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Saving vinyl … saving ourselves? Communique #1

March 2, 2010

Dear music fanatics, thanks for letting me into your lives for a second …

I am always excited when I read articles about the badass-itude of vinyl.

This past week, another local article spoke to vinyl’s tenaceous appeal. Maybe you caught it, too. According to a Red Eye piece from February 24th, apparently 2009 was the biggest vinyl year for sales since Nielsen tracking began for the format in 1991. Vinyl’s newfound exponential growth in the midst of declining CD sales is more elaborately explained here — yep, across the age spectrum, music consumers are edging away from CDs and basking in the escapism glow of larger-scale artwork, audiophile recordings, and a more physical relationship to music. Plus, when turntables allow you to easily go from analog to MP3, from your turntable to your laptop in seconds, there’s no frontier left. For now anyway.

Coincidentally, 1991 is the year I received my first vinyl album. Thanks go to my mom for never fearing the apocalypse and mayhem portrayed on late 80s death metal sleeves. I had no equipment to test drive my classic Motorhead record, but I still thought it looked cool next to my pile of metal and punk cassettes and my first CDs. But I probably became a voracious vinyl buyer in 1994, if memory serves me correctly, and through touring with Pelican and selling our recordings on vinyl since day one, I’ve become infinitely more involved with the format’s manufacturing, distribution and appeal.

It’s nice that mainstream articles tell me vinyl is hip with Spoon AND Springsteen fans, but in the underground, vinyl has never gone away. Pelican isn’t a big fish, but we’ve easily sold 15,000+ pieces in the years we’ve been active. There has been used and new vinyl for sale at every show I went to at the Fireside Bowl and every visit I paid toReckless, the Dummy Room (RIP), Clubhouse (RIP) or Dr Wax (RIP)  in 1995 when I first moved here. But I guess in that below-the-radar bubble of awesomeness that is underground music, I likely didn’t perceive how small it maybe was at the height of CD popularity–or how much harder it got for ANY physical product when the downloading and mp3 tsunami roared out the gates. Still, I propose that 1000s of us in every city that had a record store or a mailbox (remember mail order music catalogues?!) kept the format alive.   And I breathe a sigh of relief I can continue to love music on this format. I still have a ton of cassettes, but I don’t see that one coming back with a vengeance.

To me, the resurgence of vinyl sales on a larger scale makes sense, too. Portability, ease of sharing and archiving only go so far. With my Walkman, discman or ipod, I too have loved the endless hours in transit greatly de-stressed by having my own soundtrack. What a lovely conduit to endless mind drift that has been. But We need to hold and feel music. Don’t tell me watching a performance on a screen is the same as feeling it at a show. Who wouldn’t wish they could be there when this went down? Though trends ebb and flow, and we see consumers latching on to newfound ways to purchase, enjoy and put away music, we still circle back to the physicality of it all.

I am actually tremendously excited that major labels are aware of vinyl’s appeal and on board. I’m even more impressed with how indies have survived and once again are leading the way with a big torch in presenting the best and most creative artists and outstanding vinyl packages. So next time I’m buying records at Dave’s on Broadway, I’ll get a laugh from a lavish re-release of Peter Frampton “Comes Alive” (can’t wait for those Jimmy Buffett 180 gram reissues) but do a thousand mental high fives because Elvis Costello‘s glory years are now available with bonus tracks, gorgeous sleeves, etc. And an awesome label from Germany called Viva Hate has released gorgeous box sets for metal bands like Enslaved and (in wooden boxes no less!). Etc. Ad infinitum. Creativity knows no bounds when passion steers the ship.

Final thumbs up before I move on: I am a HUGE fan of blogs that archive super rare punk and metal 45s and LPs. I documented that passion in a blog for MTV you can read here. I was less a fan of the price tags on those records when they rarely came through stores or conventions. So it’s amazing to see small imprints like Sing Sing and Radio Heartbeat in New York getting the Ok to release them again at a much more affordable price.

Feeling warm and fuzzy? I am, too. I think vinyl is the absolute listening experience. It demands your attention. You activate the process with your hand, watch the needle make music come alive, sit back and experience music as a whole piece. That’s powerful: it’s product with the artist’s visual and auditory intentions discovered, experienced and respected. It’s not a small file with poor sound quality, tiny little speakers, art the size of a toe nail, etc.

Anyway, next time I post, I want to explore a sadder evolution in our music consumption. Read this and this. Why is the amazing experience of buying your music at the coolest place on earth (the local record store) on a fast track to being an extinct part of our lives? Sigh.

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