Vinyl Spin Cycle

by Ben Rubenstein

18 August 2009

Each time I sheepishly purchase another CD, I’m digging myself further into the technological hole, and falling farther behind the cool vinyl-playing crowd.

Here’s a question that’ll make you really examine your love for music: Which would you rather have, a brand-new, 32-inch flat-screen TV, or a slightly used record player with a decent set of speakers? For my friend Brian, the call was easy. A month or so ago, he sold his television – one his few luxury items– so that he could afford to listen to the dozen records he owns in relative style.

This was at least Brian’s third record player of his life, so he knew what he was getting into. Though I’ve long thought of making a similar purchase, I’ve never been able to make the commitment – and I’m not certain I’d ever trade the luxury of On Demand in order to alter my listening experience slightly.

See, as the years have gone by, it’s become harder and harder to convince myself that buying a record player would be worth it, given the amount of money and time I’ve invested in building my large collection of CDs and MP3s. Sure, those platforms may not have the same romantic – or sonic, depending on who you ask – qualities as vinyl, but they’ve always gotten the job done for me.

It seems silly to go and buy the same music again, only in a different form. How would I choose what’s worth duplicating on this other platform? Or would my record collection be completely different from the music I already own, based more around what might sound good on vinyl? Either way, it seems like a hassle.

This is not to say I don’t understand the allure of the record player. During the summer following my freshman year of college, I spent a good amount of time in my parents’ basement, playing pool and listening to my dad’s barely used turntable. There were plenty of records to choose from (Big Brother and the Holding Company, Led Zeppelin, Boz Scaggs, The Moody Blues, The Beatles, a whole lot of Simon & Garfunkel), but I eventually went out to a local used record store and added two more to the collection: The Band’s first two LPs, Music from Big Pink and the self-titled follow-up (aka The Brown Album).

I have to admit that there was something that just felt right about hearing those albums on vinyl, cuing up the needle and listening to the first crackle of “Tears of Rage” come pouring through the speakers that were older than I was. It brought me a little closer to the music and the way I felt it was meant to be experienced.

But when I began school in the fall, I left those records behind and continued to buy CDs. With all the music sharing I was now doing – trading MP3s, burning copies of my friends’ collections – and all the moving around I did, a record player seemed, well, impractical. That doesn’t mean it lost its appeal.

As I began to get more heavily into music, and spent more and more time in record shops, I began to feel a little like a philistine. Records were in some ways a status symbol for “true” music-heads in a variety of genres, and I wasn’t part of the club. Not only that, but I could forget about my occasional, delusional fantasies of becoming a DJ if I didn’t own a turntable. Though CD-turntables could be had, using one would be akin to using a pencil on a crossword puzzle (and the soon-to-be-popular computer DJing would be like doing on online puzzle with hint mode “on”).

In some of the more serious stores, the CD rack was relegated to one small corner, while the stacks of records held the real gems. I’d enjoy browsing through those crates, marveling at the artwork and just loving the package as a whole, but in the end, I’d sheepishly purchase another CD or four, thus digging myself further into the technological hole. It was like I was in a relationship that I didn’t know how to leave – and I couldn’t help occasionally flirting with what I couldn’t have.

Of course, you can only flirt for so long. A few years ago, upon moving into a new apartment, I went to a nearby shop and picked out a number of records – including The Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, Roland Kirk’s Kirk’s Works, Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso, Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves and Sugarhill Gang and The Furious Five’s “Showdown”. I made sure to choose only albums from artists that I actually liked, not just ones whose covers were attractive – though visual appeal was definitely a factor, as I wasn’t buying these records for their sound (which made the obligatory inspection of each feel a little silly), but rather so that I could nail their covers to my basement wall.

The resulting display got a lot of compliments – my only interior decorating touch to do so – but it also inspired a lot of questions about what I did with the records. The answer? Nothing. I wasn’t going to toss them out, of course, but I also had no real use for them. So as much as this decoration announced my love for music and for these specific artists, it also seemed to expose me as a fraud. 

Recently, I’ve witnessed a few more friends take the record-player plunge, and happily enjoyed the fruits of their purchases. One of the best things about record players, I think, is their ability to make music-listening into an event again. With so much music readily available at the click of a button, it’s become rarer for people to gather around and pay attention to a particular recording. Even among a group of music-obsessed people, it’s as much about finding the next song as it is about focusing on what’s playing.

Record players also allow you to appreciate music in a whole new way. As much as I’m not totally convinced that everything sounds better on a record player, I definitely think that there are albums and artists that do – I can’t imagine I’d sit down and listen to a Bill Monroe CD, but hearing him recently on Brian’s record player was revelatory.

If there was ever a time for me to go ahead and buy a record player, it’s now – I’m no longer buying CDs with the frequency I used to, if at all, and between my girlfriend and I we could build up a substantial, diverse collection of LPs. But now I have a new excuse – instead of spending my time and money, I can just go over to Brian’s and listen to records when I get the urge. Even better, I hear he’s thinking about buying a film projector to compensate for the loss of his nice TV. I just hope he doesn’t have to sell his couch, too.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Call for Music Writers... Hip-Hop, Soul, Electronic, Rock, Indie, Americana, Jazz, World and More

// Announcements

"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…

READ the article