The LP format has had mobs of claims made about it over the years, some silly, some solid. As an old platter-flipper pro, here’s my take on some of them.
By Milo Miles
I fell in love with vinyl because the first record I can remember playing wished me a happy birthday by name. The little player was scarcely bigger than the 45-sized disc, which was bright yellow and recorded only on one side. After a jaunty rendition of the traditional tune, a woman’s cheerful voice said: “Happy Birthday to Milo Miles, who is four years old today.” Might as well have been magic. Soon enough, I learned that my father had sent away for the customized record, something you can still do today, through a number of businesses —
Whatever the mundane facts, my initial delight remains as vivid as ever, the closest I would ever come to the amazement of the people who heard recorded music when it was a brand-new technology. That candy-colored disc is still on the turntable, stored in a box somewhere. Long-player vinyl was scarce where I grew up — the only outlet in Livingston, Montana, was a set-aside corner of a furniture store. The family’s first stereo looked like a horizontal wooden cabinet, less concerned with fidelity than fitting into the living-room decor of 1963.
I had a very ordinary-teenager stack of LPs and didn’t know any album collectors. Didn’t know such people existed. That changed instantly in college and by the time I moved to Cambridge in 1977, I had to have my first custom-constructed record shelving. By the time my wife and I moved to a permanent residence seven years ago, I was renting a warehouse storage room that at its peak contained close to 20,000 vinyl discs.
So these days I should be happy as a record hog rolling in PVC, right? After all, the LP is making a comeback:
Allan Kozinn’s piece in the Times offers some careful perspective, but many of the Vinyl Lives! stories I’ve seen are hollow at the core. The true non-news is something like “Vinyl Surges To Have Less-Tiny Shares of Sales — Not Going to Disappear Like 8-Tracks.” The LP format has had mobs of claims made about it over the years, some silly, some solid. As an old platter-flipper pro, here’s my take on some of them.
Vinyl is valuable because it’s “more engaging” to grapple with and play than slipping in discs or punching up computer files.
This odd notion is tied up with turntable-worship and reminds me of the guy thing that says old cars are better because you get to tinker with the parts and engines all the time. It also suggests the scenario of a bunch of music fans sitting in a circle around the stereo and quietly plowing through disc after disc of their favorite news discoveries or whatever. May happen, but I wouldn’t approach such a group for fear of catching their cooties. The many music zealots I’ve known have learned to absorb lots of impressions from music playing while they are socializing at dinner tables and suchlike. I give a record undivided attention and pored over every note only when I’m writing about it. And to be blunt, turntables are a PITA, as the kids say these days. Adjusting tonearms, replacing needles, maintaining turntable rotation without vibration, holds no charms for me. And these portable turntables you bring to a party are the hipster-fad manifestation of the new vinyl revival at its worst.
Vinyl sounds more like music as it’s played than digital does.
This is complex. No sane set of ears could deny the LPs fans’ standard pushback about fidelity and warm sound when CDs were new. But as digital reproduction became more sophisticated, the argument degenerated into “an LP played on this analog system costing in the five-figures range blows away any comparable CD reproduction.” No doubt. But the old truism is that music fans are either into their stereos or into their collections. I’m not a hardcore audiophile. But MP3s make my earholes hurt. Plus, there’s much to be said for the notion that recorded music should be heard through the mode and medium its creators intended. Mono versions of LPs that appeared before stereo was the norm should be available — even if as a disc or a download. Dance tracks after the ’70s in particular were done with digital reproduction. They weren’t meant to have that rounder, warmer vinyl vibe. Different musics sound best with different delivery systems. There is no one “best.”
LPs make the finest pop-art objects.
You cannot argue with this. The range of album-jacket illustration from the most unconsciously wacked-out goofiness to the most meticulously worked-out brain-expander is a joy to hold and behold. Vintage CD boxes from the Rhino label are also sometimes delights, but there was a general graphic failure of imagination in the physical-disc era. This helps explain why album formats have returned. The market remains so small, however, that it’s hard to imagine a whiz talent taking off with LP jackets today.
Up to 500 LPs are cool. Anything beyond 5000 is compulsion.
And this is the fact of living space, more than expense of production and the shortage of pressing plants, that will make LPs a sidelight specialty for the foreseeable future. When I lofted toward a serious music collection, there was no choice. All too soon I would be basing where I moved on whether or not the place could comfortably contain the collection. I’ve come to realize the lack of storage had as much to do with folks of a certain age losing interest in new music as becoming set in their taste (I can’t get into that record ’cause I don’t have any place to put it).
This leaves us in the best of all music-reproduction worlds, however. Don’t buy hyper-glorified vinyl reissues of albums you or your parents bought four times already (who needs that thread from Mick Jagger’s original scarf, anyway?). Select the proper sound source. Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours? Gotta be the best mono vinyl. Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank”? On compact disc only. Das Racist? Do the downloads. Nowadays, you can be a houndog for sound and never be in the warehouse.
Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.