Why We Love Tracks on Wax
Before I was even a thought in anyone’s mind, my parents had invested in a 1960s jukebox that held over one hundred 45-RPM records. It took up an unnecessary amount of space in our basement and was the staple of every party and holiday. By the time I came around, it had certainly worked overtime and probably got more attention than any stereo or TV in our house; people loved taking turns choosing a song from my parents’ eclectic music collection; skipping from Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” to the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira” until we made our way to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
I can clearly picture my dad lifting up the heavy top of the huge machine to switch out a record or fix the ever-malfunctioning tone arm. He’d pull out a 45, stare at it for a minute before wiping it on his shirt. “This is how I used to listen to music.”
What a horrible time to be alive. The playback was awful, the songs were old, and did each record really only have only one song on each side? I was the proud new owner of the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium. I didn’t have time to flip a record every time a song ended. I could smoothly play the entire album – from “Larger than Life” to “The Perfect Fan” – without ever having to lift a finger. Plus there was no crackling feedback coming from my stereo. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would ever prefer a record to the modern, unbeatable technology of the compact disc.
But it turns out a lot of people were pro-record, and my seven-year-old self wasn’t the only one who questioned why. David Greenwald from The Oregonian explains that the process of creating a vinyl record allows the artist to transfer the music from a magnetic tape to the LP without any complications from digital conversion. Theoretically, this gives one the closest listening possible to the artists’ intention. One could argue, then, that a vinyl record holds more “musical information” than a digital file; but this only somewhat explains the attraction.
Greenwald also points out the technology of a vinyl LP hasn’t evolved much over the last six decades. In over sixty years, vinyl hasn’t advanced in production or sound quality. He says that listening to music on a record is the audio equivalent of driving a Ford Pilot.
Music in the twenty-first century is almost too easy to access: you can download it, burn it, stream it, pirate it, and sometimes U2 will force their latest album onto your computer without you even asking.
So why drive a Ford Pilot when everyone else has a Tesla?
Digital downloads are tremendously convenient and better yet, don’t hog up any of our physical space, but people still long for a more intimate experience when buying and listening to music. The vinyl industry isn’t based on a truth that it’s better than digital files. It’s based on people’s nostalgia.
I don’t have much in common anymore with my seven-year-old self. She’d scoff at my love for trucking to record stores to spend hours sitting on the ground shuffling through boxes, or how my eyes light up in pure joy at the sight of colored records; because despite the fact that the actual production of vinyl seems to be frozen in time, there’s something that remains magical about physically purchasing a record.
With the current love of everything old it’s no surprise that these trends would also seep into the music world. Though we exhaust a lot of energy into NOT being like our parents, the trends of their time (the 70s and 90s, specifically) are what we currently obsess over. There was something cool about our parents’ high-waisted jeans, and there is definitely something cool about the way they dropped a needle on a crackling record.
The revival of our parents’ fashion is happening while old artists start planning reunion tours, and naturally it coincides with the rise of vinyl. Lee Barron from Newsweek describes this fascination with all things classic as “retromania” – a word coined by music commentator Simon Reynolds.
Retromania is why vinyl is popular now.
The musty smell wafting in your face under hazy fluorescent lights as your fingers blacken from dusty record sleeves is an incredibly intimate experience. It physically leaves a mark on you. It’s rather heartwarming.
Although I like to imagine every record purchased was its own special treasure hunt, vinyl has become much easier to acquire. Stores like Urban Outfitters, for instance, sell newly pressed vinyl from current artists. Urban Outfitters is extremely in tune with the comeback of 70s and 90s fashion, and is essentially the hub of retromania.
Records have become so popular again that they seem as accessible as digital downloads. They’re no longer limited to those who want to spend the time seeking out vintage goods. But even if vinyl is purchased at a store like Urban Outfitters and not a cramped, dusty record store, it’s still a hunt. The quest and ultimate prize is what people crave.
So now vinyl – bulky, low quality, and expensive – makes a triumphant return; interestingly enough, it follows the early 2000s pirating fad. There’s no challenge to pirating a song; no journey, no reward. So in lieu of that, music took a complete 180 and Napster and LimeWire were traded in for records that are one hundred times more expensive and take up one hundred percent more space.
But apparently nostalgia is worth every penny. The costliness of an LP is worth more to people than the ease and cost-effectiveness of streaming or downloading digital files. Every studio album, acoustic set, demo, remix, and cover of every Rolling Stones song can be downloaded online, but record store hopping to collect each individual album has a much higher appeal. The resurgence of vinyl hasn’t erased digital downloads, it’s just changed the music listening experience to being a much more physical activity. This physicality is what makes record collecting so personal and rewarding.
I have upwards of fifty LPs in my collection (and was happy to learn that not all records were limited to one song per side). My collection is made up of albums – both old and new – I’ve attained from my own vinyl treasure hunts. Along with my LPs, I have about thirty 45s which oddly enough, I took the same jukebox that my younger self never could understand the appeal.
I own some classics like Beggar’s Banquet, The White Album, Rumours, and The Wall; but I equally adore my new pressings of The Black Keys’ Turn Blue and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication. My music collection exists either digitally or on vinyl. I don’t think a CD even exists in my apartment. Even if one did, I couldn’t listen to it. I don’t own a stereo.
But I do have a turntable. Of course.