June 5, 2013

Uborka’s Got Style: Question #2 for Mike TD

David asked for:

Your views on the resurgence of vinyl vs mp3 culture, please.

It’s both curious and challenging that you’ve limited the question to vinyl versus MP3, David. To illustrate the challenge, these are my primary modes of listening, in descending order of frequency.

1. Streaming. Mostly Spotify, then Soundcloud, then YouTube, then Bandcamp.

2. CD. Usually bought from a bricks-and-mortar shop, which means Fopp in Nottingham.

3. MP3. I’m not a big iTunes or Bandcamp buyer, and I only rip CDs when they’re not already on Spotify. I also stopped illegally downloading a long time ago.

4. Vinyl. There’s been a recent upsurge, as vinyl is in plentiful supply at our local independent, and as many Nottingham acts are now opting for vinyl over CD.

So, you’re basically asking me to compare and contrast my third and fourth choices. Hmm, OK then.

Vinyl

As regards the resurgence of vinyl, there’s something beautiful about the phenomenon, but there’s something suspect as well. At one end of the market, there’s a group of nostalgic middle-aged 6Music listeners, fetishising the format of their youth, in the arguably delusional belief that vinyl is somehow more “real” than other formats. This, I think, is a little silly. Good music is good music, regardless of format.

At the other end of the scale, there’s also a fresher, more youthful market for vinyl. Customers at the local independent skew younger than some might have expected, and many young bands seem keen to get a vinyl release out there, in preference to anything else. This can’t so readily be dismissed as a doomed attempt to recapture the wonder of long-lost adolescent passion.

Being middle-aged myself, I’ve been wary of getting caught up in all of this. But perhaps I can no longer dodge the slow realisation that, yes, new-release vinyl is a really rather beautiful thing. Firstly, there’s the sheer physical beauty of the object: high-quality artwork, legible credits and lyrics, the sleek surface of the record itself. Secondly, there’s a dramatic improvement in sound quality, compared to the shoddy, flimsy pressings of the format’s mass-marketed dying days (i.e. the late Eighties and early Nineties). Records are thicker and heavier, clicks and pops are minimal, and mastering is subtle and rich. At its best, new vinyl is ahead of CD on sound quality – and so it almost goes without saying that it trumps MP3, hands down.

Thirdly – and this is where I’ve struggled the hardest against self-suspicion – there’s something about the ritual of placing a record on a turntable which encourages closer listening. It somehow feels like a more conscious choice (“I really want to hear this” versus “let’s just bung something on”), and the sight of the needle on the record serves as a continuing reminder of that choice.

Is there even an “MP3 culture”, as the question suggests? There certainly used to be. Napster, Kazaa and Soulseek were founded on peer-to-peer sharing, and using them involved at least some measure of collective interaction. A few years later, a new culture formed around MP3 blogging. But I feel that a lot of that’s gone now. There’s no “culture” on the iTunes Store, and little sense that MP3 purchases are being lovingly curated. I hate to use the word “disposable” – that naff old pop-weary sneer – but noisy 79p jingles, over-compressed to sound “banging” on shitty speakers, just aren’t made to be cherished, are they?

I’m never going to be a massive born-again vinyl convert – after all, why pay a premium for lack of portability? – but on an emotional level that transcends rationality, I think I’ll always retain a little love. And, fuck it, so what if vinyl is retro-chic? At least it’s capable of being retro-chic.

Mike

18 thoughts on “Uborka’s Got Style: Question #2 for Mike TD

  1. The CD seems to be dying, doesn’t it? But I like them for the car. I’m pretty sure that all of the streaming music services you mention use MP3s of varying bit-rates, so we’re talking about a choice between compressed, convenient music and lossless, richer sounding real music for serious listening. I think you make a good point about the poor quality of vinyl in the early days of CD (although many of those early CDs now sound even worse) but recently we’ve seen a resurgence of heavy, high quality vinyl with mastering specifically for the format. One of the odd concomitants of this situation is that sometimes the LP comes out a week or more after the CD (this was the case with the latest Bowie and Laura Marling releases), making it seem even more special (or more of an afterthought, take your pick).

  2. New vinyl doesn’t always sound better than CD, though. I bought the Daft Punk album on vinyl. Conceptually, it works as a piece with four distinct sides, but my pressing is oddly quiet – I almost have to double the volume – and the sound is a bit boomy and indistinct, especially on the noisier tracks. Whereas the CD sounds pristine and majestic.

    I also think it’s dangerous to get too hung up on optimal sound quality as a pre-requisite to full enjoyment. There will never again be a format as shitty-sounding as AM radio, and yet I used to fall in love with songs on AM radio all the time. I have a portable Logitech iPhone docking station, which I sometimes play while doing the dishes or taking the bath. I can enjoy music hugely this way. And when I stream Spotify Premium via Bluetooth and a hi-fi-connected DAC (digital analogue converter), the music sounds rich and warm, despite originating from a compressed source. The best ideas and emotions can always transcend the format.

  3. I’ve always figured that actually the industry – anti-piracy, copyright etc. – destroyed the MP3-blog community more than anything else. They made people afraid to share music/MP3s, and ignored all the historic “swapping music on cassettes” etc. that brought so many bands to a wider audience.

