The NYT had a mostly anecdotal piece this past weekend about how more people of the “iPod generation” are suddenly buying turntables and vinyl records. I don’t know if I am demographically part of this generation, but I can relate—I’ve been reacquiring albums I used to have in an effort to recapture the listening experiences of my youth, in which an entire side of a record would get digested in the full flush of analog warmth.
Interest from younger listeners is what convinced music industry executives that vinyl had staying power this time around. As more record labels added vinyl versions of new releases, the industry had to scramble to find places to press discs, said Mike Jbara, president and chief executive of the sales and distribution division of Warner Music Group.
“It is absolutely easy to say vinyl doesn’t make sense when you look at convenience, portability, all those things,” Mr. Jbara said. “But all the really great stuff in our lives comes from a root of passion or love.”
It makes sense for music companies to push vinyl since they have no choice but try to reorient consumers to the meaningfulness of physical objects. So it is hard to take Jbara seriously here as he spouts marketing propaganda. Nevertheless I think listening to records is appealing at this moment precisely because it is inconvenient, and maybe inconvenience is, as Jbara suggests, part of the essence of love. Overcoming obstacles is a feature, not a bug, as they say.It brings weight to the experience, makes it contrast with all the experiences that commercial culture has made easy (which in turn makes us consumers passive).
Yeats’s “The Fascination of What’s Difficult” seems relevant here. He seems to be arguing the opposite:
The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart.
It’s the myth of “spontaneous joy” and “natural content” that has ushered in the “iPod Generation” and its peculiar restlessness, its voracious, overstimulated cultural appetite, its demand for instantaneous distraction. The absence of “natural content”—the fact that satisfying oneself requires effort—opens the possibility of substituting novelty for deeper satisfactions. When something doesn’t spontaneously please us, we are invited to think the solution is to try something different, not work at the “difficult” thing that has failed us. The vinyl fascination may be the stirrings of a counter-movement that fetishizes difficulty as a way of fixing value, as measured in attention and consumption effort rather than ease and monetary cost.
Or perhaps it is just an expression of a nostalgia for material souvenirs of our taste. Records are a way to make my musical taste seem more substantial to me—see, these are the albums I really care about, the ones I like so much, I listen to them on vinyl. On my computer, I have everything, so none of it will seem like it is special to me. The record collection is different; it requires sacrifices. Vinyl is the new way to signify that you are “serious about music,” since having access to lots of songs and being familiar with lots of different stuff no longer suffices.
One thing I have learned in my return to vinyl is that records that skip are not endearing; they are totally annoying. And it doesn’t take very much to induce a record to start skipping.