Understanding Vinyl

I need to warn you: I’m from the 70s.

Being from the 70s means I was born in the heyday of the vinyl era, saw its decline along with the rise and decline of 8-tracks and cassettes, the rise and decline of CDs and internet-based music, and have lived to see vinyl rise again. From my point of view, the history of music media has moved from analog (wax and vinyl) to digital (CDs, mp3s, streaming), with magnetic tape (reel to reel, 8-tracks, and cassettes) being a kind of intermediary between the two.

Vinyl has made a serious comeback that began around 2010 and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. As a sign of the strength of this comeback, Sony Music, for the first time since the late 1980s, will begin production of vinyl records again. The return of vinyl is usually explained in terms of sound quality (vinyl captures more than .mp3s) and in terms of album artwork. I’m not sure I completely buy the first reason: even if it is technically true, I suspect most people listen to their records on something like this:

If you’re not spending at least $1000 on components and speakers, you’re not really getting better sound out of your vinyl.

By the way, I own the one on the right. Yeah, I’m a sucker.

Now album artwork is another matter. It can be substantial, and the experience of it in a CD package or online just isn’t quite the same. But album artwork is essentially packaging. It doesn’t have anything to do with the music. That’s fine, but this second reason is also complicated by the fact that music aficionados tend to look down on colored vinyl as being a gimmick. It’s not just a matter of the best packaging winning here.

I seriously can’t wait for a new release of Dark Side of the Moon that’s advertised as the “black vinyl” edition. The gimmicks will have won the day.

I would like to suggest that part of what’s really going on is a kind of cult or aura of authenticity associated with vinyl. One component is surely nostalgic: the two low-end record players pictured above are clearly retro in design and intended to be. This aura of authenticity also privileges original pressings over new albums, much like first editions and first printings of books might be worth more than later editions or reprints.

Following first edition market logic, that’s fine, but you need to understand that none of this has anything to do with the music either. Original pressings were on thinner vinyl that’s more susceptible to warping. That 180g vinyl thing isn’t just a gimmick. They’re more durable. 70’s albums weren’t recorded on equipment that was nearly as good as today’s, and oftentimes there would be a hiss in the background: the medium was so faithful it even captured the sound of the recording equipment. A remastered, recent pressing of Dark Side of the Moon is a much better product, at least in terms of music, than a first pressing of that album from the 70s. It would combine the best of both digital and analog.

But I’d like to take this argument a step further. It’s tedious to listen to vinyl, at least compared to listening to music on your streaming service, on an iPod, or on your phone. You have to stop every half hour at the most and flip the record over. Now — and again, this is because I’m from the 70s — my parents had a great, wooden stereo console that took up about six feet of one wall in our living room. It could stack maybe six to eight records. When one finished, the next one would drop down, and the needle would queue up on the next one automatically. The turntable was on springs, so it’d just lower a bit every time the next record dropped. At one point vinyl manufacturers started manufacturing double albums so that sides 1 and 3 were on one disc and 2 and 4 on another. That way you could stack them on players like this and listen to two sides before flipping the album over.

Back in the 70s, we didn’t want to have to flip our albums over every twenty to thirty minutes. We wanted good music in our cars. We wanted to listen to music while we were running or at work without disturbing anyone. And we wanted our music without background hiss. We wanted customized playlists (hence, the mixtape, originally on cassette). We really wanted to be our own and each other’s DJs.

So this 70s’ generation, out of a real concern for music, gave the world cassette tapes, Walkmans, iPods, digital music, and then downloadable and streaming music. It gave us $100 earbuds that have a better sound than any $100 speakers ever sold since the 1960s. The limitations of vinyl were the reason for digital music to begin with. It’s not a coincidence that I grew up in Southern California and the company that gave us everything that we wanted in a digital package, the iPod, originated in Los Altos, California in the 70s, about six hours north of where I grew up. It’s not that no one thought of any of this until Apple, Inc. came along. Apple was just replicating in digital form what was already hardwired into California culture in the 70s.

All of this by itself would make the cult of vinyl authenticity look a bit dumb except for two things:

First, the album artwork really is a lot cooler on a vinyl album. But I’m saying this as someone from the 70s. My friend Tony and I had this conversation about album artwork back in the 80s. He’s a great bass player and professional sound mixer, so he’s all about the music. He asked me back then what we lost by switching to CDs. I said, “The album artwork.” I’m a visual guy in part. He got what I was saying, but he just shrugged his shoulders. It really was all about the music for him, so he wanted it all on CDs.

