VINYL LOVE: MORE THAN A RECORD CRUSH
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:10 June 2021
As the growing resurgence of vinyl records continues to astonish even music industry pundits, we revisit the question: What is it about vinyl that people find attractive? Because they are buying records in greater numbers than at any time since CDs became the dominant force back in the early 1990s. Of course, streaming is still the primary means of accessing music—its convenience and ubiquity are ideal for busy, non-audiophile casual listeners—yet the trend everyone thought was a fad is continuing. Building. So why are people buying a mid-twentieth century medium that is fragile, corruptible, high maintenance, and, when compared to other music formats, not exactly cheap? The answer is, in a single word, connection.
Having a ridiculously large collection of vinyl albums and CDs accumulated over the past half century, I’ve seen media come and go. As a psychologist of thirty years experience I’ve wondered about this explosion of love for the humble LP. How is it that one feels more connection with a 12” disc of synthetic resin in a cardboard sleeve—even the measurement is an anachronism—than any other form of accessing music? Let’s take a look, one analogue inch at a time.
JUST A FAD?
There is no doubt vinyl records have become fashionable again. Far from being an obsolete medium your parents kept in a repurposed magazine rack or under the stereo, the LP has revitalised its cool cachet. Naturally, this is partly a media-driven phenomenon. The bread and butter of magazines (paper or on-line) and ‘influencers’ is being just ahead of the popular culture curve. What we know from this simple fact alone is that the popularity of vinyl is being powered by a new, younger demographic who devour content via 21st century media. Oldies don’t need to seek out retro trends: they are retro. Which is not to say that boomers and generation X aren’t buying records; many are delighted to find the beloved music system of their youth is suddenly more accessible than it has been in thirty years. Yet a sizeable chunk of the record buying public are newcomers to the PVC medium and they aren’t all doing it for hipster points, though it is something to do with looks…
THE EYES HAVE IT
Somewhere near the back of the brain, just near the cerebellum, lies the visual cortex. It’s the largest system in the human brain and is responsible for processing visual images. Although it is not possible to put an accurate figure on how much brain activity is associated with sight, the short answer is: a lot. We are visual creatures and we like looking at stuff.
What’s the connection to records? The very first thing you see when you encounter an LP is the cover.
That 30cm x 30cm square of cardboard was originally a simple paper protection for the old-style record within, but, largely due to the creativity of a graphic artist called Alex Steinweiss, by the late 1940s it had become a visual canvas to compliment the music within. Perhaps the artwork showed a representation of the composition—Handel’s “Water Music” simply begs for a woodcut of the Thames in early 18th century London—or something speaking directly to the prospective purchaser. Look at those elegant, cultured people listening to a record while they sip martinis; I want to be like them! That was the launchpad, leading to a flowering of dynamic album cover art in the 1960s. There are many books and web sites celebrating the art of the album cover, emphasising its vital link to the medium. That connection, whether visual or emotional, is something well known by everyone who has breathlessly opened a new record…
TOUCH AND GO
You slit open the thin plastic wrapping that seals most modern records, trying (and often failing) to avoid a nasty little under-the-fingernail cut. Maybe, if you are fastidious, you cut out the hype sticker adorning the wrapping; it is, after all, a part of the package.
Then there’s the cover, emerging from behind the veil. There’s a back cover too, and perhaps a gatefold to open. There is colour (or not), there is a recognisable image (or not), there is identifying text (or not). Lots of data to absorb, both visual and tactile. Does tactile sound odd? We are sensory creatures, humans, and we like to make use of as many senses as we can. We enjoy touch. (This is not icky; just watch an infant explore its world—sight leads to touch, and often to taste… regularly followed by hearing as a parent exclaims, “Take that out of your mouth!”). One of the things we love about records is simply holding them. Of course you can hold a cassette or a CD, but it is not the same.
