Having outlived the invention and evolution of the cassette tape, CD, mp3, iPod, and stream, vinyl itself has remained calmly seated outside the rat race of technological advancement. It’s proud indifference to evolution has made it more than a mantle decoration, though its size and physical attributes have made collectors of many a music fan.
Whether for its “cool factor” or fuller sound, the unique aspects of the vinyl record have made it a favorite amongst musicians. Digital music is easily bought, sold, streamed, ripped, and shared, but a record requires dedication. For these four artists, the love of vinyl runs deep, and they make no secret of their preferred listening medium.
Vinyl is best known as the listening experience with “warmth of sound,” a quality directly affected by variables that sometimes are in the listener’s control. Pixies’ guitarist Joey Santiago notes that the sound of a record can even be affected by the acoustics in the room in which it was recorded. A sensitive ear can tell the differences, and an attentive fan will study the liner notes. However, the road to a good sound is a little trickier.
“There are more variables and obstacles for vinyl to sound better than a hi-resolution CD. One needs a good turntable. The cartridge and needle is the biggest piece of the puzzle since it makes contact with the vinyl. Then you need a good phono pre-amp. Tubes or solid state? The sound difference is enormous,” notes Santiago. “[Vinyl] is an experience. I think one’s musical tastes will change once you start buying vinyl. You’ll be a lot pickier. We see vinyl as a ‘matter’ gift to our fans. We invest a lot of money for a special product.”
Simply put, the process of listening to a record requires some personal investment and education. “I think it’s a fun hobby. There’s always room for improvement in how vinyl can be reproduced in your environment. Different cartridges and preamps have different tonal qualities. Picking ones to suit your ears is the fun bit. The search for the Holy Grail.”
A simple, 12 x 12″ disk, there’s more to a record than it’s ability to collect dust or dollars. For some, it’s an uncanny reminder of simpler times and one’s introduction to the world of music altogether.
Charlie Benante of Anthrax is passionate about vinyl and has been the main push behind the band’s vinyl sets. “The main reason why I wanted to do more vinyl is because I love it. I love the look of vinyl, I love the smell, love the packaging and being able to do something with vinyl. It takes me back to a time when I was younger. I’d get my new records home, open them up, put the record on, and then just sit and kind of be taken to another place, wherever that record would take me, wherever the packaging would take me. Looking at the cover, reading the liner notes, looking at the packaging, all that stuff made it such an experience that I feel younger generations lack. It’s sad because we’re the same type of human beings that we were 50, 30, even 20 years ago.”
Inspired to action, Benante and Anthrax have released several of their albums in record form, and they are not alone. Retail giants like Barnes and Noble and Urban Outfitters have set up huge sections for vinyl wares to be sold and displayed, a move that’s inspired millennials to pick up what by all accounts should have become antiquated with its invention dating well over 100 years ago. Current pop stars and classic reissues all line the shelves where parents and kids alike peruse on level ground. “I thought it was one of the greatest things,” says Benante. “Whether or not it’s the latest music from whoever, to something [specific] that I’m looking for, it’s still bringing in people to discover new types of music.”
Sam Kiszka, bassist of burgeoning rock outfit, Greta Van Fleet, is barely out of high school but cites growing up with his parents’ classic rock record collection as a main source of inspiration. “Vinyl is a unique idea. A literal piece of vinyl. They’re so much more in format than a digital piece of music on your iPhone whose album cover is 2 x 2″. I see an album cover a trillion times on my phone but when I look at it on a 12 x 12″ I can see the details in the artwork.” Kiszka says Neil Young’s discography was the first place he noticed the difference in sonic quality between vinyl and digital music.
Young had long held back his music from digital platforms, but when he finally gave it up, those who had been listening to his vinyl records could notice the difference. “The sonic quality of a vinyl is difficult to describe. The quality just wasn’t there (on my iPhone). I was actually disappointed going from vinyl to digital. I can only compare it to when you sit down with a friend, and they open up to you and you see different layers of them than you saw before. When you listen to a different platform and then a vinyl record, you just dig deeper and realize there’s more than you’d expect.”
Kiszka attributes part of vinyl’s glory to it’s anti-“ADD factor.” Western culture’s need for immediate gratification has not sat well with creative communities interested in the experiential. “This world is so instantaneous. A song doesn’t absolutely make me fall in love? We skip it. Vinyl makes you find the time to sit and listen to a record all the way through. From beginning to end, the album should be a story. You can’t just pick out a song. You have to listen to the whole thing together.” Johan Wohlert of the prolific indie-rock outfit MEW, is an interdisciplinary artist of both the visual and sonic realms.
Wohlert proposes vinyl’s regained popularity is directly connected to current cultural values. “I just think it fits in with the hipster culture, hate it or love it, but it’s brought the world some great things: a value in everything hand-crafted and bespoke,” says Wohlert. The uniqueness in physically having one’s music makes a record collectible. It’s tangible value interconnected with the rarity of the work itself. “Exclusivity is something we strive for as human beings more and more these days. Being unique by having something others don’t. Vinyl is simply a sign of the times.”
Whether it’s the record’s tangibility, authenticity, sonic qualities, or the uniqueness of the experience, vinyl has managed to outlast every other type of musical technology and regain popularity in the new millennium. But what of the future of the record? Joey Santiago remarks vinyl’s appeal is beyond time and technology altogether. “You can take a piece of vinyl, have something spin it, and touch the grooves with a sharp object. A twig, a bone, anything- and you’ll hear the music coming out of the black. Sit back, have a drink. Make sure to use a coaster. CD’s are good for that.”