I’d Rather Be Listening to Vinyl
With Record Store Day on the horizon, a meditation on my favorite musical format
I have a love/hate relationship with digital music. It’s something of a necessity—physical media doesn’t travel well, and the nature of writing about music means just about all the music that’s sent my way for consideration is download or stream only. And for the sake of my already cluttered home office, that’s actually how I prefer it. But just because something’s practical doesn’t necessarily mean it’s preferable. Every once in a while I get low-bitrate streaming or earbud fatigue, and for that matter, I often find that it ends up fading into being background music while I’m doing something else. Add to that the meager royalties artists receive from Spotify plays and the newly reported findings that digital music consumption actually contributes to climate change, and I don’t really feel great about any of it.
Frankly, when given the opportunity, I’d rather just listen to vinyl.
Given the gradual rise in popularity of vinyl—as in actual 12-inch analog records—in the last decade, there’s a natural split in opinions on the format. For certain consumers, it’s a pretty intense way of life, and you’ll find folks like this in the comments and forums of music cataloguing site and marketplace Discogs, harshly critiquing poor pressings, tracking down rare collectors’ items and meticulously tracking every release in their catalog. Then there are the naysayers, people who view the vinyl resurrection like they do trendy craft-cocktail bars where the servers have handlebar mustaches and suspenders. It’s an anachronistic novelty, in other words.
I’m much closer to the former than the latter. I like records. I like listening to records. I like buying records. I like to turn up the volume and zone out on my couch and not distract myself with other things when I’m listening to records. And that, to me, is one of the biggest reasons I find it so appealing. When you have to physically put the record on the turntable, drop the needle, and then flip it over 20 minutes in to play the other side, you’re more closely attuned to what you’re listening to. It can be background music, but for the most part, it requires a closer level of engagement. And when the marketplace finds ways to make music seem even more disposable every day, it’s nice to feel like I have a closer relationship to the music I’m listening to.
I’m not going to say there isn’t some novelty aspect to vinyl, particularly since, as a format, it was essentially dead as of the late ’90s. I’m just as much a sucker for the 180-gram double vinyl with multicolor swirl as anyone. I preorder it even, with priority shipping so I can Instagram it when it shows up on my doorstep. But that’s not necessarily why I buy records. Sure, they’re fun—and visually appealing—but it’s more about being a less-passive listener. That and, when mastered well, they sound great. True, CDs are technically “better” sounding, in that they’re able to contain a wider and more accurate sonic range, but for a format that hasn’t evolved and has more limitations, vinyl is often simply a more organic and enjoyable experience. There can be more distortion on vinyl, particularly in the bass sound, but it’s a little bit like how a burger can pick up some extra flavor from a well-seasoned grill. Maybe what you’re tasting is something other than the beef itself, but it’s still delicious.
This Saturday is Record Store Day, in which retailers stock limited edition items, showcase performances by local or touring artists and, most importantly, keep their bottom line steady. We should do our part to drop into local shops throughout the year, of course, but we should especially support them on special days like this, even if they can get a little gimmicky. So maybe consider stopping by to pick up a few things, and don’t forget to thumb through the bins of recent used acquisitions—that’s often where the good stuff is. (My best Record Store Day purchase was a 99 cent Grace Jones record, true story.) Then bring it home, turn it up, and have a distraction-free listening experience.
Here are what some local record stores are doing for Record Store Day:
M Theory Music (827 West Washington Street, Mission Hills): In addition to many of the limited releases available for sale, the shop will have live performances from The Petty Saints, Coral Bells, Ignant Benches and Nate Legend, plus pizza from Lefty’s.
Folk Arts Rare Records (3072 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park): There will be DJs, 7 Marcelos food truck, Record Store Day exclusives, and more, but make sure to spend some time diving into the racks to find some rare older records—I always do.
Vinyl Junkies Record Shack (2235 Fern Street, South Park): This colorful and well-curated shop will open an hour early (9 a.m.) to kick off a day of vinyl DJing from the likes of Pinback’s Rob Crow, Earthless’s Mario Rubalcaba and The Cure’s Lol Tolhurst, who will also be doing signings.