In case you don’t know what I mean by vinyl, it’s what we used to call records – LPs, 45s and 78s – albums with big twelve inch square covers. Vinyl sales are growing while CD sales are shrinking. Why would a retro technology make a comeback? Audiophiles have always claimed that vinyl had a superior sound, but many audio engineers also claimed that was silly too. Who knows? Who cares? Well, enough people to keep a retro technology alive. Enough people to entice me into thinking about moving into the future by returning to vinyl records.
I have a few friends that extoll the virtues of vinyl. And on the web I’ve read many enticing essays about the superiority of vinyl. These fans chronicle a never ending quest for the perfect sound, claiming they hear more than us pedestrian CD and MP3 listeners. Their extreme love for music is infectious. So I have to wonder, has music listening become too easy? Has convenient and abundance ruined our passion for songs? Maybe a rare 12” vinyl treat is the natural way to acquire new music.
Why I Gave Up LPs The First Time Around
I gave away all my LPs when I started listening to subscription music on Rhapsody. I had over 1,500 CDs, and a four foot wide shelf of LPs left. My LPs had survived several house moves, often never even getting listened to in some places. When I moved to this house, I decided not even to unpack them. Since a new generation of music technology was coming out, subscription music, I could get rid of albums that required technology two generations back to play.
I bought a USB turntable to convert my albums to mp3 that weren’t available on CD or Rhapsody, but that turned out to be too much work to be worthwhile. Plus, the scratches, pops and skips got recorded and that only emphasized the lameness of vinyl. LPs were out-of-date technology, so why not let it go?
Then I met a Katrina refuge and she lamented losing all her albums, so I offered her mine, and threw in the turntable. That was about six years ago.
Also, there’s another “thing” that killed LPs a very long time ago. We stopped listening to music together. Digital music is great for personal music. We’ve all retreated from reality with our noise cancelation earphones. I wrote about this five years ago, “Why Has Listening to Music Become as Solitary as Masturbation?”
Is It Crazy To Think About Going Back to Vinyl?
Recently a friend, Doug, mentioned a song he wanted to find, “Stoney End” by Linda Ronstadt. I checked MusicStack for him and found the album it was on, Stoney End by Linda Ronstadt & The Stone Poneys (Pickwick SPS-3298). It turns out Doug already had this album but not the turntable to play it on. I was tempted to order it for myself thinking it might be fun to listen to a record I can no longer buy from 1972. There have been many times lately where I’ve wanted to hear a song I remember only to discover that it never made it to the CD world, and isn’t on any of the music subscription services.
Now here’s the thing. If I was willing to download illegal music I could probably find anything I wanted on the Internet because I’ll bet aficionados have ripped pretty much everything to .mp3, or so I would think. However, I have no idea how to search for stolen music, nor do I want go down the dark alleys of the internet looking for out-of-print music.
What are my options if I want to hear long forgotten songs? First, I could wait and eventually they might show up on subscription music sites. Second, I could buy the original vinyl recordings used. Or, third I could just let them stay forgotten.
I used to own On the Flip Side LP but gave it away when I gave away all my LPs. I’m starting to regret that, but at the time it was a pain to maintain LPs and the stereo equipment to support them. I also figured one day everything would show up in digital on subscription music services. Another album I just had to hear again was Never Going Back to Georgia by The Blue Magoos. I tracked that one down about a year ago and my friend Lee gave me an old turntable to play it on. I even had to buy a cheap pre-amp because my modern day receiver no longer supports turntables. I now have a library of 1 LP. Talking to Doug about albums that never made it to CD makes me want to buy more.
Vinyl is a Costly Addiction
The trouble with returning to vinyl is it’s an addiction. I was just reading on Amazon about a guy buying a $400 turntable and really loving it, and then his customer review had an update at the bottom saying he had just bought a $900 turntable. He also warned buyers: “$400 for the turntable is just a drop in the bucket, plan on spending double to triple that to get EVERYTHING you need. Nice phono preamp, carbon fiber brush, alignment tools, decent plastic lined sleeves for all that new vinyl you about to buy, tweaks, gadgets, cleaning supplies, etc…” He also said, “Plan ahead and budget for a record cleaning machine, after you own a few albums you will want it. Even brand new sealed vinyl has dust and will crackle and pop” and “50 year old used records sound like………50 year old used records.…”
Reading reviews of turntables makes me wonder if I even have the technical skills to set one up, adjust it, and know if it’s playing correctly. The audiophiles make it sound worse than rocket science. And that knock against 50 year old records dings my enthusiasm because the records I want will all be 30-50 years old, or even older. Another fear is getting addicted to 78s.
