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THE CIRCLE OF LIFE: A virtual round-table discussion about the VINYL EXPERIENCE

     The resurgence of vinyl’s popularity has brought an excitement back to the music industry. The love and passion from vinyl collectors has never waned; however, there is a new generation that is fascinated and energized by the format. The amount of record stores that closed their doors in the ‘90s and ‘00s is staggering, yet there are more new record stores opening up and operating today than just a handful of years ago. Music fans are now bonding over their vinyl purchases again, and some bands are releasing albums and singles strictly on vinyl (and we have Record Store Day to thank for much of that).  So, where does it go from here?  Instead of waxing poetic and offering one man’s opinion, I decided to invite a few other folks to offer their thoughts on vinyl-related subjects. A special thanks to those that took the time to get involved in this virtual roundtable!

Guest panelists:

  • HENRY PRIESTMAN (singer-songwriter/Yachts, The Christians, solo)
  • THOM ZIMNY (filmmaker/Wings For Wheels, The Promise, etc.)
  • KURT REIL (singer, songwriter, producer/The Gripweeds)
  • ZEEK WEEKLING (aka BOB BURGER: singer, songwriter/The Weeklings)
  • BILL KOPP (music journalist/Musocscribe, numerous liner notes)
  • LANNIE FLOWERS (singer-songwriter/The Pengwins, solo)
  • MICHAEL SIMMONS (singer, songwriter, producer/Sparklejets UK, The Yorktown Lads, etc.)
  • DAVE RAYBURN (singer-songwriter/podcast host)
  • PETER JACHIMIAK (Senior Lecturer in Media & Cultural Studies at the School of Media, University of South Wales)
  • GARY FITCH (vinyl enthusiast)
  • TIMOTHY BISHOP (podcast host)

STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Ever since CDs overtook sales of vinyl, there have been pockets of staunch vinyl supporters that insist that CDs and digital downloads sound inferior to vinyl. Do you feel that the resurgence of vinyl is directly related to this sound quality issue or do you consider it to simply be a movement born out of nostalgia?
PETER JACHIMIAK: First thing’s first, I don’t believe that vinyl ever really went away. Both professional DJs and ‘record collectors’ have – even during the heydays of both CDs and downloading/streaming – continued to champion, and buy, vinyl.
BILL KOPP: For myself, I’ve read all kinds of in-depth articles that make a pretty strong case that vinyl is not in fact “better.” I’m not buying it (the argument, that is). I suppose for me the motivation veers a bit toward nostalgia, but it’s not exactly that. I started buying vinyl when I was a pre-teen, and it’s still my preferred format.
HENRY PRIESTMAN: I think what always gets overlooked in vinyl discussions is the fact that the whole package is a thing of beauty. I still prefer vinyl because I love the sound of it, but equally I love the look of it (record and sleeve), the size of it, the smell of it, the artwork, being able to read the lyrics, and I love losing myself in a gatefold sleeve – the whole thing’s a sensory experience!
THOM ZIMNY: I see a lot of people discussing the sound differences, but also the direct connection with a past and the connection one gets with this physical product which can’t be found in any digital file. Or, the equivalent to what CD packaging offered. Just the sheer size of the artwork, the presentation, and that feeling you get when you have that moment with an album. You stare at the cover and you take in the first message that the artist is sending out to you. It can’t really be reproduced, for me, outside the vinyl realm.
ZEEK WEEKLING: It is not necessarily definable, but somehow the listening experience is different and better. Putting on a vinyl record has an “ah” effect! The music seems to have more dimension and meaning.
KURT REIL: Vinyl does sound better than CD’s and mp3‘s, if only due to the fact that the resolution is much higher, though high resolution audio closes that gap. But there is an intangible sound and ‘vibe’ that comes across from vinyl that is much gentler and warmer, more conducive to deep listening.
DAVE RAYBURN: There will always be vinyl purists who insist that the warmth and feel of analog vinyl will never be properly conveyed in a digital format. There are certainly great examples to back that up. However, in my personal experience, I think that nostalgia plays a pretty large role these days.

