Why Vinyl?

By Greg Kassen, Contributive Writer

I remember hearing once from some source of knowledge I deem credible that technological advancement is not marked with the creation of new technologies, rather, it is when the new, innovative technologies of the past decade can be produced cheaply enough for the working class to own that milestones can be achieved. This holds true for many facets of society. One can buy a new laptop for $200, a new smartphone for $150, and then a new Blu-ray player for $50. These all, at one point within the last twenty years, were called great advancements in their fields. Music appears to follow the trend as well. Digital albums can be bought as cheaply as a few dollars, and brand-new CDs of popular artists come out as low as $10. Yet, with examples such as the Blu-ray player, its predecessors like DVDs and VHS tapes are declining in sales and demand, ultimately being replaced by the upscaled media. I know that, in my own collection, I’ll pay the extra $5-$10 to get a film on Blu-ray because the quality of the product is important to me. Music, though, is different. Music is different because vinyl, the old way the medium was consumed, has not died out and is gaining back popularity. If anything, CDs will die before records do if Best Buy’s move to stop its sale of compact disks is any indication of the future. But, I ultimately wish to know why this phenomenon is occurring. Why are people still buying vinyl when the cheaper, more convenient methods of CDs and digital are available to them?

To try to answer this question, I decided to visit some record stores. Now, Lebanon, Ill does not have that great of a selection of vinyl shops in it’s downtown shopping district, but luckily campus is only about a 40-minute drive to the heart of St. Louis, so I did the logical thing and took a train up to Chicago. Here, I explored a handful of record stores that, on a Saturday afternoon, were busy with people flipping through crates of vinyl cases one cover at a time. I found a great variety of shops (some small, some large) and a variety of records as well (some jazz, some rap), and through my experience of exiting one shop and crossing the lethal street immediately to enter another, I realized that vinyl, at least in Chicago, was not as niche of a market as I had though it to be. I was not just there to take in the wealth of knowledge and melodies overflowing onto the streets, though; it was my goal to buy my very first record there so I could write about it in this article. It had to be perfect. I found a few strong contenders that I really considered buying at the high city prices. There was an opera inspired by the great, classic novel Don Quixote, an audio recording of Hamlet condensed to be held by two sides of an LP, and a comedy album by National Lampoon that had nothing to do with Christmas vacations. However, I have not yet read Don Quixote and saw that the LPs did not offer English subtitles, so I put it back. I remembered on my shelves at home there sat an unwatched, dusty version of Hamlet starring Kenneth Brannagh (and one with Olivier, and one with Tennant), so I put it back, and I saw that the National Lampoon album was probably not a good one to display in my home (it is called “White Album” if anyone is brave enough to look it up), so I put it back.

Perhaps this is a good time to admit that I am not exactly the most authoritative voice when I comes to music. Actually, I hardly listen to it if my previous selections were not proof enough. However, while in Chicago, I stayed with my friend Chris, a Chicago local that has been collecting vinyl for many years. He also “inherited” (poached) many more records from his parent’s large collection and thus has constructed a fairly sizable collection of his own. One afternoon we sat down, and I asked him why vinyl seems to be regaining popularity in the digital era. “Nostalgia, for one,” Chris told me. “There is also this feeling,” he described, eventually calling it “warm,” that people get while listening to vinyl. The quality and sound of the music is different between a CD and LP. “People like vinyl for the same reason people don’t like Bob Dylan’s voice,” he went on. “It’s because of the timbre.” For readers who do not know, timbre is a term used by musicians to describe how two sounds at the same pitch and loudness sound different. Timbre is how a trumpet and trombone playing the same note sound different, and how a normal voice and Chris’s shoddy, plugged-nose screech that’s supposed to be his Bob Dylan impression sound different too.

The best way for me to understand, though, was for me to hear it for myself. This was his reasoning as Chris sat me down in front of two speakers and played “Come Together” by The Beatles as loudly as he was allowed to in a Chicago apartment with neighbors who really enjoyed complaining. First, he played a digital version through his phone and out of two speakers. Then, through the same speakers, he played a version on vinyl. Save for the LPs the record stores would play in their stores, this was my first experience listening to vinyl. And, to be honest, I wish I had an epiphany. I was expecting to have one, but, to me, the difference was not drastic. There was a difference, though. Yes, even someone as unknowledgeable about music as me can tell there is a difference between digital and vinyl, albeit a slight one. I would not say it was clearer, but, as I struggle to use vocabulary that is remotely relevant to music, the way the instruments melded together was distinct. The song felt more cohesive. But, in this way, I feel like each instrument that would be pronounced in the digital version seemed less so in the vinyl. I will not decide which one is better, just that there is a difference to be heard.