Next, vinyl gives us our privacy back. No one is tracking your listening preferences to better serve you. No one needs to know what you even purchased, much less what you’re listening to between the hours of 1:00 and 5:00 p.m.

This close tracking of our listening preferences has changed the face of top 40 music. Digital, downloadable, and streaming music have so narrowly defined and targeted specific markets that top 40 music is for the most part nothing but the generic listening preferences of the largest cross-section of US consumers: a banal carousel of 90s’ style R&B, rap, and hip-hop, plus “country” that now sounds like 90s’ pop (except for Dolly Parton — I love you, never die — and “Americana”). New and interesting music is for the most part relegated to indie labels or niche markets, and rock and roll seems to be dying so badly that guitar sales are dropping. A lot of the most interesting music out there is, interestingly, varieties of heavy metal.

But I think vinyl sales tell us that this isn’t the whole story, and used records are coming back along with the increase in new vinyl sales. I think our listening preferences are more complex than the Billboard Top 100 would lead us to believe.

At least I hope so. So I’m taking some hope in the resurgence in vinyl. I don’t think Justin Bieber is the top target market for new vinyl sales.

Advertisements

Gratitude while they’re still alive…

The last couple of years have been really big on celebrity deaths. What’s been odd for me is that I realized I don’t really understand what emotional profile an artist has for me until he or she is gone. This is all the worse with rock stars, who project an image of eternal youth and vitality that is of course far from the truth.

The three recent deaths that affected me the most were the deaths of Robin Williams, Bowie, and Prince. Lemmy’s death was sad for me, but it was more like losing a weird uncle: your family just got a lot more boring and you wish you’d appreciated him more when you had him. The death of the last remaining original member of the Ramones hit a little harder.

I think that Prince, Robin Williams, and Bowie affected me so much because they’ve been a part of my life since my early teen years. I remember watching Williams on Happy Days and then Mork and Mindy:

I remember listening to Bowie on the radio since about the mid-70s and then seeing him on Saturday Night Live in 1979. I watched him up there in that purple skirt as the episode was being aired and thought… dude, you’re so weird:

And I hate to say it, but my earliest memories of Prince weren’t of Purple Rain. They were of the campy Batman stuff he did in the late 1980s:

This is a long time to have people form a part of your cultural background, and regardless of taste or preference, they possessed a rare level of genius and creativity. I think I took them for granted at the time, but after seeing many actors and musicians cycle through pop culture, these three stand out as genius.

What affected me the most after the fact of Prince’s death was the universal outpouring of love and grief afterwards. Could he have possibly known how people felt? I don’t know. Of his last twelve albums, one was platinum and two were gold (but six were top 10). I haven’t picked up a Prince album since Musicology, his last platinum album released in 2004. But still, I felt his death. I felt like something significant was lost — a certain level of genius that isn’t easily replaced, exactly what I felt about Bowie, who I had at least followed more consistently over the last twenty years. I was excited about Blackstar and loved that the video generated almost a million hits its first twenty-four hours on YouTube.

So I’m mostly wishing I’d appreciated Prince more. Paid more attention, watched what he was doing, listened to what he had to say, because he had (and still has, really) things to say. I hope he had people around him who let him feel that love and appreciation.

So now, in the most morbid possible tribute, I’m going to express appreciation for a few aging geniuses here.

Chrissie Hynde (b. 1951, turning 65 this year). Her latest album is Stockholm, and I’ve heard her next project will be a joint project with the lead guitarist for the Black Keys. That’s the best news I’ve heard in some time. She exemplifies paying your dues, taking risks, and saying exactly how you feel.

