Friday, 18 April 2014

What's The Deal With Vinyl Anyway?

Tomorrow is Record Store Day, April 19th, so what? I’ll get to that, but first of all it’s pointless without background, and I’ll bring it to the most basic level, and keep it brief.

It all started with the gramophone record, an analog medium of recording music, which begins from the periphery of the disc, and finishes at the centre with three different widths, 12” which is normally an entire album or LP (long play) (but can be an elongated single), a 10” which is generally an E.P. (extended play) and finally a 7”, a single, or a 45 (which relates to it’s revolutions per minute). 

Thomas Edison, Washington, D.C., April, 1878

How is it made? You may have heard of Thomas Edison, who invented the first motion picture camera, and developed the light-bulb in it’s present glory, well he also invented the phonograph, or the recording of sound on a lacquer (wax) vinyl. According to the Gramophone Guild website ‘A vinyl gramophone or phonograph record consists of a disc of polyvinyl chloride plastic, engraved on both sides with a single concentric spiral groove in which a sapphire or diamond needle, stylus, is intended to run, from the outside edge towards the centre’.

A modern example of vinyl being engraved, Beck's 'Morning Phase', 2014

Let’s cut to the chase, with digital music and CD’s, what’s the point in vinyl? Isn’t it impractical and just for hipsters who will gravitate towards anything that is old or ‘different’ just so they can be, ‘different’?  The answer to this question is Yes, and No.

Yes, because you will always have hipsters in any decade, any century, and any millennium, they have been around since Roman times probably, they were the guys who were wearing sarongs when everyone else was wearing togas, or baseball caps when everyone else was wearing laurels. No because, despite hipsters, there are people who enjoy vinyl records more than their modern counterparts for purely practical reasons, and yes, one of the overriding reasons is nostalgic, but let’s deal with them one by one.

The vinyl record is the oldest medium of recording music, it was followed by 8-tracks, cassettes, CD’s, mini-discs, and eventually digital mp3’/ flac’s. Out of the older mediums, 8-tracks, cassettes & mini-discs are all dead, and if you left a bunch of 20 of your least favourite CD’s on the side of the road, nobody would pick them up, CD’s get scratched easily, skip, and look like office stationary. Digital music is a wonder, it’s portable, transferable over multiple devices and you can send your favourite song to a friend within seconds, for free. So why is the oldest medium, still relevant, where later ones, but not all, have failed? 

1) Possibly the most callous reason, is that vinyl records, purely because of the old economic adage, supply and demand, appreciate in value & remain popular, yet hard to obtain. For example, in the 1990’s, when the CD first came out, it was heralded as the new dawn of music listening, high quality stereo audio on a, well, compact disc. As a result, for the first time ever, vinyl production dropped dramatically in comparison to the 50’s / 60’s / 70’s and 80’s. As a result, you could be paying €100 plus for an Oasis album on vinyl, which you could get for a fiver on CD, or, for some other artists, well over €200.

Oasis, What's The Story Morning Glory, currently selling for £89.99 sterling on the 18th of April, 2014 on eBay

2) Vinyl doesn’t have a remote control, what does that mean? With CD’s and .mp3’s etc. on laptops, we can skip songs in an instant on albums, ‘I love the opening 3 tracks, but I could care less for tracks 4-7, and then there’s a strong finish, apart from track 11’, sometimes this attitude is justified, but sometimes are we being impatient? We do live in a world of instant gratification, we have no patience, maybe amongst the tracks we skip so readily, there could have been a favourite song, we’ll never know. With a vinyl record you are, and it sounds like the wrong word, but, ‘forced’ to listen to an album in it’s entirety, how it was meant to be listened to by the band or artist, of course you can get up off your arse and move the needle to the next track, but, as a downside, it’s a bit laborious. 

3) Finally there is aesthetics, if you are lucky enough to get a reasonably priced first press (that’s a record that is the original from the year it was released) you are going to be able to hear the album as it was heard by say, a teenager in the 1960’s etc.). I’m very lucky to have first press copies of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and many others. For me, this is a unique experience. A teenager or an adult originally bought the album, a week after it was released, and went to their bedroom, and played it, in the 60’s, 70’s and so forth, and I’m hearing the album just as they heard it. Not on CD or .mp3, but I have in my hands the record that some kid bought back then, there’s an authenticity about that, a snapshot of the past, an original piece of music history, that I now possess, romantic? Yes, rewarding, most definitely.

Tower Records, April, 2014

There has been a massive revival in vinyl over the last 10 years, for the first time, teenagers who did not grow up with record players in their homesteads are buying records, and almost the entire upstairs of the newly opened Tower Records on Dawson Street is dedicated to vinyl alone, the Stairway To Heaven. If you have a pair of speakers at home, you can buy a record-player with radio for only €80

But let’s be honest, at the end of the day, is a vinyl record better than a CD, 320kpbs, .mp3 or similar Flac file? We often hear vinyl junkies claiming that vinyl sounds better than any other format, but where’s the evidence? There are conflicting results. I always go with the science bit, and here it generally agrees with me, but, having said that, I also think a high-quality digital version of a song or album through decent headphones is better, and that’s hard for me to admit! Either way, ask your parents what records they might have laying around in their living-room or attic, you could be sitting on a fortune, musically. Here's Pitchfork (No) vs. Science (Maybe / Yes) in the links below, make up your own minds!

*Record Store Day article to follow in 24 hours!

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