Essays on Technology and Culture

Thoughts on Physical Music in a Digital Age

I recently purchased a new record player. It’s new in both that it was a replacement for my old record player—which was part of those all-in-one CD/Radio/Tape Desk/Record Player gizmos—and new from the factory. Vinyl is a thing again, though you probably knew that unless you’re completely detached from the music world. Okay, sales of records, actual records, aren’t moving a whole lot of units, compared to CDs. This chart from Digital Music News shows the breakdown in 2013. [1] Despite their small footprint, records are still taking a growing share of a shrinking market for physical media, and the pressing plants are having trouble keeping up with demand.

It’s odd to think such an antiquated format making a comeback in the age of Spotify and Beats Music. Records are big, fragile, and require an investment to listen to. Not just an investment hardware, but time, too. It’s a tactile, tangible format, one that requires you to flip the darn thing over once every 20 minutes or so, and is ever-so-slightly damaged every time you play it. Digital music has no such problems. [2] So, it’s easy to see vinyl fetishists as trend-chasing hipsters, or deluded audiophiles. Even as someone who owns a turnable and listens to records, I agree with the experts: vinyl doesn’t sound better. (Sorry, Casey Liss) So, why the comeback?

What the resurgence in vinyl, parallel to the rise of streaming, shows is that there are two main types of music consumers. There are those who view music as a a service, and those who view music as a good (in the material object sense). People who value music as a service are those who would, in days gone by, keep a transistor radio in their pocket. To them, music is wallpaper—pleasant noise to listen to during their day. They may have preferences in genres and artists, go see a concert, or buy a shirt, but they don’t make much of a jump from their appreciation of music to wanting to own it, but they might buy a t-shirt at a concert. Those who value music as a physical good, on the other hand, are often those for whom music plays a large role in their identity. Owning a record, whatever the format, is as much an expression of a real connection to the music held within.

These classifications are not hard and fast, of course. You can be someone who keeps an Ikea shelf of vintage and new records and a high-end turntable in your home hooked to a tube amp and high-quality audiophile headphones at home, yet slip on a pair of earbuds and stream from Spotify when you’re on the go. It’s hard to disagree with the convenience of digital music, whether as files on your computer or pulled down by LTE off some streaming server in a Fort Worth data center. Most music consumers are going to exist in the middle of the spectrum: owning some stuff, be it on CD, vinyl, or digital download, streaming the rest. Where that balance falls says a lot about them as a fan of music. And no matter where one falls on that spectrum, there’s nothing wrong with how one chooses to listen to music. Someone with old iPod earbuds listening to 96kbps Spotify streams is getting as much joy as the someone listening to a 180-gram LP thorough a tube amp and fancy headphones.

As for me, when I look at the CD tower by my desk, or at the shelf of records under my turntable, I don’t just see mere physical media. They all represent something more than their contents: a concert I went to, a lucky hunt through the bins at a used music store, a gift from a friend, or just a time in my life where my tastes in music were different. I may not listen to my CDs much, having ripped them all to MP3 over the years, but I do listen to my records, making a conscious choice to focus my time on the act of listening. I get a closer relationship to the music when i listen to it on vinyl. Not everyone desires such a thing, of course, but there’s enough. Go back to the article in The Guardian I linked in the beginning of this essay, specifically this part:

[I]n August, a DJ and producer called Greg Wilson had gathered people to listen to a vinyl copy of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. He invited other people to do the same thing at the same time – 9pm on a Sunday – and then share their experience online. The idea reflected a key factor in vinyl’s revival: Spotify and iTunes propagated a mode of listening whereby people could flick between tracks on a whim and, for the most part, shut out others with the aid of headphones; vinyl represented the option of really listening to a whole record – often in company.

There’s nothing about listening to a record in company that demands physical media, but there’s something about it that illustrates the difference in how people relate to music. Paying £5 to listen to someone else’s record, even on a high-end sound system, might seem like a waste of money (it does to me—I’ve paid less than that to see and hear live music), but if you’re the sort of person for whom the way you experience music matters, the experience could be worth immeasurably more. That’s the value of physical music in the streaming era: experience, tangibility, and memories and emotions so tied up in the cardboard and plastic that you don’t even need to hear the music to feel them.