The Vinyl LP: Not Dead and Just May Remind Us We’re Alive

The other night I was at a dinner party with friends.  The hosts had just recently acquired one of those oldfangled “record player” contraptions. Actually, it had a USB output, so it was also partially newfangled. I’ve been in the market for a USB model myself so I can sample old out-of-print recordings to my computer and create further sonic mayhem. So I ended up capitalizing my friends’ player for the evening and charged myself with the duty of replacing or flipping the record when a side ended.

It felt like this was happening quite often. I remembered album sides being 20+ minutes, but these records seemed even shorter than that. That was the biggest downside. The rest of it was fun! Gingerly removing those large disks from their gargantuan cardboard sleeves, plopping them down on the turntable, manually placing the needle down, waiting those first few seconds before the needle hits the first track, hand hovering near the volume knob in case the music comes in louder than you thought…

I missed all that. This experience took me back. We listened mostly to big band recordings from the 40’s, which is not what  came out of my turntable when I was young but made for fine dinner music. You can argue that LPs sound better–I never really had strong feelings about the LP vs CD vs MP3 debate–but it is definitely a different experience.

A composer friend of mine often argues that music requires some sort of frame to be experienced properly. Even if, for instance, the greatest violinist in the world is playing one of the most beautiful pieces written, people are likely just walk by if he’s playing somewhere other than a concert stage. When people ask me at parties or social gatherings to play something for them, I usually say no because the frame isn’t there. (Or I say “just one song” and people will pay attention for about half of it before returning to what they were doing.) Or sometimes everyone is interested enough and other conditions are such that the frame is there and it turns out be a nice, personal mini-concert.

The LP experience is like an instant frame around the music. It’s a ritual. It prepares the body and spirit to get into the mode of listening. (Otherwise, why would you be doing such an odd thing?) The smell that emerges when the vinyl slips from its cardboard sleeve is like a music lover’s incense. Whatever else you may be doing, your time is structured around placing down that needle, listening, and then picking it up again 20 minutes later to flip the album. The songs play as a short set, only in the order determined by the artist. If you make any big vibrations, the record skips. If you leave the room, the record will there waiting for your next physical instructions, most likely still spinning.

Just pause for a moment and put a frame around that. How different is today’s digital player-driven music experience?

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