It’s a long road to Toronto. As Thai, Emma (henceforth referred to as “DJ Swedeheart”), Gene and I head north, we were bound to slip into some form of pseudo-intellectual debate. And, as it so happens, everyone chose to pick on my latest hobby – collecting vinyl records.
“Look, I’m a big fan of vintage technology, but it has its place.” said Gene.
“Which is where exactly?” I asked.
“In the past.”
Gene questions the continued relevance of vinyl in the digital era, emphasizing its obvious drawbacks. Physically, they’re unwieldy, requiring a large amount of storage space and tentative care to keep them in proper shape. You can’t take them with you in the car. Their audio quality is comparable to that of the CD, and the turntable itself requires a great deal of maintenance. And of course you can’t easily move between tracks.
I argue that the turntable experience succeeds because of, rather than in spite of, these things.
The LP, or “Long Play” album is a compositional experience. To skip between tracks was not only relatively difficult, but could potentially damage the record. To play an album, you must listen to it in its entirety. This is a distinctly different experience than later audio formats, such as the cassette or cd which allowed for scrubbing or the switching between audio tracks. However, I argue that it’s precisely the uninterrupted play of the LP that allowed for the powerful sensual and political experience of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. The meaning of those albums could simply not be determined from one song, but requires a listening of the entire album to understand the artists’ intent. Much in the same way the notes compose the track, so the tracks compose the album. There is a larger narrative at work, a story lost if the songs are listened to out of the artist’s context. The technological constraints of vinyl are actually a crucial element to the listening experience, because not only do they determine how an album is listened to, they also influences the artist in the creation of their music. You are, in a sense, forced to sit next to the hi-fi and listen to the music in its entirety. And from operating under these constraints, you achieve a particular experience.
<Pause. Break for Eminem jam session as we enter Detroit. DJ Swedeheart uses Spotify to play “Love the Way You Lie”.>
Granted, digital music has its advantages. When you want to play a particular track, there’s no substitute for the instant gratification offered by iTunes or Spotify. But because technology provides us with access to this “instant on” style of listening, my critique is that such a phenomenon has changed the culture of music production itself. Artists are focused more on individual hits instead of longer compositions. We’ve progressed (regressed?) to a jukebox mentality where singles are the new norm, and the digital mixtape culture dominates our musical experience as we weave disparate tracks into the fabric of our immediate environment. There’s a reciprocal relationship here where the technology influences the music and vice versa leading to a shift in our musical experience from both the creator and listener’s perspective.
But is this experience “better?” Gene argues that you’re free to listen to a digital album in its entirety, just as you can with a vinyl record. But, although that may be technically true, I would argue that the culture is moving in the opposite direction. iTunes is based off the “$1/song” model that has helped to put stores like Borders out of business. The LP album is no longer relevant in our current socio-cultural context, and this extends into digital music. Listening to an album from start to finish is becoming a much rarer experience. And, of course I would be remiss not to mention sites such as the Pirate Bay or Usenet that offer easy and free access to terabytes of digital music. But I view this as an extension of the instant gratification experience we’ve come to expect through our technology.
I don’t claim that listening to an old vinyl album is a “better” experience than listening to Carle Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” But I do argue that the two experiences are different, and they are different because of the technological and cultural shifts we’ve encountered over the past few years. Do I prefer one experience over the other? I depends on the context. And I don’t expect this article to initiate a resurgence in vinyl listening. But I reject the idea that Spotify or iTunes is an “evolved” or “improved” vinyl experience. I view it as something separate that operates under different constraints and, in some cases, completely different environments.
<As if to spite my argument, the other passengers decided to listen to “Avenue Q” in its entirety as we cross the border into Canada. My pleas for “America, Fuck Yeah!” went sadly unheeded. Well, maybe on the way back.>
Then again, perhaps this argument is only the resurgence of my inner Seattle hipster. Gene certainly thinks so, although I don’t sit in my basement listening to “Hotel California” out of self-proclaimed irony. Actually, I’ve got a serious problem with how the word “ironic” is used today, but that’s another rant. So, my friends, I leave you as we continue our way on this desolate road into parts unknown. Yes, that last sentence is both a metaphor and a description of my current situation. See you all soon.