Is vinyl still a viable format or as obsolete as pager technology in the age of smart phones?
Today, the Denver Record Collectors Spring Expo is taking place at Ramada Plaza in Northglenn (I-25 and 120th). For a $2.00 admission, you can sort through a treasure trove of vinyl from over forty dealers from all over the country. While there will also be CDs, posters and other stuff available at the expo, it's the vinyl that got us into a heated debate, particularly with all this talk about records lately, and in the shadow of Record Store Day. The primary point of contention: Is vinyl still a viable format, or is a relic of the past that's becoming more and more obsolete? Josiah Hesse and Britt Chester mix it up below. Feel free to weigh in with your take.
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• Complete Record Store Day coverage
Vinyl's Is Still Very Much Alive
I'm not going to tell you that digital music is wrong. When Napster opened the door for MP3 file sharing back in the late '90s -- essentially democratizing music ownership -- I couldn't find anything wrong with it (mostly because public libraries had been offering the same thing for nearly half a century).
Today digital music is terrifically more popular than any physical form of music recording, and I say hooray. Laptops and iPods have allowed the casual music fan to effortlessly enjoy their chosen music from a practically infinite library with endless mobility and perfectly sanitized music quality. But those who get their creative/cultural nutrients from music -- their equivalent of a cigarette or 6 a.m. triple latte -- purchasing vinyl has quickly become the preferred paraphernalia.
Whenever this argument comes up in casual conversation, the digital music fan will often destroy the vinyl junkie with the assault of one word: Pretentious. And for good reason. Most fans of vinyl are terrible at defending their love of such an anachronism. The most common defenses are 1) Album art is a tradition of rock music, and it's not the same on a CD or iPod screen, 2) It reconnects you with music as a product, which makes you treasure it more, 3) The record looks so cool when its spinning, something you don't get with a laptop DJ. Unless you are a turntablist (an art that makes vinyl as essential as guitar strings), this last argument is endlessly embarrassing. The other two are both true and -- somewhat -- relevant, but neither comes close to explaining the real beauty and necessity of vinyl. And that is: sonic quality.
Not to say that vinyl sounds "better." It doesn't. Unless you're spending a fortune on the perfect needles, amp, speakers and fresh out of the package (non-remastered) records, the vinyl experience doesn't sound "better" than digital. In order to fit a sound recording into a digital format, it must be compressed, with the highs and the lows smushed together -- giving the song a tight, smooth sound. The sound of digital music is safe, clean, perfect, like a bouquet of tulips on the glass dinner table of a suburban townhouse.
The difference between vinyl and digital music is like the difference between raising a living child of your own bloodline, and caring for those rubber dolls with crying voiceboxes they give you in Home Ec. The former is a fragile, changing organism with the potential for illness or inspiration, the latter is a disposable, inconsequential replica of the former.
The same dangerous sexual energy that frightened parents of Rolling Stones fans is found in the wild, expansive sound of an LP. It's a sound that licks the inside of your cranium, daring you to ignore it. It's a living sound. A captivating sound. A sound that changes slightly with each day (like a growing child).
Listening to an album on vinyl and then listening to it on a CD or digital file is like looking at a picture of Axl Rose in 1988 and then one in 2012: They both have ripped jeans and long, red hair, but the rips in the jeans now are too perfect, too intentionally placed by a designer who charges as much for the jeans as many people make in a month. The long hair is dreaded -- but not dreaded like Peter Tosh's or Dr. Know's wild locks, but in a clean, smooth, pony-tale and highlights sort of way. He is perfect, and therefor looks terrible.
It's like when PBR began marketing to hipsters, or when a Broadway Theater design team tries to dress its actors in "punk" costumes -- all of the details are there (the piercings, the eye-liner, the tight pants and chain wallet) but it looks all wrong. What's missing is the danger, the energy, the wild unpredictability of Iggy Pop cutting himself or the flick of Elvis' greasy hair.
There are other aspects of vinyl worth noting (the social aspects of a dusty record store comes to mind), but it's the visceral aesthetic of the medium that has kept it alive well into the twenty-first century. It is perhaps even more essential today than when it was the common apparatus for the disposable pop records of Donny Osmond and the Bay City Rollers. Beyond being the sonic alternative to the decaff sounds of an iPod, it is one of the few resources for young rock fans today to have a truly helmet-free music experience.
In an age of parental warning stickers and politically correct performers, when live concerts are loaded with guard rails and Russian novels of regulation, and your "authenticity" can be package purchased, where else but listening to a Chuck Berry 45 on headphones can you find yourself in a truly unsafe rock moment?
-- Josiah M. Hesse