Monday, July 11, 2011

Let’s Get Physical: The Not-So-Surprising Vinyl Revival

“After light enters the ocean, it interacts with the phytoplankton, dissolved organic matter, particles, and water molecules. Some of it is eventually scattered back up through the surface. This light is called the water-leaving radiance, and it can be detected from space." Water-leaving Radiance

As with all ephemeral phenomena, there's a caveat: in order to draw the proper conclusions, you have to gain the proper perspective in order to discern and accurately analyse the data.

In an analogous way, we haven’t yet been able to properly evaluate how the concept of downloading music has affected our role as listeners: how re-conceptualizing a song as a digital download has altered our mental construct of what a song is. The fact remains; fundamentally, our perception has been irrevocably altered, in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse. 

The relatively recent vinyl resurgence [see here, here, here, here, and here] leads one to wonder: when it comes to music, does a vinyl record carry more emotional and intellectual weight than a digital download? Some would say - myself included - indisputably, yes.

Although there's still no consensus as to how to go about protecting the intellectual - albeit invisible - property of artists, there is universal acknowledgement that our digital dilemma is a necessary byproduct of the unfettered rights we all enjoy as free-roaming citizens of the World Wide Web. As with all things digital, this isn't a case of black or white. There are many shades to consider.

Most of the conversation surrounding downloads revolves around the idea of its legality: websites like Limewire (currently under court-rdered injunction) and Pirate Bay forced us early on to confront these dilemmas. We can debate, dissect, and eventually masticate the issues, but somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that what we are talking about is not just a song, but an experience, one that is often crafted with the songwriters blood, sweat and tears. 

A great song and lyric is more than the sum of its parts; it is the experience of the writer’s lifetime compressed, condensed into a few minutes of pure pleasure, pain, confusion, redemption, regret, surrender... So when Hayden Thorpe coos "A crude art / A Bovver Boot ballet / Equally elegant and ugly" in The Wild Beasts’ "Hooting and Howling", he's not just singing words; he's re-contextualizing our reality and transforming the pedestrian into Poetry. What he's doing is an admixture of alchemy, magic, mystery, story telling, documentary; he's not just singing a song, he's inviting, challenging us to re-consider the critical importance of words in the music we cherish. While the ease of digital downloading has taken a serious bite out of what was once known as the Music 'Industry', it is universally acknowledged that the free-(down)loaders are not those who would normally pay for their music to begin with.

This defection - from listeners to looters - has a rationale, and we can trace the trajectory. The scavenging for free mp3s began after listeners learned that the bulk of their money was going into the coffers of the Record Labels and not into the pockets of the Recording Artists themselves. This plundering has led to a hunger amongst listeners who are starved for good music and thirsting for the good-old-days when music was made and not manufactured.

One unintended consequence of this was that it has created a listening public that now burns for rarefied experiences, a new as well as older generation that is willing to spend whatever the asking price on music that moves them in a format that impacts their lives: live performance and vinyl records.

But History - like a scratched record - does tend to repeat itself, and as it turns out these periodic blips in the radar, when Musicians are pressed by the exigencies of a fickle and fluctuating market - as with the recording ban of 1942 and the birth of Be Bop - musicians have risen to the occasion and squeezed out some startling and staggeringly beautiful music. And while you won’t find (most of) it on the Pop charts, a listener can, with some digging, enjoy these treasures buried beneath the surface.

Meanwhile, there has been a quiet burgeoning of intense and immense creativity amongst musicians who have thrived under the radar. In fact, finely attuned listeners have their antennas up, and have been made skeptical of any music that bears the insignia of a major record label. It's a question of authenticity, and most of us who really listen - who don’t consider the songs we love 'downloads' - most of us deeply care about how authentic the music that we listen to really is. It's a question of intrinsic value, and the merit of a great song has more to do with its inherent worth than its price point. 

Appetite for Self-Destruction:
The Spectacular Crash
of the Record Industry in the 

Digital Age by Steve Knopper 
We've seen the rise and fall of the music industry, and it is safe to say, nobody is lamenting its demise save Music Industry stalwarts who still think that taking the pulse of Pop culture means monitoring the Top 40. But the days of Casey Kasem are long behind us, and we can all take a deep breath and cease to bemoan the loss of our collective innocence. Instead, those of us who exult in the the birth of this new era - one that is "equally elegant ant ugly" - know that the past is a path we have all waled to get here, and the future is a road we will all travel together.