I think buying vinyl also appeals to the collector in us. When my friend John wrote about John Lennon’s Jukebox, I immediately wanted to track down and buy those 40 singles that were Lennon’s favorite songs. Vinyl lovers often have whole walls of albums. This isn’t a bad hobby, but it could become an obsession. I can see myself getting up early to hit the garage sales every Saturday morning, and constantly visiting the used record stores, and Goodwills, hoping to find some elusive gem. Or getting hooked on Ebay.
I think the main appeal of wanting to return to vinyl is nostalgia – I want to go home again – to my teen years when I loved buying LPs. Or I just want to hear songs again that I haven’t heard for 40-50 years. I’ve done this a few times in my life already. I first heard On The Flip Side when it was shown on Stage 67, a show from the 1966-1967 television season on ABC. About twenty years ago I thought of that show and tracked down a used soundtrack of the show. I actually loved the album, and played it several times, but eventually forgot about it. I was into CDs then, and CDs were much easier to deal with. But when I gave away my LPs, I did take the time to record On the Flip Side to MP3, and it’s playing while I type. So I still have it as two long MP3s, each a whole recording of a side.
To be honest, hearing On the Flip Side playing now is a nostalgic rush, but I doubt I’d want to play it over and over. Maybe once every five years. And my mp3 recording reminds me clearly of the flaws of vinyl because I hear the pops, skips and clicks that disappeared with the invention of CDs and mp3 files.
Would On the Flip Side be more wonderful if I was playing it on a good turntable hooked up to a great stereo setup, with perfectly configured speaker spacing? I don’t know. I’d have to spend quite a bit of money to find out. And if I spent all that money and I loved it, would it mean I’d start searching out more old albums? How many are lost in my memories?
I have a complete set of The Rolling Stone magazine on DVD, and I’m amazed by all the albums reviewed that I never heard of, or played or have even seen since. It might be great fun to start in 1968 and see how many albums I can find that deserved to be rediscovered. Or is that bullshit? Shouldn’t everything worth listening to already be reprinted and available today on CD or subscription music?
And would I end up like the other vinyl addicts, always wanting more expensive turntables, cartridges, styluses, pre-amps, receivers, and speakers?
Many of the albums I fondly remember did have CD reissues, but strangely enough some like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Our Man Flint didn’t seem to have the exact cuts or cuts in the same order as my memory.
I think the urge to buy LPs is to hold the same cover and to listen to the same cuts in the same order that I played them 40-50 years ago. Is capturing this past worth all the effort? And if I was to be truly faithful to the past, shouldn’t I seek out an old console stereo like I had as a teenager, or even a portable record player like I started out listening to when I was 12? Why spend hundreds for turntables that didn’t exist in 1965?
Getting Old and Sappy
I think what I miss the most is shopping at record stores and playing my new discovers for my buddies. Or even going to record stores with my pals, and spending a couple hours deciding how to best spend the two dollars I had burning a hole in my pocket. For $10 a month today I get access to more albums than any record store I’ve ever been in. As a kid I could only afford to buy one or two albums a week. When I first started buying albums, when I was 13-14, I had to mow lawns, babysit or go without lunch at school to get LP money. Maybe those treasures that were so hard to come by back then, are now the same treasures I seek to find now? Maybe they need to be just as hard to come by again to get the maximum fun?
I don’t know if I’ll go back to vinyl or not. I’m awful tempted to buy myself a $216 turntable at Amazon, a Audio-Technica AT-LP120 and give them a try.
Part II – The Subculture of Vinyl Record Fans
Part III – Audiophiles and the Quest for High Fidelity
JWH – 11/9/12