BY JACK BRADY
When I first delved into the musty catacomb of records lining the bookcases of my garage, I had no idea what to expect. Frankly, I had never even heard a real record before, and the prospect of actually listening to one was more than a little daunting. Like the rest of my generation, I didn’t have any of my own and turned to my parent’s old collection. I was greeted by rows and rows of tightly packed records with dog-eared packaging, with names and titles all obscured by an omnipresent layer of dust. I tentatively eased a single record from its brethren at random, and found myself holding a copy of Van Morrison’s legendary Astral Weeks. I had long heard of the record’s worth, yet nothing prepared me for the actual experience of listening to it in its original, vinyl state. Once the needle settled into the record’s grooves and it began to play, I initially found the faint scratches, pops and hisses off-putting compared to the sterile coolness of the digital sound my ears were used to. But, as the record played on, I realized I was listening to it as the artist himself had, as it sounded during its inception, as my parents and the whole world had heard it. I was listening to history.
This scenario is one that is becoming more and more common. Vinyl records are experiencing a resurgence due to the efforts of devoted connoisseurs and the independent music community. Despite the mp3’s current standing as the main source of music for today’s listeners, digital music distributors like iTunes and Rhapsody have their own share of problems, battling an ever increasing number of pirates and illegal filesharing sources. With one-click access to absolutely free digital music coupled with recent price hikes, iTunes faces declining sales and distribution. Yet, the supposedly ancient world of records is experiencing an unprecedented boom in sales and production. Artists have been employing vinyl as an elite, preferred method of experiencing their music for truly dedicated fans and audiophiles. While this sudden boom in sales and popularity may seem hard to believe, the statistics speak for themselves. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Vinyl record sales increased from just 14.2 million dollars in 2005 to 56.7 million in 2009.
Much of this sudden increase in sales can be traced back to 2007, when six independent record store employees decided to celebrate the spirit and culture of their industry. They created an event with special offers, releases and live performances, dubbed Record Store Day. What was once a spirited sales push from a few lone stores has become a global musical holiday and a massive testament to vinyl’s success, with hundreds of exclusive releases and live performances from some of music’s most popular and respected artists. Record Store Day’s success is so great that many stores now celebrate a second version of the holiday on Black Friday.
Dozens of high profile artists have released exclusive new material or limited edition re-issues for record store day that you could only purchase by actually going to a independent record store. The list of artists includes The Beastie Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Flaming Lips, MGMT, Weezer and Jack White of The White Stripes.
“I think it’s high time the mentors, big brothers, big sisters, parents, guardians, and neighborhood ne’er do wells, start taking younger people that look up to them to a real record store and show them what an important part of life music really is. I trust no one who hasn’t time for music. What a shame to leave a child, or worse, a generation orphaned from one of life’s great beauties. And to the record stores, artists, labels, dj’s, and journalists; we’re all in this together. Show respect for the tangible music that you’ve dedicated your careers and lives to, and help it from becoming nothing more than disposable digital data,” White said on Recordstoreday.com.
Vinyl records have also allowed one of the creative mediums to designers lost in the digital music world to be preserved. Record packaging, once an essential component of what defined a musician’s work, has become a shadow of its former self in the world of CDs and digital music. On a vinyl record, album art extends it’s image into the construction of the record itself. Liner notes, in which musicians used to provide their lyrics and include even more artwork and expression, are staple components of any album, yet they are missing in standard digital copies of albums today.
Of all vinyl’s qualities, its proponents’ cherish one that’s quite hard to describe. It is wrenchingly poignant, easing the record from the sleeve of its vibrant packaging, sliding a fingertip along the record’s grooves and gingerly dropping the needle onto its surface, this is a moment vinyl fans claim as proof of the medium’s sanctity. This is a ritual technological advances have erased, a communion and intimacy with both the album and the artist one can’t replicate with a CD or mp3. A record is something you can hold in your hands and simply feel, in contrast to the faceless and empty world of mp3s.
The musical legacy of the past century is not encoded onto the iPods and hard drives of today, but rather etched onto the vinyl of yesteryear. Few realize that many of the most acclaimed artists of the past remain exclusively in record form, and are long since out of print. As digital music presses on more and more into the soundscape, these precious rarities and collections are irrevocably lost. The vinyl renaissance has restored interest among modern consumers in many acclaimed artists of the past, such as jazz legends John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong.
While we may not be seeing turntables everywhere we look, vinyl records have certainly fashioned themselves a niche in this turbulent music world, one that will only continue to grow as time passes on. No matter how vast our digital collections grow, how much music pirates steal or how fast our iPods shuffle, the old hiss and scratch of vinyl will always be there to greet our ears.