Vinyl Is Back: A Meditation On Why That Is

A million years ago, I kept my records displayed in alphabetical order by band and in chronological order within each artist’s section. In some cases, I would play an album until the grooves (literally) wore out and then re-purchase it.

To illustrate the palpable appeal of vinyl, please allow me to tell you about a kid I knew back in rock music’s glory days. His name was Dominick. I was about 13 at the time and he couldn’t have been more than 11. Dominick was just getting into music and asked me to help him pick out his first album. I was delighted as we made the trek to now-defunct Record Spectacular on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens.

Dominick’s eyes grew wide as he took a good long look around the store at the bongs, “Bambu” rolling papers, and risqué blacklight posters. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer blared over the sound system.

With a little prodding from yours truly, he purchased Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. The clerk placed Dominick’s treasure in one of those thin paper bags specifically designed for albums and off we went.

After a few attempts at conversation, I surrendered because all Dominick wanted to do was sneak peeks at his purchase. Finally, when we were about halfway home, he couldn’t take it anymore. “Hold on,” he said, “I need a minute.”

He sat on the nearest stoop, took out the album, and held it firmly in both hands, just staring at the infamous Andy Warhol zipper fly cover. “My first album,” he said wistfully, “I can’t believe I’m holding my first album in my hands.” He looked up at me and added: “I don’t wanna let it go.” I nodded to let him know I understood. And with that, he carried the LP (without the bag) for the rest of our walk.

Up until recently, I’d expect an anecdote like this to elicit a sardonic, “OK, Boomer” (even though I’m way more Gen X). But, as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer sang that day in Record Spectacular: “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.”

Vinyl records have yet again risen from the dead. For the first time since 1986, they’re more profitable than CDs. Here are the Recording Industry Association of America sales numbers from July 2019 to July 2020:

-Vinyl records: sold 8.6 million units, generating $224.1 million

-CDs: 18.6 million units and $247.9 million

Sure, vinyl isn’t gonna overtake Spotify any time soon but such stats do warm the hearts of those who still fondly recall liner notes, cover art, and the unique experience of owning actual albums.

Randy Stewart is host and producer with KSMU/Ozarks Public Radio. “A lot of younger people think there’s something really cool,” he said, “and there is something really cool about a 12- inch LP for no other reason than you’ve got something large and tangible in your hand.”

As they say in South Florida: “BINGO!” Streaming services are incredible and it’s intoxicating to have all that music at your fingertips. But an album collection is a cultural statement. It’s part of your decor and your personality. Like an epic wall of bookshelves, your albums create their own vibe.

Speaking of “vibe,” vinyl also provides a different kind of listening experience. With earbuds in place, you can click through playlists on the subway, riding your bike, during a workout, or on a long, socially-distanced walk. Albums are different. Much different.

When you choose an LP, there’s an aspect of “meditation” involved. You slide the album out from its protective dust cover. You gently lay it on the turntable. You then — even more gently — place the needle at the precise point of your choosing. This isn’t a casual act of selecting “background music;” setting up an album to be played is the main event.

Not to mention, there are plenty of music fans who will fight you over their firm belief in analog audio versus digital. There is a vividness to the music that’s somehow lost in all of today’s technological wonder. Those voices you hear singing on that record sound, well… they sound human.

The world was a whole lot different back when I watched Dominick swoon over his first LP. But today, it’s encouraging to know that vinyl persists as a growing subculture. As Ani DiFranco once sang:

“People used to make records

As in a record of an event

The event of people

Playing music in a room”

Listening to an LP sets you up for a mindful trip, a sensual experience that transports you back to that room full of people playing music together — in the same space, at the same time. For many of us, it was once a communal listening “event” as well. And now, more than ever, that sense of community is what we’re missing – and what we need.

-Mickey Z

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