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The Vinyl Debate: Passionate or Pretentious

Alex Roberts and Michael Athey give their views on the value of vinyl records

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Image Credit: Michael Athey

Alex Roberts: Passionate

As someone who has collected vinyl records ever since my dad stopped letting me steal his, it has always been my favourite way to listen to and enjoy music. I’m not the only one either, with 2020 marking the first year in more than a generation since vinyl records outsold CDs, meaning vinyl is as popular as it’s ever been.

The growing popularity of streaming services has made music widely available, so much so that it’s everywhere: in every shop, café, gym and even supermarket. Music provides a constant background to our daily lives. This means that listening to records allows for a rare experience, one where the music provides the activity, rather than the backdrop. As Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails once said “it's an experiential thing, you know, you have to touch it, you have to figure out where to put it, you know, you see it when you walk past it. It exists in the physical world.” As pretentious as that sounds, it’s true, owning a physical copy makes listening a much more immersive and interesting experience. In terms of music as a form of art, there really is no better format than vinyl.

Indeed, vinyl records allow for a greater appreciation of an album, rather than just treating it as a collection of songs. The fact that you must listen to the album from the start to the end is often seen as a major disadvantage, but it really allows the artist’s creative vision to come to life; from the radio station style section in between tracks in Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf to the slowly evolving poem in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. These concepts can only be fully appreciated while listening to the whole album in one sitting, and vinyl records allow for the best way to do just that. It leads to an experience where you can focus on the music, and it won’t just fade into the background. While it may be less convenient, it is much more engaging, audibly and visually, with the sleeves and cover art adding a new dimension to the music that’s difficult to find in any other format.

Furthermore, buying physical copies of albums is much better in terms of supporting the artist. Spotify’s record for poorly paying artists, especially smaller ones, is infamous. It is estimated that on average, non-‘top tier’ Spotify artists earn around $12 per month from streams. This meagre pay means that most artists survive off touring and physical record sales, and with live shows on hold for now, buying merch and records is by far the best way to support your favourite artists.

A large criticism about vinyl is that it is too expensive for most people. However, it is becoming cheaper and cheaper as it gets more popular. Second-hand records, in good condition, can be found for as little as £2. Visiting record stores also adds to the experience, providing a great opportunity to discover new music and meet people with similar interests and tastes. In fact, some of my favourite albums have been the ones recommended to me by people in record stores.

They last too, with a reasonably well looked after record from the eighties sounding as good now as it did when it was first played. The fragility of vinyl is often over-exaggerated; whilst they can occasionally warp and scratch, this is rare if they are stored and looked after correctly. In fact, the longevity of vinyl is another major advantage of them, a sentiment that is echoed by many artists, with Fatboy Slim saying “music has pretty much become disposable, which is a shame because vinyl was never disposable. Even if you got bored with your records, you put them in a charity shop and someone else would buy them. Digital music doesn’t have that iconic status; it’s not the central object of desire, translated from the people who make the music to the people who listen to it.” This supports the affordable nature of vinyl too, as most records hold their value, and there is a huge market for second-hand vinyl.

Vinyl as a format is here to stay, and for good reason. It’s surprisingly affordable, the records themselves are easy to maintain, and it helps support the artists more than most other formats. In terms of the listening experience, it remains unmatched, without even going into the improved sound quality that it offers – which can be noticed without buying high end hardware. While it may not be the most convenient, it offers a rare chance to enjoy music the way the artist intended, in a way that no other format can replicate.

Michael Athey: Pretentious

In recent years, the vinyl industry across the world is witnessing an impressive resurgence. Once thought to be an extinct technology, first trampled into the grave by CDs and then streaming giants like Spotify, vinyl has been resurrected and is now an industry that continues to grow with each passing year.

This resurgence has coincided with a rising community who speak of vinyl in elitist terms – the infamous ‘vinyl snobs’. They laud vinyl’s recent resurgence as the return of a prodigal son, rising from the ashes to finally establish immortal dominance as the superior musical format. Ultimately, this debate on vinyl is hyperbolic and tiresomely arbitrary, and saddest of all, it's distracting us from what is actually important about music.

Of course, this isn’t to say I want to tear vinyl lovers down from their pedestal of righteousness and throw them under the bus entirely – for one as a recent buyer of a record player I’d be under said bus too – because there are genuine aspects of vinyl worth celebrating.

Vinyl’s distinct features allow unique and interesting ways of viewing albums as an artform. Due to the two sides on an LP, album sequencing gets blown wide open with new considerations. Whereas in other formats the album plays all the way through with no interruptions on vinyl there is. Consequently, artistic decisions have to be made over which songs open sides as well as close them. It’s a music nerdy point but I love it. Another music nerdy soft spot of mine that vinyl indulges is album cover art. Being able to place the artwork around my room and admire it in all its LP sized glory is something even other physical formats such as CDs just aren’t quite able to do.

And yes, to their credit, the hum and scratch of that initial needle drop which induces bliss from Vinyl elitists worldwide is somewhat satisfying.

But vinyl having enjoyable aspects does not mean that the elitism that surrounds the format is justified. For me such an argument could only be merited if vinyl lacked flaws or if other formats didn’t have elements that were superior to vinyl – which, unfortunately for vinyl snobs, is false on both accounts. The blatant culprit is the portability, or rather the lack of, that vinyl has, significantly limits how much time you actually listen using your record player. Loving an album and want to continue to listen whilst you walk to a lecture? Tough luck. Imagining the hustling and bustling world we live in without the opportunity to get from A to B with the comforting refuge of some music coming through my headphones is thoroughly unappealing.

There is an issue of affordability and subsequent accessibility towards vinyl too. Of course, purchasing vinyl is much better for artists than the miniscule amounts of payment that streaming services siphon back to them. Sadly however, what is good for artists is not always what’s good for the individual making the purchase. Spending £20 on an artist’s new record seems irrational in comparison to £9.99 a month to access not just that artist’s record but essentially all the music in the world. Second-hand record stores and charity shops provide a cheaper alternative but at the cost of not being able to listen to newly released records and the recurring problem of artists not receiving adequate payment. This doesn’t even take into account the hefty fee you have to fork out to buy a record player – even heftier if you want one that won’t be sneered at by a vinyl snob. Depicting vinyl as the be all or end all for music lovers’ risks isolating many of them due to finance.

Alienation is par for the course with elitism, and that goes for vinyl snobs, CD connoisseurs or streaming sovereigns. Frankly, the debate over the superiority of different listening formats is arbitrary: there’s pros and cons to all. What does matter is how listening to music makes you feel. After all, when you discover a thrilling new artist, album, or song you don’t rush out to tell people about the intricacies of what you listened on, but what you listened to! That is the real joy of music. In my eyes it is very much like faith, you should never tell someone how to worship their faith because it’s about their own personal connection. Likewise, with music whether you listened on vinyl or digitally, it is obsolete, in comparison to how it made you feel.

“To vinyl or not to vinyl?” – that is the wrong question; and sadly, misses what’s loveable about listening to music. Forming connections through embracing everyone’s passion over the actual music they’re listening to rather than what format they listened on will always be more special than the sound of the needle dropping ever could be.

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