipment two thoughts, or even one.  Although there are high end CD players, most people who play music on CDs consider all players equal.  Audiophiles who love vinyl often become obsessed with the equipment records are played on.  Extremists will spend the price of a house for their stereo gear, and even hipsters with little money, will hunt ancient audiophile level turntables, amps, pre-amps, speakers, etc. at bargain prices.

I’m afraid I’ve got the gene for gadgets myself.  The old JVC turntable I have is plenty good to play old records, but I’ve already talked my wife into buying me an Audio-Technica AT-LP120 turntable for my birthday.  I hope it won’t be my gateway drug to expensive audiophile gear.  I think I’ve got my friend Janis hooked and will give her the JVC.

Hipsterism

Vinyl has become hip.  Modern bands often sell vinyl to their most fervent fans.  Vinyl has become trendy among young folk who have caught the bug, which is strange because they have chosen to embrace a technology outdated before they were born.  This is sort of like guys my age who find old cars from the 1930s and rebuild them.  And on the Internet I’ve read many blogs by young women who have taken to vinyl after stealing their parents albums and equipment, admiring it’s retro style.  Albums and a turntable have a cachet like a black dress and pearls, where an iPhone docked to a Bose sound station is more like jeans and a t-shirt.

The popular culture of digital technology is so huge and pervasive, that running across a person who still plays records makes them enchantingly eccentric.

Subculture

I believe lovers of vinyl make up a subculture on their own, like comic book fans, although record collectors are a very small subculture.   You’d think we’d see Leonard or Sheldon play LPs on The Big Bang Theory, but they haven’t so far as I know.   Occasionally you’ll see this subculture in movies, like Ghost World and High Fidelity.   Although vinyl is making a comeback, I think it’s flying under the pop culture radar, and expect it to actually die out as its older fans die off.  I don’t know if hipsters can keep the vinyl technology alive, although many artists are trying to get their fans to buy vinyl.  I wonder if returning to the days of LPs, EPs and 45s would do away with song piracy?

A great web site that explores this subculture far deeper is Dust & Grooves, run by Eilon Paz, and to get some idea of the diversity of vinyl collectors and collections look at their Archive page.

Eilon Paz chronicles the world of vinyl lovers in words and photos.  Paz is currently working on a book about vinyl collectors, but it would be fantastic if that could evolve into a Ken Burns style documentary.  To get some idea what such a film might be like watch:

My Return to Record Shopping

I thought I’d illustrate these behaviors by how they are already coming out in me just a week after deciding to try vinyl records.

After writing the essay Back to Vinyl I went out and bought four used LPs at Spin Street.

I was not feeling good that first shopping trip – I have a bad back, and it was bothering me more than usual last weekend, but I wanted to shop for records like I used to.  I was able to force myself to stand for about 30 minutes to go through Spin Street’s collection of used LPs and pick out four albums.  They were having a sale, buy three get a fourth free.

The fun of shopping for records again brought back that old pleasure of flipping through  bins of albums hoping to discover something great.  I stopped LP shopping back in the 1980s when Peaches went out of business and CDs took over.  I still bought 2-4 CDs a week, but shopping for them was never as fun as looking at the huge album covers of LPs.  The little 5 inch CD covers never had the impact of the 12 inch rock art vistas of LPs.

Standing is hard for me, but the endorphins produced by album hunting made my back feel better – at least until I got home and they wore off.

The four albums I found in order of discovery are:

  • Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini (Crown Records CST 138)
  • Wendy Waldman by Wendy Waldman (Warner Brothers BS 2859)
  • Heart Like a Wheel by Linda Ronstadt (Capitol SW 11358)
  • Child is Father to the Man by Blood Sweat & Tears (Columbia PC 9619)

I was very excited to find Child is Father to the Man by Blood Sweat & Tears because I have been thinking about this album for years.  I bought it in 1968 because I liked Al Kooper, and it was his current project at the time.   Kooper was always doing something new and exciting back then.  However, I lost access to this album when I sold all my albums to finance leaving home after my first year a Dade Jr. Community College in 1970.

I played side one first, Sunday night, and was surprised that I only remembered one song, “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” the second cut.  I guess forty years is an effective brain erasing tool – but why did I even remember that one song?  I think I have more memories about the album history than memories of the music on it.

Shopping and finding this album was one kind of excitement, but listening was a different kind of experience.  It triggered memories I hadn’t thought about in 44 years.  How is that possible?  How is such data stored in the chemical structure of the brain?  Of course, these memories were fragmentary and faulty.  I had to consult Wikipedia to validate some, and recover other information.

Kooper was the founding band leader for Blood Sweat & Tears for this first album, but was replaced by the singer David Clayton-Thomas, which most people remember as the vocal leader of the band after the group got famous with the second album.  Kooper then went on to do Super Session and The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, that also came out in 1968.  Al Kooper was legendary for playing organ on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, and according to Wikipedia played on hundreds of other albums.  Child is Father to the Man was his big project to combine jazz and rock, along with elements of folk and just goofy experimental stuff.  Think rock music with horns.

child is father to the man

When I found the album in Spin Street’s bin I had a rush of joy – it’s great to find something you’ve been looking for like this, and I quickly checked the condition.  It wasn’t great, but I thought it was worth taking a chance on.  I was surprised how well it sounded.  I have a very old JVC turntable that was given to me, and I was playing an album that could be 40+ years old.   It all still worked.  I loved the spatial arrangement of the musicians that let me hear everything distinctly.  There was some pops and crackles but they were only noticeable between cuts or when the music was very quiet, and that didn’t annoy me at all.

