The Eternal Crate Digger: Why the Vinyl Record Lives On
Last Saturday was the twentieth day of the fourth month of the year, and for a lot of people that can only mean one thing. A day to celebrate one of the most venerated recreational activities there is. That’s right, buying records! Record Store Day is now in its sixth year and, judging by the wealth of exclusives and massive attendance at stores worldwide, it’s only getting bigger. The one-day festival was originally cooked up by Chris Brown (no, not that one) in 2007 and was instituted as a celebration of the independent record shop and the spirit of music consumption for both aficionado and casual listener alike.
As well as live, in-store performances there’s always an eye-watering list of exclusive releases that will break even the tightest wallets and this year was no exception. I managed to arrive at Rise Records in Bristol early enough to catch the superb Lund Quartet, just not early enough to get the special release of Fela Kuti’s seminal Sorrow, Tears and Blood. For all the fuss and activity one might be forgiven for forgetting that a cumbersome, fragile and expensive disc known as the vinyl record has been considered a dead format for nearly twenty years.
In 2013 it’s more than a redundancy to say that the way we consume music has changed. By downloading and streaming through iTunes and Spotify or by downloading illegal torrents it’s never been easier to access music, and this has had a demonstrably damaging effect, not just upon the industry but also upon the artists and retailers themselves. While it’s easy to laugh when the RIAA throws their toys out of the pram, there are countless examples of independent labels, stores and musicians losing their profits and, inevitably, their livelihoods. Record Store Day is not only about music; it’s about supporting those who bring it to you. If the Record Store was church, buying a record is communion.
So why does the record endure? Why does this supposedly dead format persist, and, as recent reports show, outlast? Not that long ago it seemed that the only people you would expect to make sweeping statements about the superiority of vinyl were audiophiles, hipsters, DJs, collectors and purists. And yet now it seems as though an unspoken consensus has been reached: owning an album on vinyl is a great thing, a better thing in fact. The value of a vinyl recording is always given a higher appraisal than the digital, for it is as if by being etched into plastic the songs have somehow been magically enhanced, imbued with properties they did not have before. It would be too easy to say that this resurgence in popularity is entirely due to novelty. I would argue it has more to do with tactility.
Let’s return to thinking about how we consume music, or, more generally speaking, how we access and assimilate information. Communications technologies have advanced our lives in making everything accessible, anywhere in the world, anytime of day. On a recent trip to Tokyo I remember feeling the sheer sensory overload of stimuli in every direction, from lights and sounds and smells and people moving in every direction all at the same time. This is what it must be like to live inside the Internet, I thought. We are now at a point where we can talk to each other from different sides of the globe, watch news as it unfolds before our eyes, and, crucially, be sated by a limitless supply and variety of entertainment.
We may be digitally connected but in doing so we become physically alienated, and this would explain why the vinyl record, despite its price, despite its fragility, despite everything else, lives on. The MP3 didn’t do away with the record for the same reason that the E-reader didn’t do away with the book. People like to touch and to feel, to have and to hold. Sure, people like convenience. But they also like to experience things. Only connect, as E.M. Forster wrote in the epigraph of Howard’s End, his summary appeal to human understanding and sympathy. Perhaps in an age where the out-dated and outmoded can come back into style, this phrase can find a new meaning.