SPAZ: Vinyl sales continue to rise and labels are releasing more and more titles on vinyl. Are you concerned that this is just a novelty and it will die down quickly, or do you feel that the resurgence in vinyl will have longevity?
BILL: I remember something that Robyn Hitchcock told me several years ago, when discussing a vinyl reissue of some of his catalog: “A record is sort of a circular hieroglyph, if you like. And that’s another reason that at this time I’m putting everything out on vinyl, just as a kind of safety copy. Supposedly, the information [eventually] falls off of the CD. So you might be listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins or something, and then he just falls off his CD! If you’re listening on vinyl, Lightnin’ will stay in those grooves.” I think he makes a pretty strong case right there for vinyl’s long-term viability as a format.
THOM: I do think there is a generation that enjoys rejecting the experience of listening to music with a digital format and finds this idea of vinyl to be really refreshing. I don’t know it’s lifespan or if it will die down. But, I do know there’s both a difference in sound and the listening experience and I hope that it can keep going for a long time.
HENRY: As I say, you can’t fall in love with an mp3, so let’s hope it’s here to stay.
ZEEK: Vinyl does have the disadvantage of being a bit more of a hassle, and you can’t play it in the car! You really have to dedicate time to listen, and sadly people do way too little of that these days. Nonetheless, there will always be music lovers, and they will always seek out the best listening experience. Classical music halls are still in business for that reason.
KURT: No it’s not just a novelty, because LP’s span generations now, and with the trend moving towards downloads, it might be the only tangible form of music delivery that is left. The music industry likes vinyl because it must be bought and can’t be successfully pirated. Funny that the very format they used to kill vinyl wound up almost killing the industry, and vinyl now seems to be a lifeboat!
TIMOTHY BISHOP: As long as people value the listening experience (quality notwithstanding), vinyl will hold an important place in the minds of the consumer.
DAVE: I have no doubt that vinyl is here to stay on some level. The waves of its popularity may shift here and there over time, but don’t think that it will completely go away.

SPAZ: Do you feel that the ‘interactive’ element of vinyl – from album cover and inner sleeve to actually having to flip the record over to continue listening – is a big part of the vinyl LP experience?
BILL: At its best – certainly at its most fulfilling and rewarding – listening to music shouldn’t be a passive activity. Some level of interaction adds to the total experience. Think of the 1970s recording artists: all sort of time and effort went into the development of the album package, with its gatefold, posters, stickers, artwork, inner sleeve, on and on. And even the old 1950s and ’60s jazz LPs with their liner notes penned by Actual Music Journalists: those are essential part of the album experience.
THOM: Turning the record over is a huge part of the experience. It gives you that moment to take in the narrative journey of side one and continue to side two. So, having that breath where you’re forced to take in just the listening experience of side one is a great thing. With the experience of an LP you would start it many times, right from the beginning, and go through the full journey of the song, and then go onto the next song and the full journey of the side. That whole experience obviously can be altered with a playlist in the digital format. So, a little bit of the narrative thread of certain records gets lost with a generation because they simply have the freedom not to start from the beginning, play a side, and flip it over. And while you’re playing that side, you stare at the package. You stare at the gatefold. You stare at the lyrics. You stare at the producers. And it’s a secret little world that brings you in. It’s an experience that you can’t really define to people who haven’t grown up with music that way. But every time you got a new record there was a moment of opening the plastic and looking at the graphics, taking in your band, identifying with it and you were let into a secret little world. The reason there’s a secret little world is because the artist was showing you a new story. A new narrative.
ZEEK: With vinyl, you almost have to read the cover while listening. With the cover, you get to know more about the band and thus become a bigger fan. And it has a cool odor when you open a new record!
KURT: It’s a real-time tangible experience, rather than the assembly of a playlist. It demands the listener’s focus. It’s even fun to place that needle down on the record. The length of a vinyl record is also just about the amount of time of a listener’s attention span.
PETER: My answer is this: Try flipping over, in a cool way (as a DJ does), a download. Go on, just try it! I love vinyl. As you get older (and your eyes start to fail you), the size of the format that is vinyl is a blessing. You can actually read the ‘small print’ (production credits, etc.). And, as well, I love the fact that you can touch it, feel it, smell it!
GARY FITCH: Ritual is a big part of the revival of the medium. Ritual and sound quality.
DAVE: You almost need to plan on putting time aside… but that’s a good thing. The cleaning of the vinyl before you place it on the mat and drop the needle is pretty much essential.
HENRY: As old age approaches, it would be good if they could invent something that turns it over automatically!

SPAZ: Do you feel that people are now more appreciative of having a tangible piece of product in their hands rather than experiencing the music via downloads (legal or illegal), which is not as personal?
MICHAEL SIMMONS: It’s definitely paramount to me. When I am in the market for music now, I always check if there is vinyl available, and I will buy that and forego the CD entirely, especially if it comes with download cards as most do.
BILL: With so many means of getting music for “free” – Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, illegal downloads…all of which are in some ways the 21st century corollary of what we old-timers call “radio” – music that one can hold in one’s hand – an artifact, if you will – has a special value.
GARY: Vinyl is, for me, a way to experience something sonically in a different way. It’s a personal experience especially now that vinyl is no longer the only way to consume music – I view it as something very special.
DAVE: I’ve always felt that way. It was an investment. An investment I could enjoy over and over.