And the discoveries don’t end there…
Music lovers of a certain age will vividly recall how disappointing the small size of the new Compact Discs were. Everything seemed shrunk, diminished. And it was housed in a nasty little plastic case whose thin hinges would survive precisely one knock. When you extracted the stapled booklet (if you were lucky; many CDs had a single folded sheet and nothing more) you’d scramble for a magnifying glass to try and decipher the minuscule font. Sure, they stored more easily, and indeed, stored more music, but the loss was greater than the practical gain. As for mp3 files, they offer nothing. Nothing to physically open, nothing to hold, nothing to look at, nothing to read. You pay your money and get a file of 1s and 0s. It’s an under-whelming format at every level, including sound quality.
If you have ever held a copy of The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, you won’t need convincing. Open the gatefold to find a huge portrait of the band in all their costumed glory, study the lyrics on the back cover, discover the cardboard inserts to cut out (or just giggle at); this record changed the game, both musically and in terms of presentation of the “album” as an artistic statement. Half a century later, interaction with the music source remains a vital part of the vinyl experience. Gatefold sleeves with more art or photos, lyric sheets, unusual cover designs: it’s a sensory show-bag of delights that invites you into another world…
WHAT MAKES IT PERSONAL?
One of the aspects of a physical collection of anything, be it books, records, or Barbie dolls, is that you (usually) live with it. It shares the space with you, becoming part of the decor and thus adding to the character of your living environment. This is just as true of an art collector with a luxury house full of priceless paintings as it is of a teenager with one shelf of precious vinyl in their bedroom. We express ourselves through our tastes, but just as significantly, we show something to others about who we are.
Have you noticed how often someone being interviewed on TV has a shelf of records behind them? Not just musicians or arty types, but sports people and epidemiologists. This reappearance of LPs in the public space says a lot about the increased recognition of vinyl as a medium, but also as personal expression.
Along with other everyday objects we accumulate like clothes or books, records tell our stories. One of the ways to separate a trend-follower from a vinyl aficionado is whether they make a beeline for the record shelf when they visit. If they don’t, it’s likely their own connection is more set decoration than passion, like the blank books on display bookcases at Ikea.
Being soft-ish plastic in a cardboard sleeve, records also accumulate wear. Even with the best care (a theme we’ll return to) an LP will acquire the patina of age. In his 2020 book Vinyl Age: A Guide to Record Collecting Now, Max Brzezinski talks about the “markers of where it’s been”. As banal as a name and address scrawled on the cover or as intimate as a secret hiding place for a love letter, these are “signs of a record’s past lives and the lives of its previous owners” (p. xvii). Because records spin around the world…
How do you know you are a Record Collector?
That could easily be a separate feature, but here are some clues. Whether you have a dozen records or a thousand (and counting), one clear pointer is the realisation that you cherish vinyl as a medium. It’s not a thought, it’s not a decision. It is, just like lurve, a feeling. When I recently interviewed veteran rock musician Nick Saloman (The Bevis Frond) and asked him whether he still collected records fifty-plus years after getting his first single his answer was brisk and to the point. “Of course! Once you become a record collector you do it forever.”
Not everyone mates for life, however. So if your vinyl passion fades, you can easily donate to a local charity shop or locate a second-hand store in town where they will exchange your unloved records for cash. (If that idea makes you shudder, tick the box labelled “Collector”.)
Naturally, not all collectors have the same resources or appetites. Author of the coffee table tome Why Vinyl Matters: A Manifesto from Musicians and Fans, Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, recalls saving weekly pocket money to purchase a record when she could. Henry Rollins, Musician/Performer/Writer and avid fan of vinyl revealed, in the same book, he buys “one to three a day” (p.39).
There are, of course, many ways to acquire records…
Record shops are the place to find records. Obvious but true. Yet during the recent pandemic lockdowns, many people migrated to on-line record stores like Australia’s Discrepancy Records. Independent record stores like Discrepancy offer as broad a range of titles as the on-line behemoths, while delivering friendly, personalised service to boot. As one would expect, there are shops stocking only new vinyl and those who deal exclusively in pre-owned records, while some carry both.