Patti Smith (b. 1946, turning 70 this year). She’s a poet, author, painter, photographer, songwriter, and rock star, and she released what is arguably the best album of her life in 2012, Banga:

Jeff Beck (b. 1944, turning 72 this year). He’s been amazing since the 60s. If you can catch his performances for the Rock Hall anniversary concert, do it. They’re on Apple Music:

Keith Richards (b. 1943, turning 73 this year). Just released a great blues/blues rock solo album (Crosseyed Heart) accompanied by a documentary. He knows he’s getting old, and he just wanted to tell everyone how grateful he was for the blues artists who inspired him:

Bob Dylan (b. 1941, turned 74 this year). His late career albums have been focused upon what his career has been always focused upon: Americana. He’s always paid tribute to great American music, either by performing it or reinventing it. He is our true poet laureate:

Buddy Guy (b. 1936, turning 80 this year): With the death of B.B. King — who if you’ve ever seen him live was the model of a gentleman — may be the last of our old great blues guitarists. I saw him at his club in Chicago in 2012. He mocked pyrotechnics in guitar playing, wiping his arse with his guitar while he was performing Hendrix licks (all the while praising Hendrix’s talent), this man can still play. Check out his latest album, Born to Play Guitar, which won a deserved grammy for Best Blues Guitar Album:

I could go on — Jagger and all of the rest of the Stones are getting old. So are the remaining members of Pink Floyd and the Doors. Springsteen will be turning 67 this year, Chuck Berry is 89, while Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are 70 and 72, respectively, while McCartney and Ringo Starr are 73 and 75. And I haven’t mentioned the Ramones, whose last original member recently passed away.

These musicians all came into their careers during a time when the music industry — though just as sold out as it always was — was looking for a new sound. Now it’s harder. Music companies are only looking to sell to a defined demographic and probably know just how many downloads (or streams) any given artist is expected to get. Remember: anyone in it for the money will always play it safe. Genius has less room to flourish now, and all members of the first three groundbreaking generations of rock and roll may well be completely gone in the next ten to fifteen years. Even the 80s stars are getting old: Debbie Harry is 70 while the Mothersbaugh brothers of Devo are in their 60s.

So what are we going to do with this vacuum? What will take its place? What will we do to nurture future genius? Rock and roll has encapsulated all human energies for decades now: our rages, fears, loves, hates, and passions. It screams about God and sex and politics. It’s been sold out and whored for every dime it could squeeze out of every kid who ever bought a record since the 1950s, but it has still maintained a purity and intensity of expression: no matter what happens, strictures could never contain it. Whenever it has become predictable it rebelled against itself, reinventing music over and over again. It’s been our vehicle for the uncontainable, the inexpressible, and that which can’t be bought. If it ever is finally tamed, we may well be lost.

Apple Music Playlist: Cool Acoustic

I’ve subscribed to Apple Music recently and have started creating — or rather, recreating — my iPod playlists and sharing them. This post is an experiment in embedding a link to them in WordPress. If you subscribe to Apple Music, you should be able to view and listen to the playlist in iTunes or Apple Music by clicking on the link. If you’re not an Apple Music subscriber, you can view the list in the image below. Click on the top left image if the text is too difficult to read in your browser as it displays below.

Apple Music Playlist by Jim Rovira: Cool Acoustic.

Best Episode of Dharma and Greg

I just finished watching Dharma and Greg season 3, episode 4. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s by Big Bang Theory creator Chuck Lorre. It ran from 1997 to 2002, and it explores many of the same kinds of relationships explored in Big Bang Theory, particularly that of the free-spirited woman in a relationship with an uptight man. You might think of Big Bang Theory as Dharma and Greg combined with Friends. There’s a subplot in this particular episode in which Dharma joins a garage band run by teenage boys just to get away from her husband, who as an out of work lawyer starts arguing with anyone and everyone because he has no other outlet for his skills. She gets fired from the garage band and then goes to audition for another one — which happens to be Bob Dylan’s band featuring T. Bone Burnett, Joe Walsh and others, really. Jenna Elfman, who plays Dharma, plays the drums, so jams with them. Check it out.

If the video doesn’t queue directly to episode 4, just click on the drop-down menu in the upper left hand corner of the YouTube window and select episode 4, “Play Lady Play.”

Mongolian Folk Metal: Tengger Cavalry

Yes, there is such a thing as Mongolian Folk Metal, and it is being performed by the band Tengger Cavalry. It’s post-Metallica heavy metal combined with Mongolian folk instrumentation, which gives the band a feel and sound something like Kansas or Yes playing heavy metal or Porcupine Tree with more diverse instrumentation. In the five songs I’ve listened to on their new album, Blood Sacrifice Shaman, there aren’t so much vocals as there are vocal stylizations: vocals are being used like another musical instrument. Seriously rocks, well put-together. Check it out. You can stream their entire album on the website linked above.

If you’d like to explore world folk metals, check out this video:

If anyone would like to write an essay about folk metal and Romanticism, check out the CFP.