An Eclectic Gastronomy of Sound
“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilisations in interstellar space”
-Astronomer Carl Sagan, on the 2 records sent into space in 1977 on the Voyager probes
There was a music store where I grew up in Florida called Vinyl Museum. Like any other music store of the 1980’s/90’s, it sold records, CD’s and tapes. Its sister store was founded in the late 70’s in Toronto, well before vinyl records were supplanted by CD’s. Ironically, even then, though, the store’s name suggested something antiquated, old and dusty. But also something worthy of being put on display, studied, held in respect. As the 80’s wore on, and records faded more into obscurity and people were replacing their LP collections with CD’s, the name Vinyl Museum became a hindrance to business. Eventually, the name was changed to Planet Grooves, but it was too late. As with hundreds of other brick-and-mortar music stores, the Internet and downloads helped sound the death knell for Vinyl Museum/Planet Grooves in the early 2000’s.
Few would have predicted then that vinyl records would make the comeback they currently are, and that there would even be new independent record stores opening. It’s a story that’s been reported on in large publications from Time to Forbes over the last few years. Even so, it’s a small comeback, to be sure, and in the mainstream consciousness it probably hasn’t registered at all. Yet, for those of us who buy lots of music and frequent independent music stores it’s somewhat shocking to find such a dramatic switch back to the vinyl format. It’s not uncommon now to find well over 50% of the stock in stores that deal in used and new music composed of records, with some stores abandoning CD’s entirely. And, according to the press, it’s not just us listeners who grew up with vinyl who are buying records, teens are as well.
In a strange way, the Internet that drove many music stores to extinction is partly responsible for the resurgence of vinyl. CD’s dominated the market for years, until downloads supplanted them as the medium of choice. Where did that leave the “serious” music listener – the listener who wanted that tangible connection to the music, not to mention better sound quality than an mp3 (or CD for that matter)? With the death of the compact disc predicted to occur in the next few years, there’s a vacuum to be filled. And, the old fashioned vinyl record seems to be filling it.
Since the beginning of recorded sound, there has been a general progression to smaller and more mobile in the medium/format the music is available on. This usually, unfortunately, results in a downsizing where much is lost, both in the presentation and, eventually, the fidelity. Let’s take a quick look at the main formats of the past 125+ years and their continual shrinkage:
- Records: The first 12” records (“78’s”, played at a faster 78 rpm speed than the standard 33 rpm speed of today) were big chunky things originally made of a shellac compound with pulverized limestone or slate added to it (the first “rock music”, you might say). They were quite thick and sounded pretty horrendous. In the early 1900’s they began to be packaged in paper or leather sleeves modeled after photo albums, hence the name “record album”. By 1950, technology had progressed to the point of vinyl being the substance of choice for the record. Better sound, though the limestone and slate mining industries may have been disappointed… The 7” 45 rpm record was also introduced around this time as a higher fidelity improvement over the 78. At this point, smaller meant an improvement in sound. This trend would not continue.
- 8-track and cassette tapes: Introduced to the public in the mid 1960’s, both 8-track tapes and cassette tapes were more portable and durable than records, but at a cost to fidelity. Plus, there was tape hiss, the tape could stretch, and it could jam. 8-tracks had no art to speak of besides a sticker of the album cover on the front and they made a “kerplunk” sound when switching tracks, often in the middle of a song. Cassettes were so small that art had to be shrunk down to a size only slightly larger than a business card.
- CD’s: The shiny, laser-played CD came along about 30 years ago as the solution to all these problems of sound quality, durability and presentation. Sort of. In actuality, the conversion of music to digital form loses some of the highs and lows as the sound wave is converted from analog form. Contrary to early belief, CD’s don’t last forever either, and something as innocuous as a fingerprint can thwart a laser trying to play a CD. Album artwork was larger than on cassettes, but still quite small compared to records.
- mp3’s and iTunes aac format: These are great for portability, but sound quality is even less than compact disc. The creation of these types of digital sound files involves a compression of sound waves – in essence a squeezing of what the software considers the “essential” parts of the audio into a file that is easily downloadable and storable. While artwork for new releases is often included for download, many times a cover shot is all you get. For archival releases, there’s practically no effort made to include anything beyond the front cover.
- FLAC’s and other lower or no-compression formats: These types of digital files preserve more of the sound, but have the same shortcomings as other digital formats and the same shortcomings when it comes to the full art package.
- The latest trend in digital files is the “cloud”, where you don’t even have the file in your possession at all. You’re merely renting it, or paying to have access to it on some company’s computer server. We’ve gone from 12″ discs to a completely intangible form of music storage. This has advantages – songs on one’s account can be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection. Plus, we can all do with fewer possessions, but this ultimate downsizing has stripped much of the connection between listener and song and, I’d argue, made music more disposable.
I’ve mentioned quite a few times the value of album art. This is partly a personal bias, as some people could care less about the art (as the popularity of iTunes proves). However, a big selling point for vinyl is and always has been their capacity to be art objects. At 12”x12”, they’re big enough to have an image that can have an impact, and can also include small detail. If the image doesn’t comfortably fit on the front cover, there’s always the gatefold option, which doubles the available canvass. People have been framing album covers as wall art since at least the 60’s. I haven’t heard of anyone framing cd covers. And you can’t frame an mp3. In a computerized world with fewer genuine connections and real-life experiences with tangible things and with people, records offer a sensory experience – sight, touch, even smell. In some ways it’s a reaction to the fast-paced, technological world, akin to the Slow Movement.
Records aren’t a perfect medium of course. They’re more fragile than CD’s or mp3’s – they can scratch, get crackly with dust, and warp. This fault can actually create more of an attachment to the medium, however, as one needs to treat a record with at least a modicum of care and respect to keep it undamaged and sounding good.
But, back to the noble record store. The only viable way the average store can stay in business these days is to be more of a niche business. It would be difficult for a brick-and-mortar store to switch over to an only-Internet presence and compete with the vast stocks and bulk pricing of iTunes and amazon. It remains to be seen if the modest vinyl resurgence will be enough to save the remaining few stores and sustain the few new ones.
So, we’re in a curious place right now – two formats (records and mp3’s), with a third (CD’s) on the way out. Yet, on the other hand, it’s the same old story – in the 70’s, 8-tracks and cassettes challenged vinyl. In the 80’s it was cassettes vs. vinyl vs. CD’s. I feel that the average digital sound file will eventually improve due to technological advancement and consumer demand for better sound (in fact, many albums are now released with a choice of mp3 or FLAC format). In addition, art will be included on a larger scale. There will also be more “cloud domination”, which is either good or bad, depending on your viewpoint. Yet, the vinyl record (at least for the foreseeable future) will be for those who want something more personal and tangible and will be marketed more to the collector and the audiophile. The same thing will happen with e-books and print books, but that’s another story…
(Of course, after all is said is and done, it’s the music itself that’s the important thing and the format it’s on is secondary! )