PHONO – a return to vinyl

I can’t believe you need all that stuff!

That’s what our daughter said when she recently took an interest in our vinyl collection and I dug out the hifi equipment: turntable, amp, speakers, cables which within moments were entangled. You can see what she means. Compared with the tiny devices we’ve become used to this is a lot of kit, somewhat delicate, and not at all portable. Yet despite this there’s a resurgence in the popularity of vinyl. It’s all the rage, apparently. #Trending.

Once upon a time everybody bought recorded music on vinyl discs. There was no other option. Then in the early 1960s the compact tape cassette came along, and while this format gained popularity vinyl continued to rule. The 1980s saw the introduction of compact discs, offering crystal clarity. Playing a CD was like having the band in your living room, they said. We could smear CDs with jam and still they would play. We could scratch them and scratch them and still they would play. We could break them into teeny-tiny pieces and still they would play. There would be no more skipping or sticking, no more crackle or hiss. Rewind, fast-forward, pause – and just look at the size! Talk about compact. Well, the clue’s in the name ain’t it. The CD is the future, they told us. And the future is here.

Soon it was possible to buy only the songs we wanted on CD from shops such as Our Price, rather than buying an album that included maybe two songs we were familiar with because they’d been released as singles, along with a bunch of others upon which we were taking a punt. (More on that story later, to paraphrase Kirsty Wark.) Then, then, evolving from the portability first offered by the Sony Walkman and less successfully achieved with CDs, pocket-sized flash- and hard drive-based MP3 players came along, enabling us to take our music anywhere. With this combination of size, capacity, portability and choice, music consumers were in headphone nirvana. But without realising, what had we gradually traded away in exchange for all that convenience?

Returning to vinyl now after years of listening to digital formats, it’s clear that vinyl is warmer, more even, has greater depth. The music feels far more unified, a coherent body. And then there’s the physical aspect: albums have sleeves with artwork, lyrics, photos, small print information such as thank-yous and details of the studio used for the recording. Sure, CDs have covers, but they just don’t have the same tactile value as a big piece of card. And if you hold a vinyl record up in the light you can see the rhythms of the music etched on to the surface of the disc. Good luck trying that with an MP3.

In contrast to the portable formats mentioned above vinyl’s larger size and somewhat fragile nature require the listener to be in one place, and as we become an increasingly fast-paced, on-the-go, always-up-to-some-shit society that often can’t see the wood for the trees, we should surely welcome something that requires us to slow down… breathe… relax… There’s also something undeniably satisfying, indeed soothing, about a record spinning on the turntable as it plays.

Oh – you can’t pause it.

Yeah – there are some inconveniences. You can raise the needle off the record, but that’s not quite the same as hitting a pause button for an instant dead-stop. And although possible it’s far less easy to repeat or skip a track. One advantage of this, however, is the lost delight of those surprise tracks. Back in the day one benefit of buying an album containing tracks you’d never heard was that these were usually some of the best, unconstrained by the requirements of single release and radio play, and often gaining strength with repeated listens. A good example is the track Swing on Japan’s album Gentlemen Take Polaroids (click here to see Relax and Swing – a blog about 80s pop group Japan).

Also less convenient is searching for your music: there’s no box to type in – you’ve just got to rifle through the stack. But along with this comes the possibility of finding something you didn’t think you fancied or had simply forgotten about.

The thing is, I can get all this music free on Spotify.
~ Youth browsing vinyl

With my renewed interest in vinyl I went to HMV. They have so many of the records that are already in our collection, from artists such as The Smiths, The Beatles, Echo and the Bunnymen, for around £20. Given inflation over the years I guess that’s not bad: a lot of our records still have the price stickers attached, and they were mostly in the £3.99–5.99 range.

Here, too, is the lost fun of browsing miscellaneous records in a shop with the possibility of finding a surprise or gem. It’s clear that the unexpected, the potential for discovery, are key factors intrinsic to the vinyl experience. I know online music suppliers offer similar you may also like or people also bought features, but surely the determinations of a computer algorithm can’t compare with the spark of curiosity ignited by your mood in the moment.

I had expected our daughter to be a bit meh about the whole vinyl thing after her initial burst of interest. That I’d be perceived as a nostalgic fogey maligning advances in technology like some 21st century Luddite. But no, she appreciates the difference in sound too, and while she still uses Spotify while out and about or in her room, she now buys her own vinyl. For myself, I’d become largely disinterested in music, mainly listening to my beloved audio drama and podcasts. But the quality of sound on vinyl has reignited my enthusiasm for listening to music for the simple pleasure of doing so. Spinning as I type, This is All Yours by Alt-J – a band our daughter introduced us to.

I’m a writer, editor, and Royal Literary Fund Fellow.
Find out more, tweet me, or email.

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