Most “bricks and mortar” record shops will happily take on-line or phone orders and ship your purchase to wherever you and your turntable hang out. Though a word of caution here: not all sellers use adequate packaging solutions for vulnerable vinyl. I have banished several otherwise reputable outlets from my supplier list because of cardboard mailers offering the protection of a lunch bag. When, as has happened to me, your package arrives with a size 13 boot-print in the centre, you realise the importance of robust packaging.
Charity shops used to be places where vinyl turned up regularly. Sadly, the current popularity of records has resulted in these shops being so regularly scoured by second-hand dealers you’d be lucky to find anything more exciting than Reggie Wilson’s Hammond organ favourite “Pop Goes Delius”.
The other major source of vinyl for the committed crate-digger is the Record Fair. These pop up regularly in most major cities and can provide, presuming you are comfortable rubbing shoulders with glazed-eyed fanatics, a huge range of dealers in one location. You may even find a bargain…
MONEY MONEY MONEY
Whenever the combination of rarity and desirability coincides, someone with an eye for profit will collect the item as an investment. This is often seen on Record Store Day, a well-meaning event supporting independent stores by releasing special editions of attractive titles. Sadly, one outcome is a form of exploitation well-known to concert-goers: scalping. On any RSD, anywhere in the world, you will find the most desirable “limited edition” titles sold out in shops within minutes then reappearing at on-line sites an hour later at vastly inflated prices. Yes, it’s commerce. No, it has nothing to do with a love of records. Or ethics. Having said that, many stores have fought back by limiting customer purchases, only selling over the counter, and even staggering opening times to moderate the frenzy.
Record Collector magazine is an institution in the UK, but there have been many other publications advising on the arcane art of record collecting. On my shelves you could browse The Complete Introduction To Record Collecting (compiled by the afore-mentioned magazine in 1995) or Brett Milano’s Vinyl Junkies (2003). A vinyl revival title is The Beginner’s Guide To Vinyl by Jenna Miles. This 2017 book is written as an introduction to all aspects of vinyl records, and is clearly aimed at those born in the digital age. I rather like its sub-title: How to Build, Maintain, and experience a Music Collection in Analog. The last word is this: unless you want to devote years to learning the ins and outs of trading vinyl records, take the simple path of enjoying the music.
Of course, there is still the perennial question. Which sounds better, analogue vinyl or digital?
BETWEEN THE EARS
Vinyl or CD? Streaming or download? Ones and zeros or a little bouncing diamond stylus? As you might imagine, the internet is overflowing with debates about which medium is “best”. Preparing this article, I viewed a well-made Skillshare video entitled “The Truth About Vinyl — Vinyl vs Digital”. In less than three years it has had almost four million views and elicited a staggering 16,000 comments… and no consensus.
Although there is broad agreement that only someone with acute hearing and highly developed audio discernment skills could possibly assess the minute variations between top quality digital and analogue hi-fi reproduction, the views of actual users of different media display the variety of any social media debate. So what can we say? Certainly, for vinyl fans who grew up with the medium there is a strong argument that what we heard as children has wired our brains to hear this as normal and therefore best. Perhaps a different bias exists for those who have migrated from streaming files to playing records; engagement with the medium and the rituals of listening offer something that mitigates auditory doubts. There will never be a definitive answer, of course, because we’re talking about humans in all their endearing contrariness.
We’ll talk about record-playing rituals in a moment, but first a word about what records demand of us, their owners. Because just like a guinea pig or a tamagotchi, records need care. Vinyl is a vulnerable medium that will give, literally, a lifetime of pleasure if well cared for, but will also confront us with our carelessness or clumsiness. Do you have a record where a distracting cutck cutck cutck reminds you every spin of the time you dropped it while returning it to the sleeve? Records have memories, carried in the scuffs and scratches of mishandling.
