Those of you who follow me on socials will know I have a great love for my vinyl record collection. I’m forever posting mini reviews of the albums I’m listening to.
I haven’t counted them all but I’d estimate I have around 500 discs, including all the original Beatles’ albums, some rarities by Woody Guthrie and the Rolling Stones, and the very first record I ever purchased — a live album from 1972 by the British glam rockers Slade (I know, I wasn’t a cool 12 year old).
I think I have every record by the Moody Blues, most of Bob Dylan’s, and all the early stuff from Springsteen. Of course, there’s U2, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Elton John, Billy Joel, blah, blah, you’ve got the idea.
Yeah, I’m old, okay.
Sometimes I’m asked by people who can’t imagine listening to anything except a music streaming service why I persist with vinyl. Usually they supply the assumed answer with their question: “It’s for the warmer, richer sound, isn’t it?”
It’s well known that digital audio files get compressed to make them small enough to stream online, so you can never get the full depth of a track. Vinyl is far higher quality because no audio data is lost when pressing a record. It sounds just like the producer or band intended. Also, vinyl, for the most part, avoided what they call the ‘loudness war.’ On digital music (including CDs), it’s possible to make a track sound louder than it naturally should and that distorts the depth and texture of the song.
Having said all that, when I’m spinning my father’s beat up 1968 pressing of Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison I can assure you it’s not for the sound quality. I’ve had a lot of my records since I was a teenager. I take good care of them but, sure, there’s the odd scratch or warp present on some of them, including those I’ve picked up more recently at markets and thrift stores.
No, it’s not for the sound quality alone that I have stuck to vinyl.
I listen to vinyl because it’s a possessive, jealous medium. Vinyl demands your full attention.
You can turn on a streaming service and play a million songs from scores of genres, filling your room or your house with sound for hours, days, weeks. But it’s ambient sound, for the most part. You listen to streamed music while you do something else. I play music on a streaming service in my office while I work. We play streamed music for background sound when friends come over. Streamed music creates atmosphere. But vinyl insists that you pay attention.
In fact, non-vinyl music listeners always grouse, “But you have to get up and turn the record over every five songs!” I resist breaking it to them that it can be every two songs if they’re listening to Jethro Tull or Yes.
But that’s the point. Vinyl forces you to pay attention, to be present, to focus on the music.
You can play your Apple Music collection without really thinking about it. But record playing is an activity in itself.
When I say, “I think I’m going to play some records,” my wife knows that means I’m going into the study to sit on the floor in front on my collection, peruse the spines, and carefully select a playlist. Sometimes, I go with an album in mind. The other night I got it into my head to play Dylan’s fundamentalist Christian records from 1979-1981 (Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love). So, I put Slow Train on, and was examining the cover and remembered that Mark Knopfler played 12-string guitar on that album. That got me all interested in playing Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing so I pulled out their self-titled debut album and it hit me again how Dylanesque Knopfler is on that record. For some reason I then listened to Knopfler’s soundtrack for Local Hero and I seemed to recall that Candy Dulfer had played saxophone on that track, but when I read the liner notes it was session saxophonist Mike Brecker. But by then I had a taste for Candy Dulfer so I rifled through my Van Morrison albums and pulled out his live recording, A Night in San Francisco, featuring Dulfer’s incredible sax sound (as well as the musical stylings of Georgie Fame, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and Jimmy Witherspoon). I played both discs all the way through, revelling in the music, and while I did I googled whether Georgie Fame was still alive (he is!) and what Candy Dulfer is doing these days (she’s a judge on Holland’s X Factor).
And so it goes.
Vinyl is a tactile medium. It insists you finger through your collection, remove your selection, unwrap it from its cover, free it from its poly inner sleeve, place it on the turntable, and gingerly put the tone arm and stylus in position. And then it requires you to reverse that process and repeat it every time you change the record.
Record playing is a slow, intentional, deliberate pastime. It’s a pleasant idleness. The Italians call this ‘dolce far niente’, the sweetness of doing nothing.
And doing nothing is an important practice. Taking things slow requires patience, focus and caution, all of which are necessary for a successful life. The problem for many of us non-Italians is that we think the opposite of busy is lazy. But, actually, the opposite of busy is solitude. The opposite of being busy is stillness. And in solitude and stillness we can be free to be curious and creative.
Eckhart Tolle once wrote, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.”
The Internet and the pace of modern life has given us busy brains, all aflutter with a hundred things happening at once and none of them productive or generative. Studies tell us people are reading fewer books. Many say they can’t get through a whole novel anymore. We binge television series, we play podcasts in our cars and Spotify in our offices. We’re on Zoom calls and doing webinars and being busy, always busy.
I’m not claiming that playing vinyl records is the solution. All I know is that when I slide an album out of its cover, fingering only the edges, angling it into the light so I can see if it needs cleaning, anticipating the music that is to follow, the Now is the primary focus, even if just for a couple of hours.
And that’s no bad thing these days.