I was inspired to ruminate on this from this Boing Boing article featuring a Dust & Grooves interview with Sheila Burgel. The series seems to use interviews as an excuse to photograph people’s vinyl listening rooms. Many of these are quite beautiful, even if the beauty is just in the size and organization of the collection. I thought of my childhood.
Growing up, my mom always had music playing when she was cleaning the house. Ninety percent of the time she didn’t listen to the radio or tapes. Mom listened to her records. In fact, I only really remember tapes ever being played when we were in the car. Even when I was in high school and we had concert DVDs and CDs (and I was starting to get into the MP3 scene), mom would put on her records. That hiss and pop and then BOOM when the record goes from the non-audio grooves into the record mean “something’s coming” to my brain.
I remember looking at the album covers and unfolding them and seeing that there was more artwork inside. Sometimes the lyrics were inside. A few of the records had my mom’s name to distinguish them from records her brothers bought (back before they were married) to prevent a fight.
Everyone talks about MP3s being the death of the album. All anyone wants to buy is the single. The RIAA laments lost profits and demands that iTunes and Amazon make certain singles only available if you buy the entire album. The artistic types online lament that this causes artists not to care about the entire album as a work of art that is greater than any one track. For the most part I only considered it peripherally. When I started buying music you could buy a single if it was a radio single; otherwise you had to buy the entire album. The problem is that many groups, especially radio-friendly (usually pop) groups didn’t necessarily have a theme for an album. It was just a collection of singles. So I grew up enjoying the liberation that came with MP3s. But as I thought about this piece, I came to realize that going from physical formats to MP3s fundamentally changes things.
There was an article on NPR’s music blog about mixtapes and their significance. But the biggest change is that we’ve gone from mixtapes (which are fixed) to playlists (which are malleable). Frankly, I almost never even construct playlists anymore. I trust Amarok (and others use iTunes) to take some parameters and construct a playlist of music for me to listen to. There are no consequences to skipping music. It was annoying and time consuming with a tape so you had better be sure you liked the music you put on there. And even with a CD it wasn’t the same as today’s infinite playlists; skip too many songs and you’re done with your CD.
On the other hand, when you put a record on, you’re really committing to listening to the whole album. In the scheme of things it is so annoying to remove a record from a sleeve, cue up to a song, listen to that song, put the record away, grab another record, etc that you just pick an album and listen all the way through. You generally don’t change it until the album’s done. Or at least the side you’re listening to. So when you pulled out a record, you were deciding to listen to the Bee Gees for the next half hour or so.
There’s another thing that’s changed that I only started to notice in the last week or so. I know it’s a super first world problem and it sounds whiny to complain about it, but vinyl’s expensive – especially since you’re buying an entire album at a time. My mom, who loved music, probably had a maximum of 50 albums. She probably had about 500 tracks, therefore. As of my last blog post, I have 13,417 tracks representing 3996 artists. That’s insanity. Without ratings and other ways to signify which tracks I really enjoy, I’d constantly be at a loss for what to play. In fact, right now, as I wrote the previous sentence I thought about how I haven’t heard Jimmy Eat World’s “Bleed American” despite really enjoying that track. I’d say it’s probably been years since I heard it. That’s something that’s constantly happening to me. I get home and I want to listen to some music while I play with Scarlett and I have no idea what to put on. I just end up selecting whatever’s on Google Music’s home screen.
And so you end up with new obsessions with MP3s. For example, I’ve been on a nearly decade-long quest of cleaning up my music’s metadata. An ever shrinking amount of that has to do with the wild west days of Napster and Morpheus and more to do with the inconsistency of a record industry that doesn’t know or doesn’t care that good metadata is essential to making sense of a music collection nowadays. Don’t sell me MP3s where one time you call the band GRITS and another time Grammatical Revolution in the Spirit. Those are not the same thing to computers.
Ever since I started using Amarok and its central placing of album art, I’ve also been trying to fill in album art – particularly when I ripped a CD myself. It’s imperfect and really needs the work of a new standard. Right now I can see the front cover. (Front and back covers don’t really make sense in an MP3 world, but most people (by like a 10% margin) buy CDs, not MP3s. All the liner notes have disappeared or, if you buy the entire album on SOME Amazon albums, you get it as a PDF. Which means it’s essentially invisible to me because Amarok doesn’t look for PDFs and surface that information for me.
