By Brock Wilbur | Think Pieces | January 21, 2014 |
By Brock Wilbur | Think Pieces | January 21, 2014 |
CD sales declined 15 percent last year and digital music took its first hit in a decade, while several of the larger pirate transfer sites were wiped from the Internet. Some analysts are looking to place the blame upon vinyl records, whose sales are up 32 percent this year, and (according to Amazon) up 745 percent since 2008.
So why is 2014 shaping up to be the best year ever for vinyl music?
At recording studio school, I was told that vinyl records sounded better. I mostly dismissed the idea, since I’d spent the last five years assembling a digital music collection that made me the envy of my friends. Then I was told that vinyl records make you smarter and more creative and that this was proved by neuroscience. That’s when my interest peaked. Plausible lifehack to follow:
It’s all about compression. Digital music is crunched to a bit-rate that eliminates a number of frequencies and their quality in order to make their storage smaller and more manageable. As someone raised amongst early MP3s and Napster, it was difficult to notice the difference between these files and CDs because I’d rarely heard the original recordings. What I had contained the words and the music and I did not know there could be more than that.
My recording instruction could not have been better aligned for a time to turn me against the digital. U2 had released How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, an album mixed to sound best at high compression rates, as a tie-in to their branded iPod. Putting that up against, say, an early Eagles record would show the sensory potential that existed between the dynamics, range, and tone of a rock album versus a download. But this was not just present in internet music. The same variation could be easily heard between a CD and a vinyl record. Digital music usually strips a shocking 91 percent of the sonic information from an album. It’s an understatement to say 91 percent makes a big difference.
What I was told by my professor was that a recent study had examined the working conditions of writers, musicians, sports figures and so on, indicating that many creators worked in a space with a record player, and even if they couldn’t pinpoint why, they found creation easier with some wax spinning. While I cannot find the specific study indicating this, the science makes logical sense. A vinyl record, unlimited by the same restraints as a CD or a digital reproduction, contains a greater range of fidelity: higher highs and lower lows. These frequencies can excite parts of the brain that very little, outside of music, can engage. The result being a stimulation of creative centers.
Whether or not I was fed a line on this, it worked. Since acquiring a turntable for my workspace I’ve nearly doubled my writing output, although I’m the first to offer up plausible alternatives for where this may have come from (albeit it certainly not from drinking less: vinyl records have an almost Pavlovian trigger for me to mix a cocktail, hence the number of whiskey stains on my “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” record). Regardless, the extended experience of diving into records has proved very rewarding.
Back when I toured with bands, it was the height of MySpace music, which we used to book our travel. There was a specific moment where this shifted from being a way of contacting bands to being flooded by every person who’d ever sampled loops on their laptop. This overwhelming storm of internet media has never subsided, but vinyl is a way to take releases seriously again. No one pays to press up an album unless they’re really goddamned sure people will love it.
With my first group of record purchases, I endeavored to recreate my first CD purchases from the 90s. The return on investment was made real when I listened to some of my most-listened-to albums of all time and suddenly heard them in a whole new way. In one case, I suddenly heard bass line and bell parts that I’d never noticed in ten years of listening. In another case, the album (Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin) was mixed differently from the CD, making it less of a rediscovery and more of a reinterpretation. These alt mixes can be an incredible draw, especially since they are rarely released on other formats. Acoustic Sounds / Analogue Productions have made their name by remixing albums based on the artists notes in the studio that may have been over-looked, revealing interpretations closer to the artist’s original intention. Hearing a Stevie Ray Vaughan album with the solo takes he preferred or a Pink Floyd album with double the guitars is quite a shift. Other imprints are making a name for themselves, especially in soundtrack releases. Mondo’s line of vinyl brings their trademark poster art and dedication to detail (at a fraction of their poster prices) while UK’s Death Waltz has a subscription based service which sends you limited edition runs of great horror film soundtracks. Feedbands has a similar subscription model, but all subscribers vote for what they want pressed each month, so the results of this experiment have been eclectic to say the least.
Encouraged by my experience with those first few records, I decided to replicate my favorite album collection and quickly learned that this would be a financial impossibility. One of the great frustrations for someone raised in a music world of infinite opportunity is the restriction of a relatively small set of options. Your favorite band may have never released anything to LP, or worse, may have done a small release that is now in high demand, inflating the price to hundreds of dollars. The website Discogs.com (a focused eBay-ish music site) sends me a daily email with items from my dream record wishlist that have recently been put up for sale, often serving as a crushing reminder in the middle of the afternoon that I will never be able to own The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs.
The cost issue fluctuates, as one of the greatest joys from record ownership is dumpster diving for random selections at your local music shop or second hand store. And for those concerned about duplicate purchases, about half of the records I buy new come with download codes for the digital tracks, free. Building on that in Amazon’s new Auto-Rip system which duplicates record purchases with access to their MP3 download system if a code isn’t included. But records are a physical media and a fragile one at that. They require proper storage, care, and cleaning, although there is a certain Zen-like state to be achieved in taking a Sunday afternoon to wipe-down your collection.
My 2012 Christmas was spent dividing up my father’s record collection amongst my sister and I, while he let us know in detail why we should be fighting over specific albums, and it is the reason I now have a bunch of Bowie with “WILBUR” scrawled on the front in magic marker from when he was in high school. I like that historical lineage and I love the idea I’ll be able to pass down my music library one day, not as a hard drive or a cloud subscription, but as a collection of stories with texture and smell, reflecting a life well lived.
The summary is that vinyl records give you back whatever you put into them. I grew up in a mostly post-physical media time, so this has been my first opportunity to adore album art, liner notes, and even the touch and shimmer of a well-pressed album. I’m well aware that a Spotify subscription opens up the entirety of music, but how well can you appreciate something so transitory? I know my appreciation of this physical media may echo similar rants about real books versus a Kindle, but the difference is a Kindle book isn’t missing 91% of the information from its manifest counterpart. There is an excellent chance that this not so subtle discrepancy is the difference between background entertainment and a powerful mental boost. Similarly, I can’t promise that it makes you a better lover, but speaking as someone who owns the Friday Night Lights soundtrack, I think Tim Riggins would approve.
With sales shooting up and the number of new and re-released albums being let loose to meet that demand, 2014 is absolutely the right time to give vinyl a shot. If you need proof, feel free to track down U2’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and confirm to yourself that it sounds like shit.
Brock Wilbur is a stand-up comedian, writer, director, and actor who you might recognize as the guy in Guitar Center’s national ad campaign. You can check out his website for a listing of all his work, check YouTube for stand-up acts, or follow him on Twitter.