Most of all, I love that you actually have to pay attention. Vinyl involves you, the listener, both through the music it contains and through the need for you to directly interact with it, to pay attention for the lull and quiet hop-pop static that signals the end of side A. Get off your ass! Side B is waiting! Flip the damn record! Do it! There's none of that bullshit week-long MP3 playlist or 50-disc CD changer crap, where you just turn the music on and forget that it's even there. Get with the program, slacker! This isn't muzak, that pap that retail stores pipe through their loudspeakers to encourage you to hurry the fuck up and buy something, or the pulsing bass-and-drum of party beats meant to help your lame ass engage in some primal mating rituals, or the endless streaming of soft jazz into a crowded hotel elevator, a sound so obnoxious that it forces you to start chewing on the arm of the nearest suit in the hope that his screams will somehow drown out the awful noise known as Kenny G.
Vinyl is all about the attentive listening; it does not relegate good music—music that is well-worth listening to—to background noise. Every play is like a ritual: the easing of the record from its plastic, cardboard, and paper sleeves, the careful placing of the vinyl onto the turntable, the thumb-and-forefinger precision of the stylus, and the seconds-long wait for the needle to find its groove and transform it into music. You need to exist with the music to properly preserve and enjoy it, and to make sure that you hear the entire album as it was meant to be heard.
All things considered, I think that it is this direct connection to the listener that has supported vinyl records through the format changes of the last forty years. We've seen 4-tracks, 8-tracks, cassette tapes, and minidisks come and go, and the compact disc is slowly but surely being relegated to the position of an archival medium, a backup to the easy portability of the digitized ones and zeroes of the ubiquitous MP3 format. Yet, through all these changes, the seemingly clunky vinyl record has endured.
Maybe it is just for collector's value, or as some kind of totemic connection to the heyday of rock and roll. Maybe it's the perception that the analog recording is that much closer to the artist's original vision, a direct transmission of sorts from the mind of the creator through the instrument and recording apparatus to the master disc, from there to the mass-produced record, back through the stylus and tone arm to the stereo, out from the speakers, and finally to the eager ears of the listener. Maybe, but I can't say for sure—I'm not an expert, I'm just an enthusiast.
What I do know is that proponents of the record can take pride in knowing that vinyl is still a viable format, and that modern musicians and record labels continue to manufacture and sell them. True, it's not exactly a widely-accepted or readily-available medium: you can't find everything on vinyl, the majority of chain record stores do not carry vinyl, and even independent and collectors' shops have hit-or-miss selections. Granted, the little guys do tend to have discounted prices on used goods, and can often order what you need in the event it is not in stock, but there’s no guarantee of success. While the ol' interwubs tend to offer a far wider selection than physical stores, on-line hunting through the likes of eBay and GEMM (Global Electronic Music Marketplace) is typically a price-gouging crapshoot. The collector's-item factor alone can jack up prices for older records to unbelievable heights ($150 for the Suicide Commandos' 1979 live LP The Commandos Commit Suicide Dance Concert), not to mention the relatively limited pressings of 1000 copies or less for current vinyl releases. It's even worse if the band is popular. Ever try to get your hands on the notoriously rare Five Minutes With... 7" by Arctic Monkeys for less than $40? Yeah, good luck with that.
While I wouldn't say that it's the perfect solution to the time-consuming and sometimes-pricey tradition of the vinyl scavenger hunt, the folks at Denver-based Suburban Home Records (and Distribution) have come up with a rather interesting idea: an on-line project/shop of sorts by the name of "Vinyl Collective." While still in its infancy, the self-proposed idea behind the Vinyl Collective is to provide "a forum for vinyl collectors" that would supply "information on past, present, and future pressings as well as staff picks, opinions, and anything worth discussing in all matters of vinyl collecting."
Though the open forum aspect has yet to establish itself, the Vinyl Collective does provide a fairly comprehensive on-line record shop that is chock-full of untouched and indie-friendly pop and rock albums. Albums by the likes of Russian Circles, !!!, An Albatross, Bright Eyes, and Tom Waits, and at reasonable prices, too. It's roughly $7-$12 for your average 33 1/3 rpm 12", and the site even offers cheap-as-free media mail shipping. We're talking a flat rate of $3.00 for all-you-can-buy orders—now that's something.
Prices and selection aside, the most interesting thing about SHR's Vinyl Collective is that it focuses almost entirely on unused albums that could easily be found in the CD format. It's not a bargain basement for obscure releases or a vault for aging collectibles, but an attempt at jump-starting interest in vinyl as a readily-available format for modern listeners. Considering the recent hit that the album has taken since the advent of pay-per-track on-line stores like iTunes and eMusic, I can't say that that is an entirely ludicrous idea. The fact of the matter is that the concept of listening to albums in their entirety is dying a slow but steady death, and that the perhaps too-convenient MP3 file format has made listeners generally less attentive. Music is slowly becoming muzak as portable MP3 players allow listeners to thoughtlessly break apart a cohesive album in order to craft a soundtrack to their own lives. In this sense, music is no longer something we listen to in order to enjoy and appreciate it for its own unique qualities; it is something we put on in the background so that we can tune out everything else.
This is all the more reason why we need vinyl records. So I say kudos to you, Suburban Home Records and your Vinyl Collective—preach that gospel, and let the people know that vinyl is far more than a relic of the past or a mere sampling tool for DJs.* Vinyl is a living, breathing format, and a constant reminder of what music can and should be: tactile, and worthy of your full attention.
Viva la Vinyl!
*But, if you are in the market for the later, check out Turntable Lab 04 for a bevy of DJ-friendly resources. Spin on, good jockeys. Spin on.
Features (November 30th, 2006)
Tags: hip to the groove, vinyl, record, album, lp, suburban home records, vinyl collective