Get Out Those Old Phonograph Records

taken from KORD 102.7 FM

One time I was asked how it was possible to listen to a rectangle. But it was a subtle way for a technologically illiterate baby-boomer to pry into my life, and then feel compelled to tell me his “back in my day” story about vinyl records. Like most old people, he pretended like I was not aware that music existed before compact discs and MP3 players, and gave me a brief history of the phonograph record. “To listen to music we had to drop a needle on these fragile, black discs,” he said. “Try to wrap your mind around that.” Once he believed that I understood the concept of a needle and a groove, he listed the groovy records he once owned: Rubber Soul, Tower of Power, Tapestry, My Favorite Things–the list seemed never ending.

What was more important, however, was the role vinyl played in his life. Every album had a story. Sociologist and musicologist Theodor Adorno had a peculiar way of explaining this role, and claimed in his essay, “The Form of the Phonograph Record,” that “records are possessed like photographs,” and become “herbaria of artificial life that are present in the smallest space and ready to conjure up every recollection that would otherwise be mercilessly shredded between the haste and hum-drum of private life.”

Album art for "Odessey and Oracle" by the Zombies–taken from mental_floss

I would agree with Adorno’s statement. The old man told me of the time he first heard the White Album. He said his father overheard him listening and they got into an argument over long hair. Then he explained what it was like ripping the plastic from a new album: the cardboard cover was firm and glossy, the paper sleeve was crisp and white, and he was always reluctant to play the record because the virgin black vinyl was always spotless; no dust, no scratches. There was something else about an album that he didn’t feel admirable about later in life. “My friends and I used to roll our marijuana joints on the album covers,” he said. “But everybody did that then.”

Liner notes for "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis, written by Bill Evans–taken from Big and Strong

It became clear to me then that a record was not just, as Adorno would say, an “acoustic photograph.” Although records are material possessions that have the power to conjure up recollections from our boring lives, they also add a new dimension to the listening experience. Along with music, there’s the visual feature of the album art, and the literary aspect of the liner notes–a complete artistic package. A record in its complete physical form can produce more than just a memory; it brings aesthetic pleasure.

When I look down now at that rectangular device that contains all of my music, I wonder of its significance in my life, and Adorno’s thoughts are possibly more meaningful in our time. How meaningful is the listening experience when music is merely an mp3 file on a hard-drive, that we then transfer to an iPod, and then attach to our arms before we run on a treadmill? Music is influential as it is, but as a possession I believe it is necessary to own a physical copy of an album, even in CD format, or else songs on an iPod may only become “acoustic photographs.”

Recently, however, recording artists have been releasing vinyl copies of their albums along with a free, one time only, mp3 download of the album. This is a good idea because one can buy the complete, aesthetic package of an album, and then do as they wish with the mp3’s. Perhaps iTunes could one day add an option to receive a vinyl copy in the mail with every full album purchase, rather than a digital album booklet.

Until then, enjoy this:

  1. jrdacula said:

    I definitely agree with you on the notion that “it is necessary to own a physical copy of an album, even in CD format, or else songs on an iPod may only become “acoustic photographs.” I tried to explain this to a friend of mine, who replied to me with a refuting argument that “only the music matters.” That may very well be true, but like the baby boomer you describe in your post, there’s just something about having a physical copy of a recording that makes it one’s possession of it more legitimate But, yes. This post is one reason why I have to have cover art for all my music on my iPod; if iTunes doesn’t recognize it, I search for the cover art online and manually add it in. Cover art on my iPod is the next best thing to CD inserts, but I’d take the CD insert any day. If only it were cheaper it buy the CD then to download the music…at least for me, most of the time I can save a few bucks by downloading off of Amazon or another online music store.

  2. I agree with what you said and jrdacula reiterated. Most people are visual beings and with something like music physical artifacts such as phonographs and CDs are really all we have. You can’t touch an MP3, but you can touch the CD. I have a lot of friends who have their iPods full of illegal downloads and most of it is just random unorganized files and to the iPod owner it really devalues the music, if you think about it. If their MP3 files are unorganized they are most likely to leave it like that and not really value the file.
    Taking a step further than agreeing with you, I would argue that you actually would need a physical representation of the music (CD or vinyl) to reach a level of respect for the music you own.

  3. CDs (I’m using this example because I’m not hip enough to own a record player) have their downsides-they get scratched, cracked, put into the wrong case…are heavy when you have to pack up and move to a new place, get lost, and get “borrowed” forever. And if you’ve got a wall full of unorganized CDs, it can take half an hour trying to locate the one you NEED to listen to at that moment. With iTunes, you just type the song or artist name in the little search box, and boom- you’re listening to it a second later. Digital music is convenient. But it just isn’t romantic enough for me. I feel like as listeners, we get to interact more with the music if we interact with that physical part of it. This is making me think about paper books vs. digital. Anyone have a Kindle or Nook?

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