    In that way I think the industry has done more to damage its own business than anything else.

  4. Agreed, but the “freetard” mentality has also been hugely destructive: economically, and in terms of viewing music as inherently worthless.

  5. I joked that a friend’s home recordings were “broadcast quality… AM!” only last week.

    This is a BIG subject, on which I could ramble at length. I’ll restrict thoughts to two specific, open-ended areas for now.

    First, the distinction between an idea and a specific expression (or implementation) of the idea. In musical terms, for example: the distinction between the song, the performance and the recording. I frequently find that the memorable ones excel in all three areas, although those that fall down in one (or occasionally two) of these areas can still be compelling.

    (Excuse the blatant self-promotion, but I found myself considering similar territory on Monday… about football, of all things.)

    Second, the distinction between physical versus virtual objects (which is often expressed as analogue versus digital, though that’s not always an accurate comparison). As someone once said – I’d like to think it was me, but if so I was probably only repeating a line I’d heard elsewhere – it’s hard to love an MP3. Giving a particular expression of an idea some physical space in your life – as a book, a CD, and so on – grants it both literal and symbolic weight. It asserts its worth as a lifestyle choice (ugh), a tangible expression of value and identity, something of ‘meaning’ – however personal that significance might be.

    I’d better stop now 🙂

  6. One more (sorry, can’t help myself)…

    “why pay a premium for lack of portability?”

    Worth and value again, maybe. Asserting the importance of something by restricting the context(s) in which you choose to make it available to yourself?

    Something ‘special’ that won’t submit to the twitchy, on-demand requirement for instant availability. Delayed gratification for enhanced listening pleasure?

  7. Arguably, but lack of portability restricts the contexts in which the music might be more fully enjoyed. If I buy vinyl, I can only play it in one room. It’s an upstairs room, only used in the weekday daytime, by me alone. But what if I want to hear the music in another room? Another house? In the car? Walking into town? With my partner? With friends? Hearing the same piece of music in different contexts helps it accrue resonance.

    (At its best, that’s also how pop music works: that repeated exposure in different environments, so that it ends up soundtracking a period in your life.)

    In short, I don’t want my listening to be hermetically sealed. I place too high a value on contextual variety for that.

  8. Most vinyl comes with, at best a CD, at worst a download code (though the Laura Marling double has neither and nor did the last Cornershop) which gets around this problem, Mike. Bit like getting a free electronic copy with your hardback book. But I only get stuff I’m pretty sure I’m going to love and want to listen to in a concentrated way on vinyl, partly because of the expense, partly because of space issues. And yes, I do have two rooms I can listen to vinyl in, though, in practice, the record player in my study is only for listening to the 7″ singles I keep in here.

  9. Fair points. On reflection, I’m positing a rigid dichotomy between “very restricted” and “available everywhere”, which is clearly artificial at worst and overly simplistic at best.

    In practical terms, it’s notable how vinyl releases now tend to come with an optional (or free of charge) CD or download code for hassle-free MP3 acquisition.

    Best of both worlds: you get the portability, plus the physical object and that delicious opportunity for the “put the kettle on, place the needle on the record” ritual.

    As an aside, I’ve never been able to listen to music while walking, stretching back to pre-Walkman days. It literally unbalances me. Anyone else had this?

  10. As someone who has recently unpacked two decades-old moving boxes full of vinyl LPs, I can tell you vinyl requires commitment. Ans space. Lots of space.

    asta on June 5, 2013
  11. I can’t add much to the learned conversation above, but I will make two personal observations:

    1) I’m 39 years old and I’ve never owned a record (beyond a 10″ copy of Hatful of Hollow I was given as a gift and have framed). I went straight from cassette to cd. I sometimes wonder if I’ve missed out, but the plain truth is I’ve never owned a record deck and chances are I never will. Maybe it’s just a timing thing about when I started buying music and my own gear to play it on.

    2) out of curiosity, when I had rigged iTunes to come through my proper big stereo, I did a side-by-side CD to MP3 comparison. I was shocked at the difference and now much warmer the CD sounded (yeah, I know). I still rip my CDs to MP3s and listen to the like that, mind…. Convenience goes a long way.

    Just a couple of thoughts.

    Tim.

    Swisslet on June 5, 2013
  12. As an aside, I’ve never been able to listen to music while walking, stretching back to pre-Walkman days. It literally unbalances me. Anyone else had this?

    No, far from it indeed. Listening to music while walking is one of my favourite ways of listening to music – especially danceable music.

    Example from today: I bought the Disclosure album on CD on Monday (they’re a house/garage-influenced dance act, for those who don’t know), played it while home alone, and didn’t really get into it. Having just played the first two-thirds while walking into town and back again, it now makes a lot more sense.

    I’m not much of a dancer any more, so maybe walking gives me the opportunity to make the requisite repetitive physical movements? 🙂

  13. Personally, these days most music leaves me cold. I’m not sure whether my migration from CD to digital is the cause, the symptom, or something else entirely.

  14. One of my draft responses to Vaughan’s questions is rather similar in spirit – if not actual wording – to that quote, so I’d better avoid reading the link for now. Sounds interesting though.

    As for “iPhone as transistor radio”; thinking of regular experiences of the top deck of the bus over the last few months, now I know what Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells must’ve felt like in the 60s.

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