However, my time in Chicago ended with me not able to find my fated first record, and I came home with a mere myriad of unrelated souvenirs. I was still granted access to St. Louis, but with a rational fear of city traffic and public transportation, heading to a store there without a local to show me the way was a fantasy. I spent some time grieving over my mistake in not buying my fifth version of Hamlet (I forgot about the Jacobi version, earlier) until I came across a lead on a record store in Mt. Vernon, Ill. Main Street Records is the place’s name and, according to the business card I took, they are on eBay. It took 45 minutes to drive there from my home, and an hour back (I got lost); however, from the McKendree campus, the drive is an estimated 60-minute tour.

While walking in the front door, three things simultaneously caught my attention. First, the record store only took up roughly half the size of the room and was significantly smaller than the smallest store I went to in Chicago. The other half was occupied by a travel company, I believe, and all customers of the latter place had to walk through the incense drenched record store to get there. The second thing I noticed was that the place was empty. Granted, I arrived after school on a random Thursday afternoon, but throughout my half hour adventure there was only one other person (a woman seeming to be a regular) that came in, and she immediately went to the counter to buy some incense. The third thing was the most noticeable, though. There were two kids running around in the store. I don’t know whose kids they were, but there was a nice, penned off place with a couch and TV shoved into the corner that they hung out in. On more than one occasion I heard a vaguely familiar voice coming from the television and wondered if they were watching a show that I knew. It felt inappropriate to climb the rail and see for myself, though.

The sections of the store were bizarre to me. Now it is important to remember that I am by no means an expert on vinyl store layouts, but Chicago seemed to have had it down pat. Each store had sections dedicated to music genres, and within those sections the records were alphabetized according to the artist’s name. Main Street Records, however, had the whole store alphabetized by the artist’s name save for three 99cent bins, New Arrivals, Soundtracks, Comedy, and a Led Zeppelin section (or some other random musician whose name I did not bother to write down). For browsing, this was a bit of an issue because I had no idea what my first record would be. I vaguely knew which genre it would be in but had no idea whose name it would sport.

I hope I do not sound too harsh on this tiny store, though. The experience was jarring, but ultimately it was a successful trip. The cheap bins had very little to offer me, but within the comedy (which should really be renamed as a miscellaneous section) I found a multi-LP set containing the name of the man whose radio voice is infamous. “The Shadow,” featuring Orson Welles, was apparently an old radio show that proved popular in its day. There, sitting in a bin in Mt. Vernon, Ill, were six episodes of the program. I am not passionate about music, but I am passionate about Welles. This set was my first record and, along with the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar (because who doesn’t love Jesus) and a Bonanza LP, I spent just a little over $15. I went home, got out my mother’s new record player she had not opened from Christmas yet, and pulled “The Shadow” from the plastic covering. Inside, I could smell the sealed scent of the incense.

Artists today still put their music on vinyl. The medium is strong. However, records often cost much more than CDs and digital and take much longer to set up. For example, I spent about $22 buying the Hamilton soundtrack on CD a while ago. Looking at the price on Amazon, the vinyl set of the same album is over $60, hardly a reasonable price for the working-class individual. Records are also less flexible to listen to. While sampling Jesus Christ Superstar and comparing the quality to a digital version on YouTube, I wanted to listen again to a specific part of the overture. On the YouTube video this was simple. On the record, however, it took me a bit to locate the exact part with the needle. Also, I had to put the entire record away when I was done listening to the vinyl version. On YouTube, I clicked an “x” on my phone and I was done.

Ultimately, my completely inexperienced, outside position on vinyl is as followed: They are fun to listen to and create a very cool mood partly because of the timbre and partly because one must go through the trouble of setting the record up on a player. It is more than just listening to music: it is a whole experience. However, the sound of vinyl is not all that much different to an average listener like myself and, taking into consideration the cost and time spent to listen to vinyl, it is a bit hard to understand how the medium is growing in an increasingly digital world. That said, the fact that music lovers still play LPs over other recorded mediums that have come out since, shows that I am perhaps missing something of great importance and that their love of music is not inhibited by price mark ups or a few extra steps to hear their favorite song.

Chris, a local student in Chicago, flipping through records at a Chicago store
“The Shadow” atop a record player.

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