For now, the executive summary:
— Dust is the enemy: keep your records clean.
— Never handle the grooved surface; hold records at the edges.
— A good turntable is vital. Cheap portables sound rubbish and will damage LPs.
— Always return the LP to its protective inner sleeve after use.
— Plastic outer sleeves protect album covers from wear and tear and help keep out dust.
— Think about how and where to store your LPs. (Hint: vertically; away from sunlight)
You remove the record from its sleeve, placing it on the platter of the turntable. Carefully lowering the tonearm onto the vinyl, there’s that special “thok” as stylus hits groove. You sit, perhaps picking up the cover or lyric sheet to peruse, maybe dimming the lights to focus on the music. You are swimming in the audio universe of the artist whose musical ideas were hatched last year… or centuries ago. Yet here they are, coming to life in your lounge room. Whether experiencing a band’s live recording from the last tour or being transported back to Renaissance Italy, records take you anywhere, any time.
In 2015 composer Pauline Oliveros delivered a TedxTalk entitled “The difference between hearing and listening”, explaining her concept of “deep listening”. Listening, Oliveros asserted, is not just “the moment” but the long-term accumulation of auditory sense-making. We each create an inner, multi-roomed reference library of sound in our brains. Significantly, it is different from hearing. The physical experience of hearing—one we can tune in to, or out from—is different from the subjective reactions we experience when we actively engage in the art of listening. For a record fan in the twenty-first century this might be as simple as making time to sit for 20 minutes and let a side of vinyl transport you. Your thoughts may drift, you might fall asleep; it doesn’t matter. It is the dedicated activity that raises this experience way above supermarket music or classic rock in a TV ad.
Brzezinski takes it further, suggesting part of the benefit of dedicated listening is the escape from everyday life it provides. The act of choosing and putting on a record is, in fact, active recreation embracing art, poetry (or at least words), and music. No wonder we love it.
Vinyl sales are booming. American financial magazine Forbes reported a sales increase of over a third from 2019 to 2020. But will it last? Forbes attributed much of the growth to Record Store Day while wondering if the explosion in mail-orders was a pandemic anomaly. Either way, it seems our love of vinyl will continue, at least for a while.
Yet there are threats to this expansion. Production of records is an antiquated process, consisting of a fragile network of arcane skills and machinery manifestly inadequate for a hungry global market. An article at Global News (Canada) in May 2021 also noted the significant cost of new records, wondering whether customers might get tired of premium prices.
Balancing this are the factors this article has considered. Involvement, personal expression, being part of a tribe, collecting. As we connect with music via a medium requiring active engagement we create a link to the artist, perhaps to a friend, and to ourselves. In a bluetooth-driven, 5G world such connections are precious.
Bickerdike, Jennifer Otter (2017) Why Vinyl Matters. ACC Art Books, Suffolk, UK.
Brzezinski, Max (2020) Vinyl Age: A Guide To Record Collecting Now. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, NY, USA.
Milano, Brett (2003) Vinyl Junkies: Adventures In Record Collecting. St Martin’s Griffin, NY, USA.
Miles, Jenna (2017) The Beginner’s Guide To Vinyl. Adams Media, MA, USA.
Record Collector (1995) The Complete Introduction To Record Collecting. Diamond Publishing, UK.
Real Engineering (2018) The Truth About Vinyl — Vinyl vs Digital. Skillshare (Accessed 29/05/2021).
Oliveros, Pauline (2015) The difference between hearing and listening. TEDxIndianapolis (Accessed 29/05/2021).
Bossi, Andrea (2021) The Real Reason Why Vinyl Sales Just Skyrocketed Record Levels, Passing 1991. Forbes (on-line) 7 January 2021 (Published 7 January 2021, accessed 30 May 2021)
Cross, Alan (2021) A pandemic bright spot: Sales of vinyl records have exploded in Canada. Global News, Canada. (Published 16 May 2021, accessed 30 May 2021)
© Bruce Jenkins 2021