So what's up with this vinyl fad?
A while back I threw a party at my apartment. A few guests noticed that I had a vinyl copy of George Harrison's 1970 masterpiece All Things Must Pass. "Oh, can we play this?" they asked. "Sure," I said, "that's a great album, but let's just play the CD." But they specifically wanted to play the vinyl, even though a CD was so much easier and no one at such a loud party could possibly tell the difference anyway, much less care.
My party guests are not alone in their vinyl fetishism. Nielsen SoundScan says vinyl LP sales were 1.9 million in 2008, which is the largest total since they began recording sales in 1991. (Although remember, vinyl was already well on its way out in 1991.) Vinyl sales are expected to hit 2.8 million this year.
But why? Vinyl fetishists rave about the "warm sound" of LPs, but could most of them — at least any of them over age 25 or so — really tell the difference between an LP and a CD in a blindfold test? And even then you'd need a high-end stereo rig to truly appreciate the distinction. Yes, commercial MP3s sound noticeably bad, but again, most people probably could not tell the difference between a vinyl pressing and a FLAC, AAC or 256 bit-rate MP3.
Sometimes, yes, the CD version sounds worse than the vinyl — but that's not the fault of the CD format, that's the fault of cheap, lazy, disrespectful record companies who won't shell out for a proper CD mastering. (Try an A/B test of the old and new issues of Beatles CDs and you'll hear the difference between good CD mastering and bad.)
And vinyl fetishists conveniently leave out the fact that LPs have surface noise, clicks, pops and outright skips, which are far more of an intrusion on the listening experience than any perceived shortcomings of the CD. They'll say the pops and clicks have "become part of the music for me." Well, guess what: They aren't part of the music. They're noise, the very thing you least want in a recording.
So why the vinyl fetish? Well, one attraction is the ritual. Playing a record involves carefully, reverentially removing the record from its sleeve, placing it on the turntable and gently lowering the needle onto the spinning platter. It's a process, more involved than sliding a small, shiny disc into a black box or pressing your index finger to an iPod. It's a pain in the neck for the casual listener, but for the big-time music fan, it reflects a level of engagement and reverence in keeping with their devotion.
Then there are folks, mainly collectors, who are literally so heavily invested in vinyl that they can't stop now. Other people just like retro technology, others enjoy the association with DJ culture.
But I think there are larger, deeper forces at play here. The other day, I was listening to the NPR show On the Media, and they did a piece about why a lot of people are refusing to get vaccinated for H1N1. Here's what Ben Goldacre, a physician and the author of the "Bad Science" column in the UK's Guardian newspaper had to say:
"I think in some respects, also, it’s kind of an act of protest on which people can take a stand. When the MMR vaccine scare really kicked off in the U.K. in 2002, it was shortly after we were sort of going off to wars that were very, very unpopular, and I think, in some respects, people might have felt, well, there’s nothing I can do to stop my country bombing, but I can take a stand on vaccines. It almost becomes a kind of poetic response to unrelated problems."
So maybe this vinyl fetish thing is along the same lines, where people are redirecting rebellious feelings away from what they have no control over — whether it's mismanaged corporate bail-outs, endless, misguided wars, or the incessant baying of stump-ignorant teabaggers — and towards something they do have control over: their own consumer choices. Maybe the vinyl fad is a backlash against overwhelming corporate power, the kind of power that buffaloed us into buying CDs and now MP3s. The t-shirt pictured here, which is actually available for sale, says it all. Is buying vinyl really just a feeble little attempt at sticking it to the Man?