As a DJ for The Rock Show on WNUR, I have the great fortune of being able to walk into the “stacks” once or twice a week, a crowded area with narrow passage ways filled to the ceiling with vinyl ranging from long-lost Sonic Youth singles that Steve Albini probably handled in the 80s to the 2013 debut of NU alum Doug Kaplan’s project The Big Ship. DJs are taught all the intricacies of dealing with this old-fangled format. We learn how to properly cue up tracks, how to handle vinyl with care and even in some cases how to actually do live mixing using vinyl. This part of the studio is always the highlight of student tours at the radio station, with fellow students gawking at the collection and cub scouts bewildered mainly because they aren’t exactly sure what vinyl is.
There is no question that over the last few years, vinyl records have been making somewhat of an unexpected comeback in the music industry. Many argue that pure nostalgia, or jealousy of said nostalgia by us younger folks who grew up with CDs, is what drives people to the record stores in downtown Evanston instead of opting for the simpler, easier digital download. However, this alone should have faded away after the rush of a year or so, right? A record is more expensive than a CD or a digital download, even though the latter does accompany most vinyl.
Not too many people even own record players anymore or have the time to sit down with an old turntable, so ultimately we would be confined to that mp3 download card inserted in the record’s gatefold anyway. I’m even guilty of owning a record player that converts vinyl to mp3. 10 to 12-song records are too bulky compared to the tens of thousands of songs that can fit on a single iPod.
What makes us want to collect records? Just like the swarms of people who attend concerts rather than listen to albums or watch live streams, the experience of appreciating and owning records, along with the really interesting ways records are being made and released nowadays, makes collecting them an exciting experience instead of just another music purchase.
Take Third Man Records’ Record Booth, for example. You enter the booth with or without an instrument and lay down a minute’s worth of sound, which is instantly pressed to a 7-inch record and dispensed in a nice little package with mailing information so you can send it to friends or family. The final sound isn’t exactly studio-quality, but the fact that you can make your own record and play it over and over again is pretty fascinating. There is something inherently special about this technology, whether it’s the whole production aspect being done right before your eyes or the sound you just made becoming a physical product. Jack White also runs a Rolling Record Store, or a Pop-Up Shop, which travels to various festivals in the U.S. selling limited edition Third Man Records releases and re-issues of long-lost work.
Recently, inventor Amanda Ghassaei has been releasing really innovative creations. Despite the understandably awful sound it produces, her wooden records and 3D printer that can convert audio files to a physical record really can make collecting vinyl exciting again, in the same way that the beautiful images and hand-written lyrics on the gatefold of colored vinyl, like the white Modern Vampires of the City and Strange Mercy releases recently, can serve as actual artwork that I would feel comfortable hanging on my wall. Kishi Bashi even released a gorgeous, snowflake-shaped flexi-disc, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends was pressed with the blood of several contributors to the album, Chicago act Radar Eyes released a limited amount of a special edition flexi-disc and special, old White Stripes recordings always draw large crowds to the last few existing record shops. These new ideas and ways to enjoy the art are helping feed this physical melomania. Vinyl has changed from the standard form through which music is released to something in the present that is appreciated more aesthetically.
But nobody has the time anymore to sit down and put on a record–it's more convenient to double-click. However, when you do, you will notice the sonic intracicies hidden in the grooves of the record.
"You can listen to music on your computer whenever you want to, but if you want to listen to an album you have to make the time to sit down and be able to commit to listening to the album, flipping it and finishing it. It's just special," noted Karl Maher, an RTVF sophmore and vinyl connoisseur.
"When you see the disc moving around, you feel connected," Jack White said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "You got up and put the needle down, you feel connected. Just like in a movie theater when they turn down the lights and the movie comes up, you feel reverential toward it." Vinyl presents somewhat of a romanticized interaction with music that is obviously not present via any digital method.
But people don't necessarily buy vinyl only for its superior sound. Rather, we want to own it, display it in a collection or simply hold this actual music in our hands–a feeling that has been lost with the advent of iTunes.
"I suppose it's kind of the way people feel about books versus reading on Kindle. It's a physical presence. More love goes into it," said Gillian Levy, Weinberg Junior and Rock Show producer at WNUR, who has been collecting records since 10th grade.
A party I attended last year was called "Gin and Tonic Youth" with Sonic Youth records playing all night long. In the 70s or 80s this may not have been worth mentioning, but to see something like this taking place in 2012 probably stuns a lot of people, especially record label executives. Sure, Daydream Nation is a killer album, but I was mainly attracted to the spectacle of the real-life turn table, emitting crackles and all, sitting in the corner of the room.
In the end, it's moments like this that are sustaining the life of records, where college students like ourselves aim to own something we see as so curiously romantic and fascinating. Those two unreleased tracks shoved onto the end of the B-side of a classic record of the yellow Velvet Underground and Nico album that started Levy's collection make collecting the format still worthwhile.