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When looking back at some of the best years in United States history, very few people would ever dare to rank 1930 among the top. The Great Depression was in full swing, a horrific drought leading to the dust bowl years had begun, and worst of all, the people of this year could not even drink their sorrows away because Prohibition enforcement was stronger than ever. In spite of all this, there was one silver lining that came in the form of a 12” flexible plastic disk. This was the very first commercially available vinyl record created by RCA, and little did the world know that those discs would stick around another eighty-five years as the people of today are turning to vinyl records hoping to find the true authenticities of life, which just may be lying in the flaps of that old dusty record.
People nowadays may be familiar with records because their parents or grandparents kept them lying around the house. However, these were not always a huge hit. Initially, records were a flop, and it was not until 1945 that the industry standard record (33½ rpm) was produced (Palermino 1). From that point on, the vinyl record would go on to face a plethora of obstacles and challenges ranging from reel-to-reel tapes, 8-tracks, CDs, and more recently mp3 files and online music streaming. Yet, the year is now 2015 and vinyl record sales are the highest they have been in twenty-five years! Why do these plastic discs keep hanging around, and what makes them so appealing to the mass public? People in today’s fast paced society are quietly searching for the authenticity of life, thus correlating with the recent surge in record sales. Vinyl records provide nostalgia by offering a glimpse into history, their sound quality is imperfectly-wonderful yet unparalleled, and the act of listening to a record is a drawn-out process that forces one to slow down and take the time to appreciate the music as well as the experience.
Widely debated, is the sound quality of vinyl records. Does music really sound better on vinyl, and if so, how? Though there have been bundles of bloggers and journalists alike taking a stab at this mind-bending question, there is no definitive answer or proof stating that the sound quality is indeed better or worse, because the quality of a certain thing is an aesthetic judgement that cannot genuinely be defined objectively. With that said, it should be noted that there is indeed a distinct difference in digital music files versus the vinyl record. The digital file is likely to be more polished and clean although the sound is not as full and pure, while vinyls have a crackling noise during rotation and are very susceptible to scratches which will cause skipping in the record, although the vinyl’s sound is a lot more full and authentic. Ah, there’s that word again, “authentic.”
Today, everything technological seems to be striving for complete perfection by its curators, which is an almost unattainable goal, and is quite possibly where the digital music market went wrong. People turn to vinyl for its flaws and imperfections because everything is so diluted in digital recording’s cookie cutter sound, equating to a minimalistic amount of authenticity. Old records are pure, aboriginal, and full of flaws, which just might be the thing making them almost perfect.
In his book, Six Names of Beauty, philosopher Crispin Sartwell explains a phenomenon very similar to the one stated above. Throughout the book he is describing forms of beauty that may not be clear or present in everyday culture. These beauties are not widely publicized or even commonly known, and in Chapter 5, entitled Wabi-Sabi the Japanese aesthetic concept based on Humility and Imperfection he starts off by recalling the first time he heard the blues, more specifically the first blues disk he heard, and in this he states, “The damage on its surface-its crackles and skips- traces my intense relation to it, and gives it a kind of old-time sounding authenticity. But even with all that displacement the blues seemed to me like an absolutely inevitable syntax, as though I was hearing my own voice the way I wanted it to be” (Sartwell 110). This quote is almost identical to the flawed perfection vinyl records seem to carry with them. By a judge’s decision, the sound quality in Sartwell’s example would be ruled a disgrace-much like that of old vinyl records- but by Sartwell’s ruling, there is much more to it than sound. There is this unimaginable feeling that floods his brainwaves allowing Sartwell to hear the true beauty behind the cracks and skips that lie on the exoskeleton of the blues he’s listening to. That is authentic. That is what it means to be true to the roots. That is without question the very thing a vast majority of humans crave, yet that is exactly what is absent from the majority of modern society’s newest products. Collectively, people love music, and there is a branch of music that is still tangible and simple and those who know about this branch are flocking to it in droves.
Shortly after this recollection, Sartwell defines what exactly that feeling is. It’s called wabi-sabi and it is a Japanese world view or aesthetic that focuses on the acceptance of imperfections. In this section, Sartwell goes on to break down the word’s meaning as he writes, “Wabi is most directly translated as “poverty” and initially in its history had all the negative connotations of that state. The life of the peasant- hard, humble, and bare-is wabi.”( 113). Sartwell makes it plainly clear that the first word of the term is anything but lavish, and in regards to the second, Sabi, he states that, “Sabi means “loneliness” again originating in a word that is largely negative” (114). This view fits the vinyl record and its surge in popularity so perfectly, because the glamourous world of “see it-want it-have it” is no place for a large hunk of plastic, but the loneliness and simplicity of the vinyl record is everything people wanting to escape the norm are looking for.
While those feelings previously expressed with examples from Sartwell in regards to sound, the following feelings take a deeper look into the emotions a singular vinyl record can provide, rather than why people feel the dubbed “perfectly-imperfect” sound is better than digital music. Now, as stated previously, vinyl records have been available for the public for just under a century. They have kept current with new artists, styles, and sounds, and there does not seem to be a true end to the commercial growth of this product anywhere in sight. Having this sort of longevity offers listeners the rare and almost exclusive ability to experience what people from up to eighty years ago felt, and to sincerely be put in their shoes. Music is said to be timeless, and attesting to that statement is the fact that the biggest and best selling vinyl records today are of albums that were made in the 60s, 70s, and 80s (Mathieu 1).
