Local Current Blog

How I learned to love vinyl (again)

Among the many awkwardnesses of my strange little generation—I was born in 1975, as Generation X was plowing into the deep demographic ditch from which the Millennials would rise—is that it’s been hard for some of us to know how to feel about the vinyl resurgence. People ten years younger than me have no living memory of vinyl as a mainstream commercial format, so for them, vinyl has basically only ever been cool. People ten years older than me were well out of high school before the CD was anything more than a novelty, so vinyl provided the soundtrack to their formative years.

Those of us born in the mid-70s, though, were children of the death of vinyl. I was given records to listen to as a kid, and the first new pop release I owned (the Ghostbusters soundtrack) was on vinyl—but by the time I was a tween and ready to start buying my own music, the compact disc had arrived, and it was like a miracle. Some audiophiles grumbled about the “coldness” of digital sound—my dad explained the AAD/ADD/DDD notation on many CDs, indicating what stages of the recording process had been analog and which had been digital—but I was young enough to be utopian, and old enough to understand the advantages of CDs over vinyl and cassettes.

The CD was the ultimate yuppie techno-mindblow. It was small and elegant, and it came in a “jewel case” that was packaged in an even bigger box just to make clear how extremely precious and important it was. It cost a few bucks more than a record or a tape, and no wonder: it never wore out. There was zero hiss, zero crackle, zero pop. You didn’t have to turn it over. The player displayed digital numbers—for some of us in the 80s, even having a digital clock radio was still kind of a big deal—showing precisely where you were on the album and on the track, and you could immediately skip to any track, bam! Just like that.

The unpopularity of the shuffle feature might, in retrospect, have presaged the return of vinyl—part of the appeal of an album is listening to it as a whole, in the sequence the artist intended—but at the time, the CD was an incredibly freeing format. You were no longer limited to a determined sequence: you could listen to the songs in random order, or program your own order. You could even program your player to skip tracks entirely, a glorious boon at a time when two-singles-and-a-bunch-of-filler was depressingly normal for LPs.

It all just seemed like magic—but computer magic, the kind of magic that’s real. I distinctly remember, before my family owned any CDs, going to the small compact disc rack at the public library and taking a disc out just to gaze at the dancing rainbow colors on its underside. 80s pop culture imagery had taught us that the future would look and sound like a sleek, sexy machine, and the compact disc was proof that MTV had been absolutely right.

So everyone dumped their records. Why wouldn’t you? The CD revolution became the most lucrative example of record companies profiting by format change: Baby Boomers like my dad had spent the last 30 years buying vinyl, and just as those Boomers were hitting their earning peak, the record industry showed up right on cue with a gorgeous new format that Boomers then proceeded to replicate their entire music collections with, at $17.99 a pop.

As a teenager, I splurged on CD purchases of my most hotly-anticipated new releases—for example, the incredible bounty of the two new studio albums (Human Touch and Lucky Town) that Bruce Springsteen released simultaneously in 1992. It was on vinyl, though, that I’d actually learned to love the Boss—not because that’s what I wanted, but because it was cheap. With everyone dumping their records, vinyl was the way to go for a kid getting by on baby-sitting money (three bucks an hour, maybe four or five bucks if the parents came back really drunk).

The price tag is still on the used five-record Live 1975-85 set I bought around 1990: $14.90, condition fine. Most of the rest of Springsteen’s catalog I bought at a place called the Landfill: fifty cents each for records that were far from pristine, but totally playable. (Except for side two of Dylan’s Hard Rain, which seemed to have been stuck to the sleeve with chewing gum that had later been removed with a power sander.) My copy of The River was so warped that when I finally did get the album on CD, I was astonished to discover that the way I’d heard “The Ties That Bind” was the way Max Weinberg had actually played it—I’d assumed the eccentric drum signature was just my crappy record skipping.

This all sounds very charming in retrospect, but it didn’t seem that way to me. I owned records because I had to—as soon as I could afford it, I switched to CD. By the time I want to Boston for college in 1993, everyone was on the new stuff. Cassettes were holdovers because you could copy stuff on them—I didn’t so much as lay hands on a CD burner until I was in grad school—but mostly it was CDs, kept in giant binders that were bulky, but far less so than my dad’s goliath record collection.

The future, it soon became clear, would belong to storage devices even more magically compact than the silver discs. When my roommate Dave and I moved into one of our grad school apartments in 2000, we had to haul my tall CD tower up two flights of stairs and Dave told me, sweating, that I should quit trying to buy “every CD in the world” because pretty soon, all that data would be released from even anything so bulky as a CD. “This data would all fit on six DVDs, Jay. Six DVDs!”