SPAZ: What do you feel are the main differences between the analog (vinyl) versus the digital (CD/download) listening experience?
THOM: You know, the analog experience for me… there’s a warmth in that experience, and I’m not very technical and I can’t really put it into words, but there’s a presence that fills the room differently for me than the brightness that I get with CDs or any digital recording. Again, I’m not an engineer, and this is just a very abstract way of talking about it, but it’s a feeling. And, to listen to certain records and then go to the CD of it, I feel that I lose a bit of warmth in the sound.
TIMOTHY: Passive vs. interactive. I’m not aware of any active community that bonds over shopping for mp3s.
BILL: The interactive quality that you mentioned earlier is certainly a big part. There’s something special about walking over to the record shelf, browsing through it, picking something out, carrying it across the room, and putting it on that essentially says, “I’m investing some of my time, some of myself, in this experience. Clicking on a computer keyboard is too easy and doesn’t represent that investment.
LANNIE: For me, there is something a little comforting hearing the needle drop and the pops here and there. Also I work in a digital studio. So when I listen to music at home, it gives my ears a rest by listening to analog music. It’s not as taxing on the ears.
PETER: Analog: Warm, real, meaningful. Digital: Cold, unreal, meaningless.
GARY: It forces you to be present in the music. At the very least you have to interact with the turntable every 15 minutes to turn the record over, or put on a new record. You have to really want to listen to music.

SPAZ: When the demand for vinyl died down in the ‘90s, did you notice a distinct shift in the way an artist arranged the tracks on the album? Some still worked with the idea that the album was two distinct halves (Side A and Side B) while most chose to think of the release as one whole piece…
DAVE: It all really depends on the artist and if they are trying to tell a story or simply collect their songs in a manner that flows from start to finish. Some of the more serious artists certainly focus on the four corners of an album (the opening and closing tracks on each side).
HENRY: As a musician, when I’m putting together a running order for a new album I still work on the premise that it’s two sides –i.e. tracks 1-6, then 7-12. Even when I buy a CD, I will often start at track 7 and let it run on from there (always feel sad for track 14, does anyone ever get to hear it?).
MICHAEL: I’ve learned more recently that the classic programming format of LP sides was never an artistic choice, but a scientific one. Loud, up-tempo, or aggressive tracks sound better at the beginning of a side, where the grooves are longer, straighter, and passing at higher speed. The last track on a side will perform best if it’s quiet and subdued since the tonearm is typically hitting the grooves at an angle, and the needle is travelling a bit slower. Sound quality isn’t as good in the center as it is on the outside.
ZEEK: Certainly the sequencing of the songs changed without the two side constraint. But more importantly, I think, was the fact that CDs were longer and artists felt the need to fill them up. Many, many CDs were released with lots of bad extra songs on them. If the artist had been limited to 40 minutes total, they would have made better records.
KURT: I’ve found it much easier to sequence an album with a half-point break, because it gives you two separate arcs in terms of where faster and slower songs are placed – two programs of intro through end cut. I even sequence a CD that way, and try to give a space between that serves as an ear break.
THOM: Sometimes, you look at some of the great albums and they were like eight to ten tracks. They were a cohesive message. With the CD giving the option of more time, I felt like the difference I saw between CDs and records in structure and presentation was that there was more music. Sometimes you felt, at least like a fan, I felt like wow… it would have been a great album with those eight songs but those other last three are taking it to another place.

SPAZ: Have you come to accept that the pops, clicks and skips are important parts of the vinyl experience?
BILL: I have, yes, especially since I buy quite a lot of my records used. I clean them up, but sometimes those clicks and pops are a fact of life, and the price one pays for music that still hasn’t been reissued digitally.
ZEEK: I can’t say I like pops, clicks and skips. But I don’t mind surface noise. Actually, I think it is part of what makes the vinyl sound better.
DAVE: I don’t think people look forward to it on a brand new record, but when it’s been inherent to that piece of vinyl from day one of your initial listening experience, I believe it adds to the canvas. Skips generally suck, but I take the pops, clicks, and static in stride as I keep an eye out for a cleaner copy as I make the rounds gathering new acquisitions.
THOM: I never get over the frustration of a skip. And, a pop will take me out of the track. But, there are certain tracks that I grew up with in vinyl that had a particular pop or click… and I will hear them in my head when I’m listening to them in a digital format exactly at that moment.

SPAZ: Is listening to an album today as powerful as it was many years ago when vinyl was the format of choice?
THOM: Yeah, I can return to it. There are certain things with my work and my filmmaking that I will take myself to a place of having to listen to it in vinyl format just to re-experience the power of the original sessions. And it still happens for me… I go to a certain place of nostalgia, but it’s more of a memory of how the impact of the music hit me. That’s great to use for my work and it’s also just a great experience. I will take the time out to listen to things deliberately in an analog way just because I know it will be different and it will bring back so much.
KURT: It might even be more powerful now, because I find the difference to be staggering sometimes. The first album by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is a good example of a record I loved and bonded with on vinyl but didn’t much like on CD. Another example is the first album by Big Star – I’d listened to that one many times through the years on CD until I found a vinyl reissue, which gave me a more complete picture of how that record worked and also how it should sound.
BILL: For me, without a doubt. And sharing that experience with those important to me is part of that experience, too. And when I can, I open the windows and share with my neighbors.

Thanks to Nick Kominitsky and all the members of the round table panel.