George Hook said...

The vinyl record also gives the musician the opportunity to exhibit other forms of art to complement the music itself: when The Beatles released The White Album, it came with a poster and 4 iconic photos. That benefit is diminished with compact discs and practically nonexistent with downloads. As for the music industry, it has become just that, an "industry" ... originality is not part of the bottom line: just try to encourage an artist like Lene Lovich in this environment. Finally, I hope this discussion is a prelude to releasing your full length works in V-inyl: I have all the remixes, but my collection demands more!!!

ben said...

You make a good point about the experiential nature of selecting, buying and listening to music Vanessa. I remember the first time I copied a C.D on a computer and the subsequent feeling of disappointment after I sold the original and had to play the copy. So much of the enjoyment of the music was invested in the object itself,reading the sleeve notes,enjoying Tom Hingstons' cover design etc.Then recently my brother asked me to burn him a copy of Glen Campbells' last album and I told him to go and buy it.There is something about the non material nature of MP3's that just doesn't connect. Long live vinyl.

Basmati Jones said...

I am old enuf to have grown up not just w/vinyl albums, but also 45rpm singles as the major influx of music into my little world. The thing I miss most about LPs was that the album covers not only contained some of the greatest art of the era, but the inside liner notes and fold out sleeves usually conatined text and info and stories that sometimes were more entertaining than the music they protected.

But I am writing this on my iPad2; so cool. I ate lunch today with a small group of my co-workers. One complained that she didn't understand a word of the conversation one of my other co-workers and I were having regarding solving a very tek database data conversion problem.

The point is, just as Vanessa said, times have changed. I *don't* miss not being able to play my vinyl music in one of my cars, or how any of the mag tape variants would warp or stick or jam, or even that a CD would skip for some unknown reason. It is really fun that moments after I find a new album or an old song online I can download it and have it playing on my Sub's 7-speaker sound system while I road trip across states or on my way home from work, or that the digital copy will play reliably "forever".

But ... I sure do miss the liner notes and awesome album covers. Yes, some labels provide U w/these too ... but it's not the same as opening up that "birthday present" of unknown, wonderful music concealed in "wrapping paper" designed by Roger Dean.

Collin Kelley said...

Great column, V. I'm going to share it around. :)


You have definitely hit the nail SQUARELY on the head with this. Anyone with an "ear" can tell you that vinyl, or in the analog vs. digital debate, that vinyl and analog both carry a weight, a deep, lush warmth that one can almost swim in, especially when compared to the tin, hollow, thin, lifeless sound of a digital recording. As each both have their pros and cons, my personal choice will always be vinyl, or analog. Maybe because I was born in the 70s and I'm partial, and maybe because I crave more life in my music. Either way, the vinyl revival is no surprise to me, but it is a welcome development, and one that I am very happy about. Maybe people have grown tired of being so vapid and without soul and this is a step in the direction of reclaiming a deeper level of our humanity. Here's hoping. Thank you Vanessa, for keeping art alive.

Ken said...

I have a soft spot for vinyl. I miss the anticipation of unwrapping an album and reading the liner notes. I still insist on buying full albums as they tell the whole story as the artist intended. Single songs seem out of context. Perhaps I am just being nostalgic.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article. However, some very broad claims are made without providing argument or empirical support. For example:

"It is universally acknowledged that the free-(down)loaders are not those who would normally pay for their music to begin with". What is the evidence for this assessment? I have certainly witnessed countless people claim, in person and online, that they stopped (or drastically reduced) purchasing music once when they could buy it for free.

Also, how does one explain the precipitous decline in music sales once downloading (and CD copying) became an option? If it were possible to completely stop piracy, I suspect there would be sudden increase in legal music purchasing.

All the best,
St Mark

vanessa daou said...

So true Ken, Jeremy, Collin, Basmati, Ben & George.... It's like saying that looking at a T-Shirt with the Mona Lisa printed on is involves as much appreciation as seeing it in person. The negation of the physical importance of the appreciation of music is perhaps the most unfortunate outcome of the digital victory, and the lack of conversation about it comes in at a close second... And while convenience is king these days (and I for one am ever grateful that music has become more portable than ever) I do miss the physical, visceral and cerebral involvement of unwrapping, unsheathing, and listening to vinyl ~ V