I don’t own any Blu-rays. I download video games from digital storefronts. And I haven’t bought a newspaper in years. Despite this I’ve got a steadily growing vinyl record collection.
Over the past decade few physical mediums have seen a resurgence quite like vinyl. Even if your listening habits consist of downloading and streaming music, there’s probably still room in your life for a turntable and a crate of records.
Physical Media in a Digital World
We consume more and more of our media digitally. Whether it’s movies and TV shows via Netflix, catch-up TV services, YouTube, or streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. These are all convenient enhancements to our modern lives, and I make copious use of all of them. I watch YouTube while eating my breakfast, stream Apple Music while writing, stream my favorite TV shows at night. I also admit that I’m partly to blame for the death of cinema.
This probably goes some way towards explaining why I’ve held onto the hobby of collecting records for so long. It’s the last physical medium that I gain any pleasure from these days, and it’s the analog nature of the recording that’s the main appeal. Records are needlessly big, with equally large covers that celebrate the album art in a way that digital mediums do not.
They’re susceptible to physical damage, and they wear out over time. You have to contend with dust buildup and static electricity, and even your turntable requires a degree of maintenance. You’ll have to change the stylus every 500–1000 hours of listening, set up new cartridges correctly, and balance the tonearm using a counter-weight. At some point you might even need to recalibrate an old turntable so that the platter spins at the correct speed.
All of this hassle pushes a few buttons inside my head. I grew up playing with LEGO, under-exposing photos on film, and dismantling old VCRs. If you feel like you miss physical interaction with media and entertainment and also happen to love music, you might also enjoy the “mechanical” hobby of collecting and playing records.
Here are a few reasons why.
Collecting Vinyl Is an Organic Process
Digital music discovery sucks. Generally speaking you know what you’re looking for, you type it into the search box and hit Play. You may find a few related artists to explore, but these get more and more obscure the further down the list you move. My personal “For You” tab on Apple Music suggests albums I’m already well-acquainted with, and most other suggestions are more miss than hit.
Digging for vinyl records is a much more organic process. You never know quite what you’ll find, and this maintains a flicker of hope inside you that it’s always worth one more look, one more crate, or one more shop. A similar thing could be said about shopping for clothes in thrift stores or buying second-hand books.
Through record stores I’ve not only discovered albums that fit my current tastes, but I’ve developed a fascination with random genres that I’d never have approached before. This is because the media is physically there in front of me, begging to be listened to with unbiased ears. And all of the best record stores will have listening stations for you to use, so you can try before you buy.
If you’re really serious you can even get cheap and cheerful portable players like the Sylvania ($27) which will fit comfortably into a bag.
Vinyl Helps You Embrace the Strange
As a result of the often random and disorganised nature of digging through crates of records in a dusty old shop, you’ll likely come across some outright weird and wonderful records. It would be easy to dismiss these were they not right in front of your face, and many such records have never been committed to CD let alone modern digital formats.
To prove the point: I’ve just discovered the world of Japanese soundtracks from the late 1970s. These are mostly anime, with a few dramas mixed in for good measure. I have never visited Japan, and I’m not a huge fan of anime either. I picked one up because of the amazing cover art, but it wasn’t until I listened to it that I realized how much incredible jazz, funk, and soul was to be found on these albums.
With a steady stream of Japanese vinyl heading into a few local record shops, I’m enjoying my journey down the rabbit hole of TV shows I’ve never even heard of before. There are many other peculiar genres and releases that might catch your eye: library records (used for sound effects and backing tracks to TV productions), spoken word, television and radio recordings, test records, white labels, breaks and DJ tools, and children’s records to name a few.
Some of these cost me $50, while I have picked others up for just a dollar, which brings me to another point.
Finding Vinyl Diamonds in the Rough
It’s a great feeling finding something in a thrift store or clearance bin for pennies, which is why I check the local charity shops on a regular basis. Whole record collections are often donated to charity, and they’re sold for a fraction of their worth. Experience has taught me that the vast majority of these records will be terrible, scratched, and missing sleeves.
However, you still never know what you’re going to find. It might be a classic album that’s dear to you, a cheesy single from the 80s being sold for 50 cents, or something random you decided to take a chance on.
A few of my favorite charity shop finds include “Highway to the Danger Zone” (the theme to Top Gun) on 45, the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera playing Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsodies” and a “teach yourself” Italian spoken word LP from 1969. None of these cost me more than a dollar, and they all sound great.
Vinyl Loves Digital
Physical media can’t compete with the incredible power of digital distribution in a world of fast internet speeds and plentiful hard drive space, and fortunately it doesn’t have to. There’s room for both vinyl and digital music in your life, particularly considering almost every new vinyl record sold today comes with a code for a digital download.
A physical collection isn’t meant to replace your digital habit, whether you’re streaming music from Spotify or buying songs on Bandcamp. I listen to digital music all day, because I’m not going to carry records around with me for listening on the go. I don’t really buy many new albums on vinyl either, unless it’s for emerging artists on small or self-run labels. Digital does everything I need in this regard.
Vinyl is also expensive, especially when new. It’s often heavy, and costs a lot to send in the mail. Record shops that sell new vinyl often charge an arm and a leg, when I could get two or three second hand albums elsewhere and still enjoy the new releases via Apple Music. Lossless physical media is going to sound better than compressed MP3s, but there’s often the option of lossless formats like ALAC and FLAC which sound the same as, if not better than, an LP.
Based on personal experience, most small bands seem to prefer vinyl over CD for selling their wares, especially at gigs. This may seem like an odd choice but it speaks for the popularity of the medium, considering production costs are higher when it comes to vinyl.
A Word About “Warmth”
This isn’t a “why vinyl is better” piece, it’s about encouraging you to explore the world of music in a way you haven’t done before. I haven’t mentioned anything about vinyl sounding better than other mediums, because objectively it doesn’t. The perceived sound quality of a recording is often down to the mastering, and the medium makes little difference.
In fact, the idea of vinyl “warmth” is often a result of distortion introduced by the medium. Producers can engineer their records to sound as warm as they like, but a CD or lossless digital file will do the job just as well. Your equipment will really make the difference in terms of sound reproduction — the source, the cartridge and stylus, the amplifier, the speakers. If in doubt, grab yourself a vintage setup for cheap off eBay.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world where record shops are plentiful, where thrift stores are full of bargains, where garage sales happen every weekend; you’ve got a great opportunity to expand your musical repertoire. So why not start your vinyl collection today?!
What was the last vinyl record you bought? Do you understand the enduring appeal of vinyl? Or are you happy streaming all of your music from Spotify or Apple Music? Please let us know your thoughts and feelings in the comments below!