The Art of Consumption: Vinyl revival in the digital age

By Jos Gogarty

The Art of Consumption: When combined, the internet age and the resurgence of vinyl give a far deeper appreciation of music than either one on its own.

The Vinyl Revival: just like the other buzz-phrases in music criticism’s hyperactive circus, it’s something that loses more and more meaning the more you look at it. What started out as a borderline-pretentious hipster trend has ballooned into something infinitely bigger: now you can buy it at a chain of multi-national clothing stores (Urban Outfitters), and hardly a day goes by without an article documenting it in some way or another. In short, it has become that most ephemeral of concepts, a Thing.

I certainly wasn’t unaware of this as I bought a few LPs (on Amazon of all places) a couple of months ago, already wondering if I wasn’t just indulging in misplaced retro-ism as the order went through. As someone growing up in the 2000s, I caught the tail-end of the decline of physical formats. And while I wasn’t old enough to actually understand about what was going on in the wider sense (of the rise of file-sharing and then iTunes), it certainly impacted on me. I don’t remember the first time I went online with my music, but those years have left me with a lingering nostalgia for the square plastic cases and lyric booklets of my small childhood CD collection, and a preference for liner notes over Wikipedia searches. But CDs always seemed to be a stopgap creation, and as the underlying itch for physical music finally manifests itself, I find myself browsing for turntables online, just as thousands of others must be doing alongside me.

Of course the digital age has many benefits, and personally I think we’re living in a golden age for music, as subcultures and scenes unravel and merge into a chaotic and glorious buffet of sounds to inspire listeners and creators alike. To be able to browse, play and download most of all the recorded music ever made for little-to-no cost has had an immeasurable impact on music as both an art-form and cultural force. While a sustainable and fair economic structure in this brave new world is still being thrashed out, you can’t help but feel smugly optimistic in the face of the gloomy despair the old guard comes out with. And artists are already adapting to this: the best music of recent years feels strong and assured in the modern age, embracing the rushing torrent of content rather than trying to stem it. A whole new strain of R&B (with Nostalgia, ULTRA and The Weeknd’s mixtape trilogy being the best examples) has taken the mix of chaos and curiosity that late-night datPiff and Soundcloud marathons bring and embedded it in the music itself, with a detached pathos that’s just as riveting as its forebears. The traditional ideal is that music requires analog warmth and real instruments to make a meaningful emotional connection with the listener, yet much of modern music achieves this with the exact opposite. In many ways, a singer pouring his heart out on a quantized mp3 file provides us with more feeling, more humanity in the very fact of its shortcomings, than one on a lush slice of audiophile heaven.

This new context of listening doesn’t just impact on contemporary recordings though. When revered albums end up as small icons in the corner of your Spotify browser, the huge cultural baggage surrounding them simply melts away; when these hallowed sets of waveforms aren’t tied down in a lavish reissue or a battered CD your uncle gave you, you can actually hear them with more insight and clarity. You can hear them more for what they actually sound like, rather than what people think they are. The typical argument against digital is that without paying for and physically buying music, it inherently isn’t as valuable to us. From the traditional viewpoint, this lack of value equals a lack of emotional connection. However, this lack of material value can make our response to the music purer: we weren’t given it, we didn’t have to pay for it and go out and buy it; all that matters is the music itself. The only type of music I can think of where this has a detrimental effect is the worst sort of throwaway pop, music that people buy for the sake of buying music and isn’t designed to have any sort of staying power. Even here though it seems in fact to be a good thing – it challenges the supply side of the market to up their game, and for artists to create and labels to supply music that lasts us longer. The popularity of streaming increases this effect exponentially, as the revenue (and to put it cynically, therefore the motivation) is not in creating music that lots of people will buy right now, but in music that people will listen to repeatedly and still listen to in the months and years after release.

Yet in this headlong rush forward, we are in danger of losing something. The digital age is brilliant for expanding and diversifying your music collection, but what about those albums and songs that mean the most to you, that have impacted on your life so much they feel like an essential part of your identity? Suddenly, the little icon on your computer screen feels a little inadequate, and you long for a physical artefact to focus your love on to something tangible. It is here that I think vinyl still has a place; not as a mass money-maker or trendy prop, but as a necessary counterweight to the unavoidable downsides of streaming and downloading. For every great album that’s released, there will be people to whom it will mean so much more to than others, and with a strong, sustainable record industry in place, those listeners will be able to make a conscious choice to lift that music from the rushing stream and bring it into their lives physically. While this paragraph and the one above it may seem contradictory, they’re not: there’s a crucial different between having your opinion of music artificially influenced by its physical presentation and availability, and buying records because you’ve already formed a solely personal attachment to the music.

Having said that, we must be careful in not going too far the other way. As well as the earlier point about how medium changes content (in this case, digital making for a far more objective and individualistic listening experience than vinyl), nowadays music listeners have far more power as consumers to support artists and shape the industry than they used to. Power that is taken almost wholly from record labels, and is given back to the artists themselves. If we all abandoned iTunes and bought records instead, we’d have to buy a band’s newest album rather than its superior predecessor, as that’s the one in the shops, and we’d have to send the single to the top of the charts rather than a diamond-in-the-rough album cuts. As well as that, the more esoteric music out there (which can have just as big an effect on people’s lives as more mainstream stuff) will vanish from the reach of millions who don’t have the right knowledge, catalogues or local records stores. In my mind at least, that’s a past I don’t want to go back to.

The LPs that I bought now sit on my shelf unused, as shamefully, I haven’t got round to buying a turntable yet. Yet that very fact, that people will buy physical copies of albums they can’t even play yet, says a lot about a surviving need for something concrete in a digital world. In short, my manifesto is a large and dizzyingly-varied digital library, and a much smaller physical collection of the listener’s most important music, the emotional core in many ways. As the decade progresses, and the industry finally starts to settle and adapt to the digital world, I hope that this ‘Vinyl Revival’ (for want of a better phrase) persists. For then we will have something no grumbling old rock star can ever lay claim to: both the exhilarating choice and freedom that the internet brings, and something solid to latch onto.


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