GAVIN WHITNER/CC BY 2.0
The importance of vinyl is the impulse to sit down and listen to music.
Music suffers some of the harshest disrespect of any of the arts. All too many people who consider themselves music fans (including me) often listen to music in the background while doing something else — grinding through work, driving or any other menial task. It is rare for anyone to sit down, clear their schedule and listen to an album.
This past weekend, I bought my first few vinyl records at the True Vine record store in Hampden. I found that the very process of listening to a vinyl naturally creates an occasion for pure, unbroken listening.
My decision to go to a record store was inspired by my romanticization of “crate digging,” the method producers use to find samples.
This involves pouring through boxes of records in search of obscure tracks. I went to follow in the footsteps of producers like Madlib and J Dilla, who spent years of their lives shuffling around bargain bins.
When you first walk into a record store, there is instantly a feeling of reverence and excitement. These places aren’t corporate music chains; they are like sacred little holes-in-the-wall where music is God. The music playing out of the speakers is strange, experimental and otherworldly.
You are surrounded by music — obscure and mainstream. You can find so much great art in a record store just by rummaging around.
Every streaming service has some method for discovery to bring you tracks you would like, but they can’t even get close to matching the raw excitement of rifling through record racks.
You know that slight feeling of joy you get when a Pandora station flips to a track you’ve never heard before, and — like love at first sight — you find a completely new artist to follow? With vinyl, that experience is amplified tenfold.
Picking a random record off the rack, laying it onto the listening station and experiencing the sweet sounds for the first time is the closest you can get to discovering a new world.
After you walk out of the record store with your selection, you now own the music you bought. This might seem like a redundant statement, but we live in an era where simultaneously everyone has access to everything and owns nothing. There is something purely satisfying about holding the music in your hand. It is yours and yours only.
When you get home and listen to the music, you will find yourself interacting with the medium in a much different way. Unlike just tossing your iPhone on shuffle and going about your day, there is a process to listening to vinyl.
There is none of that lackadaisical, play-something-random-in-the-background-so-as-to-mask-the-existential-dread; the decision to play a vinyl record is a calculated one.
You select an album from your library, gently clean it, then precisely lay it on the rack and carefully lay the needle into the groove; only then can you finally enjoy the sweet sounds pouring out.
The music is now at the forefront of your listening experience. You can choose to ignore what’s playing and go about your business, but that seems foolish considering the effort and process you went through to make this music occur.
I feel like this article can easily be misconstrued as me being a hipster, rambling about how it was “better in the old days.” However, I do not believe that at all. The advancement of music creation and music distribution has allowed for so much innovation.
The new music industry is more reliant on the artist than the label, on the product than the advertisement and on the reception rather than the radio play. It has never been easier for talented musicians to be discovered. The Internet Age is the Golden Age of music.
Nor do I mean to say that listening on vinyl somehow improves the quality of the music. I do not have the technical knowledge nor the ear to argue something as brash as that (though I do enjoy the warm feeling of a vinyl crackling).
The music industry has changed so drastically in the past 50 years due to the blazing speed of technological innovation. The move from physical to digital shook up the industry in a significant way.
We’ve gone from waiting to hear our favorite tune on the radio to creating our own radios through streamed playlists and online libraries; from waiting patiently in the car for the host to tell us who wrote the song we were listening to, to having the ability to Shazam any unknown piece.
Progress offers obvious benefits, but also some subtle drawbacks. When you hop on a plane, you complain about the dry, rubbery chicken they offer and the man next to you whose protruding stomach pokes over the armrest.
It is rare to see someone truly experience the joys, the fears and the excitement of flight. The absolute marvel of being able to go almost anywhere in the world with only a few minor inconveniences is lost on all of us because of its commonality.
So it is with music; the ability to listen to any piece of music at any time cheapens the product. I can as easily throw on one of 6ix9ine’s tracks as I could a Gregorian chant. The process of buying vinyl somewhat returns a sense of importance to each piece of music.
With vinyl there is the cover art big and bold across the front (a work of art rather than just a backdrop), the plastic casing, the regal reflective sheen of the record as you pull it out of its sleeve; all of these characteristics contribute to the reverence that a vinyl record commands.
Whether it be by vinyl or another method, all I am hoping to convey is the joy of being mindful of music. We live fast paced lives. Music is an opportunity to slow down and enjoy the present.
If you choose to explore different mediums like vinyl, you can find substantial collections in many Baltimore stores. In Hampden, there are True Vine, Celebrated Summer and Strawberry Fields. In Fell’s Point, the iconic Sound Garden. These are just a few of Baltimore’s numerous record stores.