If you are under 25, the following may not make sense to you or, at very least, you will only be able to experience what I describe by some imprecise analogy. What I am going to describe is the pleasure of thinking about, buying, and listening to a vinyl LP record --- yes, those rather large, archaic looking 12-inch in diameter discs in square cardboard sleeves, probably found somewhere in your parents' attic or grandparents' den. Even if you're over 25 and have bought a vinyl LP at some time in the past, you may have forgotten what the experience is like. A cultural shift occurred while you were busy living. So let me tell you what it was like for me.
First, in my youth and teenage years, other than Rolling Stone Magazine or FM radio, there was little information available on new music releases --- no web pages, blogs, MySpace, or satellite radio. You found music by going to the record store and cruising the bins. In addition, there were very few stores dedicated solely to records. In my hometown, there was one, and it was inconveniently located downtown. I did most of my record shopping in the basement of Franklin's Drug Store, an area which amounted to about six feet of bins, two deep, all-inclusive of every genre. My first record cost $3.49 --- an exorbitant amount for me then. Essentially, I would have to cut two neighbors' grass to earn that much. Given that gratification was delayed (another feeling many under 25s often do not know), I had some time for dreaming about what I would buy, shuffling through the colorful records in the bins, staring at the artwork, and holding the records. I can't overemphasize the sense of touch, the simple pleasure of holding something.
Take, for example, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band LP, released in 1967 when I was nine (and which I discovered a couple years later). There is a lot to look at on that cover, a pop art melange of characters, with psychedelic colors popping out at you, the word "STEREO" printed at the top of the cover, an important claim then, and lyrics printed on the back. Before Pepper it wasn't common to get lyrics with an album. Rip open the shrink wrap and the sleeve opens like some awesomely oversized CD digi-pak to reveal a full color photo of the Fab 4 decked out in their marching band threads, and there's a similar shot on the back, standing, only Paul is turned with his back to the viewer. How long did we discuss why he was turned away from us? What message was being conveyed? But the fun doesn't stop there: Inside the sleeve is a color page of Sgt. Pepper cut-outs --- a mustache, badges, a stand-up band photo, and more. And the weight! With disc, Sgt. Pepper clocks in at 13 ounces, not much less than a pound. Substantiality! When you carried an LP around, you had something.
When I'd get a record like Sgt. Pepper, or Jethro Tull's Aqualung, or Jefferson Airplane's Bark (which came in a brown paper bag), I'd take it to school. A handful of guys in junior high would lug six to ten LPs around, and the after-lunch conversation in the courtyard was all about music. We'd stare at the album covers, discuss the music and the meaning of lyrics, theorize about the album concepts (they had concepts then), and swap records for an evening. The creativity! Grand Funk Railroad's E Pluribus Funk LP was in a round, silver dollar-like package, Traffic's Low Spark of High Heeled Boys LP was a parallelogram, the corners clipped. The Bee Gees' double-disc Odessa CD was covered in red velvet, like carpet (this was prior to that ugly disco phase for the boys). On So Long Ago the Garden, pioneer Christian rocker Larry Norman is half naked on the front, the back a pair of snake-skin boots and a half eaten apple. (Many retailers refused to sell it.) Records made a statement, and their very size assured that it would be a very public statement. Carry the zippered front of The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers around a high school campus and you've said something, haven't you?
So what's so great about vinyl LPs? Let's summarize:
- LPs are multi-sensory experiences. You can touch a record, smell it (whether vinyl, the cardboard sleeve, or something else like the scratch and sniff sound of The Raspberries self-titled debut), hear it, watch it turn on the turntable, lift the needle and set it down on another track, open it, see it on a shelf, and ponder the artwork. Digital music is for listening only, with only a teaser of cover art.
- LPs are (were) public experiences. When you bought an LP, you purchased it in a public place, carried it around, and put it on a shelf where folks could see it. When you carry around a half-naked Larry Norman, people talk. Junior high girls freak. People generally don't know what you're listening to on the IPOD and often don't care.
- LPs created a limited, shared market. When artists were limited to LPs, the market could only absorb so much, as there was only so much shelf space. There was a more shared appreciation of music, in that the market was limited. In today's digital world, there are so many artists and such a broad spectrum of quality that chances are most of the artists a person is listening to are ones you've never heard of. That being the case, we lose a shared culture and have less to talk about. We can say "I like X", but it's difficult to discuss X with someone who hasn't heard X and has little reason to.
- LPs rewarded patience. You could pick the needle up and skip songs, but given the difficulty of it, we were more apt to listen to whole albums. Given that albums were sometimes conceptual, this promoted deeper listening. The track that didn't bowl you over on first listen may grow on you and reward on repeated listenings.
- LPs sound better. It's true, provided the record is well-preserved of course and you have the right equipment. I wouldn't know, as I never had great equipment, but all audiophiles say this.
That's just a few things that made records better. Not that they were better in every way. (That's another post!) But basically, we traded all this for immediacy and portability. I think that's an unfair trade.
Stay tuned for tomorrow: Why the vinyl LP is more biblical than digital music. I'm serious, people! The kids are missing out!