Any article that talks about vinyl always seems to be on the defensive; convincing people they aren’t some kind of hipster luddites that shun tech (although there are some of those obnoxious dudes). And they always mention how album art used to be so important with the huge vinyl covers (which people, including my mom, are now hanging on their walls). CDs were less so and now what’s the point? The point, I believe is that album covers connect with you on a visual level and elevate music from just aural to aural/visual. Whenever I think of Fantastic Plastic Machine’s debut album, I think if that iconic album art. I love it. Or the site of a pure white album which makes me immediately think of The Beatles. It made me sad that Amarok doesn’t appear to have a way to browse the library via album cover. It has a cover manager for SETTING covers, but not an easy and intuitive way to translate this into adding them into a playlist. Being an visual person, I would really enjoy this much more than a 4000 row-long list of artists.
I own a few records. Most of my records come from when I was dreaming of being a party DJ. I didn’t want a career out of it, but I wanted to make some side money and enjoyed being the person who got everyone to dance at parties. So I was there right at the beginning of this whole hipster thing – buying vinyl from Amazon when Amazon was brand new and buying vinyl from current artists (at the time) like Destiny’s Child. And, given the way Fantastic Plastic Machine’s debut album is a throwback to 60s sound, it would be a crime not to own it on vinyl. But I never listen to my records as records. It’s just too much hassle. I think there could possibly be a day where my record player would sit at my desk and I’d listen there, but I don’t know. I will be getting the Project ATMA record, but that’s because I figured if I were going to be backing a Kickstarter, I may as well get something physical out of it. Also, it comes with the MP3s.
And that brings me to an important point. I would buy vinyl if it came with free MP3s. Recording my records to MP3s has been a pain in the butt. It is time consuming because there’s no speeding it up. It takes as long as a record is. Then you need to split the file into tracks. It’s just too much work. But without making the music portable, I pretty much never listen to it. I need to be able to hear it at my desk, on my phone, and when I’m out.
I really enjoy sharing music. I think one of the happiest inconsequential moments of my life (ie not marriage or childbirth, etc) was in 2013 when Dina and Chi Thao were over and we went into the basement to play Cards Against Humanity. I put on a playlist that wouldn’t offend anyone (no Weird Al or other niche music) and got a few comments of “Oh, who’s this? Can you send me the track name?”. The same thing happened when I went to Florida for my mom’s cancer surgery. I was able to play her, among other things, Rome, which she loved. That’s something that can’t easily happen with vinyl. I’m not going to travel from state to state with fragile vinyl. My record player would not be setup in the basement, it’d be setup in the living room and would have woken up Scarlett so I wouldn’t be able to share music that way. So while I appreciate the uniqueness of vinyl, I also need the music to be available in MP3 or it’s next to useless for me.
It’s true we’ve lost something. Looking at a rack of vinyl, books, video games, or anything else that’s become digitized is just not the same as seeing a list – even a graphic list. I enjoy the voyeuristic qualities of noticing what’s on someone’s bookshelf. In fact, it’s no secret that some people (not me, I don’t have money for this) buy books for the message they send – even if they never intend to read them. Someone can look at my bookshelf and see that I’m into history, fantasy, science fiction, and comics. But there isn’t anywhere they can look (other than the strange idea of checking someone’s last.fm profile when you go over their house) and see what kind of music I’m into. Or what kind of video games I play. And that’s a sad thing, socially. Some conversations may never be started. Some friendships left unkindled. I can’t deny how awesome it is to be able to own so much music without having to worry about storage space. I don’t have to fish around in a box to find some obscure song I haven’t listen to in a long time. But I also don’t have that visual cue to remind me to listen to that song I loved so much two years ago.
But perhaps it doesn’t have to be complete loss. Maybe things will continue to evolve so that it’s not an either-or. Maybe we’ll have better album browsers on our computers. Maybe we’ll have some kind of display thing that exists in physical space rather than Facebook, raptr, and last.fm that will show people what we’re into. Or maybe that’ll come when everyone’s reality is augmented via Google Glass. In the end, what’s important to me, is imparting a love of music onto Scarlett the same way that mom imparted a love of music onto me. How? By playing music all the time – whether it’s vinyl or digital. I want her to benefit from the breadth of music that we have that was unthinkable in the past due to cost and space constraints. Scarlett can experience merengue, salsa, opera, classical, ganster rap, southern rap, techno, pop, rock and roll, 60s music, 80s music, swing, reggae, and bluegrass.
For fun, I’ll leave you with this video from the 50s on how records are made.