Music Essentials: The Pleasures of Vinyl

Long Ago and Far Away

A new record album by The Beatles or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen used to be a major event that posed real questions for its intended audience. Had the artist changed in any way from the previous release? Was there a new persona he/she/they had adopted, a new cause, a new way of looking at the world that in turn would change the listener? Or was the record simply filled with killer songs? The new release was devoured by a hungry audience looking for the next big thing in their lives, and often the source was music.

We have entered a new era. Listening to a vinyl album from start to finish has for most listeners all but disappeared. Appreciating that an album can and should be composed in the same way that great classical writers created symphonies, with beginnings, movements, purposes, depths of meaning – that sort of thing has given way to streaming.

A Note About Streaming

Recent data indicates that more than 80% of music listening these days happens through digital streaming. We subscribe to several services: Tidal, Amazon and Apple Music. Sound quality improved with the increased bandwidth offered by these services, and the opportunity to explore music (all 80 or so albums of The Stones, or a new genre, unknown artist or intriguing playlist) is very satisfying. But vinyl still has a magic about it that no other platform offers.

How It Happened

With the advent of the CD in the 1980s a major shift occurred in album programming and design. First, the CD itself did away with the concept of side A and Side B, reducing the song lineup to a single element. In addition, giving the listener the capability of determining the song order meant essentially that the artist was at the mercy of the record buyer. If he/she wanted to listen to one song, or five songs only, in any order, or repeat the same two tunes ad nauseam, so be it. The album was less of a recording of a performance and more of a collection of tunes. Freedom for the listener is a good thing, but it comes at a heavy price, an obvious one to the artist and an unmentioned loss for the listener. With the current popularity of playlists and streaming, the listener wins the dubious prize of having done away altogether with the album.

Then there is the matter of cover art. Many a graphic designer grew up in the Seventies wanting to become an album design artist. The record covers, front and back, plus the slightly smaller inner pages, gave the album designer a meaningful scope in size, print technologies and materials.

The disappearance of vinyl meant a new format for the designer, a format that was 20% of the size of a record album. Suddenly an intrinsic part of the album was squished into a size and casing that delivered less detail and elementary visuals. The 21st century has taken things further with downloading; the downloader gets little at all in the way of cover art or lyric sheets or photographs.

Liner notes used to be printed most often on the back of a vinyl album and were frequently a coherent and cogent view of the recording. Read if you will the thoughtful content on the back of most any Vanguard recording from the 1960s and 1970s. Consider the first Joan Baez album, with notes written by Maynard Solomon, the owner of Vanguard and one of the most articulate musicologists in America. His notes on the Baez collection of songs are breathtaking in their research, their detail, and their appeal to the listener. His writing made me want to buy the album.

Then there is the serious matter of sonic quality. The Vanguard album dates from the early 1960s and the vinyl version sounds as good today as it sounded sixty years ago: splendid on a good system and unforgettable on a great system. Streaming, even in lossless transmission, diminishes the tactile and the aural experiences. It is no wonder that turntables have begun to find their way once again into the homes of a few thousand awakened listeners.

The Vinyl Experience

Vinyl just sounds better. You do not need to be an audiophile with a $10,000 music system to appreciate the difference.

Vinyl offers visual and tactile experiences, as well and a ritual of handling, cleaning, organization and storage, all of which are foreign to the digital world. We are a tactile species and vinyl delivers meaningful tactile pleasures.

You own vinyl, as opposed to renting on a streamed platform. Once paid for, it is yours forever. You can give it away to a loved one, a curious teenager, or a lending library.

Put on a record and you probably won’t get up to change the record after one song. You’ll probably play side One and then Side Two – a huge bonus for the artist that encourages a process of composition, story-telling, track sequences, build and release, and a freedom of artistic expression.

Hang around in cool independent record stores and discover what awaits you there – new and used album classics, unexpected conversations with strangers, recommendations from knowledgeable staff, and even the sighting of musicians in town looking for a record fix. Who knows what else awaits your visit?

Buying vinyl supports artists with substantially more income than the woefully low 1/3 of a penny that streaming services play for a single stream. Musicians are having a hard time of it these days, with restricted touring due to the pandemic. Your investment in vinyl is important. Your streaming activities make little financial impact on the livelihood of thousands of talented artists who are creating the music that you love.

The Resurgence of Sales And A Few Recommendations

In the past few years vinyl has made a small but vital comeback. Sales exceeded five million units in 2021, the highest volume since 1985. Turntable sales are strong, with waiting lists of up to several months for many of the most popular models (Project, Technics, Rega, Marantz etc.).

If you are just getting into vinyl and wonder what to buy, I have listed a few notable recordings currently available, each with visceral performances, splendid sound and impeccable graphics. They all show evidence of careful composition and meaningful track sequencing. Each is a classic, worthy of repeated listening. Many are new pressings on high quality 180-gram vinyl.

Share Your Experience

I welcome your comments– have you listened to any albums from start to finish lately, and if so, what was the platform? How strong was the connection between you and the music?