The Blood Sweat & Tears album sounded warm, like vinyl addicts always tout, but it also seemed quieter.  I’m used to modern music that is highly compressed that gives an intense sense of loudness and punch.

Next up was Peter Gunn soundtrack by Henry Mancini.  I own this on CD, so it’s fresher in my mind.  Susan, my wife, spotted this first at Spin Street and the cover and sleeve was in such bad shape that I almost rejected it immediately.  I then examined the heavy, translucent red vinyl and even though it had some minor damaged, the disc looked pretty good.  I’m not a professional classifier, but I’d call it VG.  It looks like this photo I scrounged from the web, except that the cover is so bad that the front and back barely stick together.

peter gunn

When I put the red disc on the turntable and started playing it I was shocked by how great it sounded.  I was impressed.  I loved the sound much more than I ever loved playing my CD version.  I thought, wow, those vinyl fanatics are right.  I wanted to compare it to the CD, but I couldn’t find it.  Hey, I’m bad about alphabetizing and re-shelving.  Besides it was a night for LPs.

The opening cut, the classic “Peter Gunn” theme, was like visiting an old friend, and as each succeeding cut played and I remembered the tune, there was a new dimension to the sound and how heard it.  For years I’ve been adapting to a new way of listening to music.  Either I’m listening to playlists with absolute favorite songs that I play over and over, or I’m impatiently clicking through new albums hoping to find another hit to add to my playlists.  Listening to a LP is very different.  You put the record on, sit down, relax and go with the flow.  If there’s a cut you don’t like you still listen to it.  I found myself relaxing into the pace of listening to album sides that night.

Listening to albums requires being open and accepting.  You experience each cut as it comes on – it’s more like being at a concert.  It’s not about hearing what you want, but listening to what you get.   Album collectors often listen to far more diverse types of music than casual iTunes listeners.

Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini is the soundtrack for the television show Peter Gunn which originally aired from 1958-1961.  I barely remember the show, but the theme song pops up pop culture time and again.  Listen to it and see if you don’t think it’s familiar.

Next up was Heart Like A Wheel by Linda Ronstadt from 1974, an album I’ve never owned.  I bought this album because I wanted to hear something new from the old days.  I would have bought this album back then if I had had more money.  I often see while flipping through bins of musty old albums today, ones I remember flipping past forty years ago and remember wishing that I could have bought them back then.  Like the road not taken, it was the album not bought.  I’m going back and taking the other road to see where it leads.  You can do that with music, books, movies and television shows, you just can’t do it with life.

heart like a wheel

Reading the liners notes to Heart Like A Wheel I noticed musicians and singers that I remember being on albums I did buy at the time.  And strangely enough, one of the background singers was Wendy Waldman, because the fourth album I bought last Sunday night was Wendy Waldman’s first album.  I’ve been hoping to find her LP Which Way to Main Street, which has been popping up in my memories lately.  The album I found at Spin Street was her self-titled debut album, Wendy Waldman.  Of the three LPs I’ve owned by Waldman, all were labeled PROMOTIONAL COPY – Not for Sale.  It’s a shame all the promotion didn’t make her more famous.

Wikipedia doesn’t even have an entry for Wendy Waldman, and I don’t know why.  But it did redirect me to a group I hadn’t known about, Bryndle, where Waldman was part of the lineup with Karla Bonoff, Andrew Gold and Kenny Edwards.  And guess what?   Bonoff, Gold and Edwards also played and sang on Heart Like a Wheel, as well as the Wendy Waldman album I bought.

wendy waldman

This is why you have to buy used vinyl – many albums never made it to CD or iTunes.   I recently discovered that two of Waldman’s albums, including Which Way to Main Street have been reprinted, and I think on vinyl, but the site isn’t clear about that.  I’ll have to check it out!

As you can see, with one decision to try vinyl records again, I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole like Alice.  There’s no telling where this will lead.  I bought these four albums last Sunday, and then Monday after work I bought four more, and yesterday, Saturday, I bought seven more at Shangri-La Records.

  • Willis Alan Ramsey by Willis Alan Ramsey (Shelter SR-2124)
  • Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits by Barbra Streisand (Columbia 9968) – sealed no less
  • Mirage by Fleetwood Mac (Warner Bros. WB K 56952)
  • Judith by Judy Collins (Electra 7E-1032)
  • The Tin Man Was A Dreamer by Nicky Hopkins (Columbia KC 32074)
  • A Period of Transition by Van Morrison (Warner Bros. BS 2987)
  • Breakfast in America by Supertramp (A&M SP 3708)
  • Carolyne Mas by Carolyne Mas (Mercury SRM 1-3783)
  • Thirty Seconds Over Winterland by Jefferson Airplane (Grunt BXL 1-0147)
  • Howlin Wind by Graham Parker (Mercury SRM 1-1094)
  • It’s Like You Never Left by Dave Mason (Columbia KC 31721)

So in little over one week my record collection expanded to 16 albums.  And looking at the list it appears I’m stuck in the 1970s.  I was thrilled to find the Nicky Hopkins album.  I love his piano for Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Rolling Stones, and on Jeff Beck’s first album Truth.  Hopkins was an epic session piano player.  He played for The Beatles as a group and on many of their solo albums.  The Tin Man was a Dreamer has a real treat, “Edward” a version “Edward, The Mad Shirt Grinder” that I’ve always loved off of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Shady Grove.

Videos About Record Collecting

Part I – Back to Vinyl

Part III – Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity

JWH – 11/17/12