Having said that, I want you try to picture this scenario as a reader: a twelve year old boy stumbles upon his father’s old records in the family basement, when he sees one record with four men on the front walking across the street. His interest has been sparked and as he takes out the LP and puts it on the turntable, dropping the needle, he begins reading the back cover to discover what exactly it is that he is listening to. The boy is hearing The Beatles’ Abbey Road for the first time today, and he may be experiencing an unexplainable feeling that his father got years before the first time he listened to that very album. The universality of music has been the driving force behind the revival of records, but feelings so pure, nostalgic and euphoric such as the ones illuminated in the previous example are what keep people coming back for more. Music, as a whole, is not something that can be validated by lists of data and statistics on songs and albums, it is simply something that may or may not resonate with a particular individual. That alone has kept vinyl records relevant, because there are no figures or numbers to convolute the organic feelings and emotions that become present the second the needle drops into the grooves of a record.
To further accentuate the previous scenario, imagine that boy’s affinity for music continued to grow. In fact, imagine it grew to the point where he began wanting to make his very own music, so his father goes out and buys his son a guitar. As the boy ages, he is exposed to more and more musical influences and begins to develop his own unique sound, while at the same time mimicking his musical role models in their technique and style. For the sake of this example, let us say that the boy became an exceptional musician and he began making a career out of it. Let us say that the boy now had earned enough money to make his very own studio album, and make it available for the mass public, so he goes and records his music, and now he has his first personal album. He wants a wide variety of people to hear his music, so he makes the logical decision of making it available on the Internet and all popular music streaming sites. Enough people buy the album online to where he begins to make his money back, and in the midst of his recent income, he thinks back to that old dusty copy of Abbey Road that began his life journey, so what do you as a reader think he will do next? If your guess was that he would go get his very own album pressed and released in the vinyl format, then you just may be right. This is a way to validate himself with the influences he grew up listening to. While this scenario is fictional, it is based on very real and not-so uncommon events. In the short film Turnaround: A Vinyl Records Documentary, musical artist Daniel Baulch says in regards to vinyl records and his music that, “We’ve had a lot of amazing moments sitting down and listening to certain vinyls and stuff, so it’s a dream of ours to maybe give someone else that sort of experience”(Turnaround 2:36). For this particular artist, much like our fictitious boy, vinyl records have played a significant role in his life, and he can only hope that his music will do the same that his role model’s music did for him, in the same format that is a vinyl record.
This nostalgic and authentic experience that has been previously talked about in great excess comes from the actual process of listening to a record, which in fact, is much more extensive than just pressing “play.” Before zooming in on the process of listening to a vinyl record, the most popular method of listening to music must first be examined, and that method is none other than online streaming. This process is quite simple: people pull up a selected music station with the genre of music they like, then the streaming site will generate a playlist of similar sounding songs so that the listener has minimal work to do, and they can go on about their day with music in the palm of their hands. Online streaming is simple and work free, and while some people love this ease of accessibility, others prefer the longer and more laborious route.
To attain a record, one has to go to a record store, yard sale, flea market etc. From there, they will probably find a couple dozen milk crates completely filled with records. The consumer will have to dig through these crates and look at every single cover until they find the one they want. This can take hours depending on the amount of crates and piles the consumer is going through. Following this, the person will have to return to their record player, put their latest purchase on the turntable, drop the needle, and listen. There is no changing the artist after one song, but after four or five songs it will be necessary to flip the record over to the B-side. This is a strenuous and lengthy process that some people just cannot get enough of. It forces the individual to be present while listening to the record and some have stated that a sense of pride is felt whenever they discover a new artist on their own this way. It is that sense of accomplishment after hard manual labor that must entice a selective crowd, and it can be assumed that the record-listening forefathers had similar feelings when they completed the very same action. Everything with records is full circle if it is not apparent just yet.
Those in opposition to vinyl records may claim that they are not portable, making them obsolete in our current and highly mobile society. While it is true that vinyl records are anything but portable, the reason they are so popular is because it forces one to be still-to not move about but rather to sit there, and truly listen to the music being played, not just hearing it. Additionally, people may not enjoy being locked into a contractual agreement to only listen to one artist and one album for hours at a time. This is completely rational and understandable, but to reiterate, vinyl records may not be for all people. In 1958 vinyl records were the online streaming of the day, but times have changed and vinyl records are for people that do not mind the challenges or even annoyances.
All in all, this is an imperfect system that has garnered its winnings from its very own flaws. The vinyl record is an anomaly really, because the very things that should have weeded out this artifact decades ago are the only things keeping vinyl records afloat almost ninety years later. The wabi-sabi that Sartwell speaks of and the ability to see the beauty in imperfections play perfectly into the very thing that vinyls are. Not only that, but the nostalgic feelings and emotions that come jam-packed within the flaps of those records keep the cycle going full circle whether it be with big-time music fans, or even the artists of newer generations. Lastly, there is a process to listening to a record, a very time consuming yet rewarding process that has engulfed millions, and based on the surge in sales, is continuing to expand its listenership. Vinyl records were a thing of the past, are clearly a thing of the present, and all roads point to them being a thing of the future. All things considered, the year 1930 may have been a tad “depressing” but the historical significance with the country’s economy, weather patterns, and enforced laws are still talked about today. In fact, people still make songs about those occurrences. Then those artists slap the songs on an album, get it pressed on a vinyl record and… well you get the point.
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