Or, of course, one iPod. I happily bought a first-gen iPod, and it seemed like my utopian dreams were coming true. When I was a teenager, I so badly wanted to shuffle all my songs that—this is an absolutely true story, I still have the notes—I listed all of my records, tapes, and CDs, noting how many tracks were on each, so I had a master enumerated list of all the tracks on all my media. I then rolled ten-sided dice (thank you, D&D) to generate random numbers, which I referenced to the corresponding songs and created playlists that I recorded onto cassette. An iPod could do that all for me, instantly! It was just like that commercial: Apple had created the device that freed my music from its mortal coil and allowed me to listen to all my songs however, whenever, I wanted.

A dozen years later, I have an iPhone and a Spotify subscription, proving Dave more or less right: all the CDs in the world have come to me, and I can access them far more efficiently than I could back in the days when I’d start multiple Columbia House accounts under multiple different names just so I could get those giant starter boxes of 15 brand-new CDs.

I understood the vinyl resurgence when I could interpret it as purely ironic: a way to make fun of your parents’ music, and their format. Then, though, there started to be signs that it was something much more serious. My friends—friends younger than me—were paying real money for vinyl copies of new releases. In what seemed to me a a bizarre inversion of the Boomers’ vinyl-to-CD transition, people were even buying vinyl records to replicate their CDs. At shows, bands started selling records instead of CDs. Eventually, people started giving me records as sincerely intentioned presents, assuming I’d love them and assuming I had the infrastructure to play them.

Wait, what? Why would I love a format that I’d gleefully, seemingly with everyone’s encouragement, kicked to the curb as soon as I could afford to? Why would I even own a record player? What was everyone getting so excited about? Look! There’s the Internet! All the music is there, most of it essentially free!

I tried to take a principled stand. I wanted to pay artists, I explained—I just wanted to pay them digitally. Wouldn’t that be easiest for everyone? The vinyl re-boom seemed to me reactionary, Gen Y hipsters rebelling against their yuppie parents with the happy encouragement of Gen X and Boomer music heads who had never given up on vinyl in the first place. I’d walk into music stores where record sections were expanding to eclipse CD sections, and I’d think, but we know how this ends!

One day, though, my resolve started to crack. I was going through some things in my old room at my mom’s house, and I wanted to listen to some music. My old CD player had busted long ago, the cable to connect my phone to the stereo was back at my apartment, and…well, there were all my old records. I could always…play a record. Hadn’t done that in a while.

I’d assumed my turntable was broken, but I dug around in back and found out that the grounding cable was just loose. Grounding cables…I’d forgotten about those. Once that was fixed, I pulled out a Springsteen record, dropped the needle, and…boom. There I was, 18 again.

When my girlfriend and I got a place together last year, I realized that it was big enough for me to bring my stereo from my mom’s house. I piled the giant speakers and receiver—my Dad bought them when he got out of the Navy in the early 70s, and passed them down to me when he bought fancy Magnepan speakers at the dawn of the digital era—into my car and drove them over to our Minneapolis apartment along with my cassette player and turntable components.

I chose a judicious selection of my records and displayed them in our living room. I started to play them again, mostly when we had people over. It was kind of fun. The records gave us something to talk about. We could pass the sleeves around, and when a record ended, we could flip through the ones that remained, choosing something that seemed appropriate. It was a nice alternative to the infinite worlds of Spotify: there were a limited number of choices, all of which I loved and all of which physically existed in a way everyone could relate to. Though there had been a certain purity to my all-digital stand, it hadn’t been much fun to be the only guy in the room who wouldn’t enthuse about vinyl. Now I had a record player—my old record player, in fact—and some records: table ante for a slow, halting dip into the vinyl resurgence.

I still don’t have a lot of new records, and I still don’t intend to buy many of them. Most of the vinyl I keep around, and like to play, is the old stuff: that Ghostbusters record from my godparents, the Springsteen set, the Windham Hill records I bought in my new age phase, a polka record from my grandma’s all-polka record collection. There are a lot of good memories there, and I’m glad to be able to spin those non-compact discs again. I’ve even gone so far as to bring my record rack (my grandma’s old encyclopedia stand) over for ease of browsing, and to provide a place to store the Beethoven complete set that my dad bought by mail order in the 70s and subsequently gave to me almost untouched. (My every-CD-in-the-world phase, it seems, was a direct descendant of Dad’s every-record-album-in-the-world phase.)

My biggest buy in the neo-vinyl era, so far, is a Tegan and Sara boxed set. They’re my favorite band, but even so, I told myself that I was only buying their vinyl boxed set (for a three-figure sum) because of the bonus disc of rarities and because of the autographed insert. After recently pulling Sainthood out, though, and looking at that big beautiful cover, and cuing that opening track with a needle-drop instead of a mouse click, I think I’m finally ready to admit: I bought those records because I wanted to buy some records.