Friday, January 2, 2015

On the duality of digital music and the vinyl record

You know that weird feeling you get when you predict a trend years in advance, at the time everybody tells you that you're crazy, then when it comes to fruition everybody thinks you're just jumping on the bandwagon.  The sense of smug self-satisfaction can only quell the hunger for universal recognition of your brilliance just so much.

That's how I feel about the growing trend of vinyl's reemergence.

When it became clear that mp3s where going to push the CD the way of the dodo, I saw this as clear as day.  I told everybody that vinyl records were going to make a comeback, and that eventually they'd be the most purchased form of physical music again.  Making a comeback was one thing, as you could define that however you wanted, because nobody was buying vinyl at the time, outside of people buying them at used record stores to simply use as wall art. Basically any sales at all could be framed as "making a comeback."  But I was saying much more, that they'd eventually surpass CDs in sales.  That was something insane to say in 2002, but I said it.  And now I'm just a bandwagoning hipster for saying it again. Hrumph and get off my damned lawn.

While admittedly some of this blog post is about a yearning for recognition of my jaw dropping prescience, now that we have that out of the way, I want to talk about the reasons why vinyl has re-emerged: why you could see this coming if you really thought about peoples' relationships with music (which record companies obviously never considered, probably because they think that they themselves dictate peoples' relationships with music).

First, let's talk about why vinyl went away, that is vinyl's seeming weaknesses.

1) They're expensive.  A vinyl record is a large, brittle, easily damaged disc that only stores music, that's made out of fucking oil.  It needs a large square holder to store it in, because it will warp if stored horizontally, it distorts if dust gets into the grooves, and circular discs tend to roll off shelves on their own.  It's expensive to make, it's expensive to ship and great care has to be taken in its upkeep.

2) They require large, specialized and expensive gear.  Turntables are very precise instruments.  You can play an mp3 these days on devices you already own (phone and computer).  A turntable is only good for playing music.  Bad ones sound bad and mess up your records.  Good ones are fucking expensive.  You can't carry a good one to your friend's house very easily.

3) They're difficult to transport.  DJ stands for disc jockey (not something everybody knows these days) and the term used to literally mean that.  Originally DJs weren't paid to beat match, or remix songs or really even worry about creating perfect set lists.  DJs originally were just paid because records were expensive and difficult to transport, that is they were paid to jockey discs (i.e. records).  So if you were having a party and wanted a wide variety of music, you couldn't simply find your bluetooth speakers on your computer and then surf over to spotify.  You had to pay a dude who had a shit ton of records and equipment to lug huge boxes of expensive and temperamental records across town and then stand there all night and change them as people desired.  You were a DJ simply because you were stupid enough to spend thousands of dollars on music and then cart it around town and socially awkward enough to not want to talk to anybody at a party.  You were not a DJ because you've cultivated the sickest EDM mixed with party favorites and you wanted to have sex with girls on ecstasy.

4) You can't play them in a car. While this is really just a combination of reasons 2&3, it was probably the biggest thing that brought about the decline of vinyl compared to 8-Tracks, tapes, CDs, mp3s and now streaming on demand music services.  People listen to a lot of music in a car.  You can't do that with vinyl.

Putting all of this in perspective, it's easy to see why vinyl faded from popularity relatively quickly.  Reasons 3&4 were the first to be addressed with the advent of the 8-Track.  You could beat the hell out of an 8-Track and it would still play.  They were comparatively compact.  They wouldn't warp too bad in the heat of a car.  These two alone were enough on their own to put the writing on the wall for vinyl.  Tapes really polished off reasons 1&2.  Tapes were relatively small, cheap to make, didn't skip, could be played with relatively cheap players that most every car included.

The CD was, in a lot of ways just an evolution of these trends.  They were smaller, and wouldn't slowly degrade over time unless you scratched them very bad.  Ultimately though the two big things that the CD had going for it were instantaneous track skipping and the multi-disc changer.  These two items are what ultimately killed the tape.

For the entire history of music up to this point consumers essentially had to choose between buying single songs you liked or the entire album.  If you bought the 45 single, you missed out on the artist's "entire vision" and were also paying more per song.  If you bought the album, you had to painstakingly physically skip to the song you wanted to hear.  With records this actually took skill, as you had to get up, count the grooves, pick up the arm, drop the arm onto the precise point in the actual fucking disc where the song was and probably still either start it too early or too late.    Tapes made this a bit easier, but still required you to hit a wind or re-wind button, which were huge culprits in slowly wearing out your tapes and you often accidentally went back too far anyway.  With CDs you could hit a single button and voila, your song was playing.  You no longer had to choose between a single and an album, you could have the full experience with both with a CD player and the full album.  Play only the singles if you want, or also play the entire album, the choice was yours.

The multi-disc changer allowed you to have a jukebox at your house.  This was actually a huge deal at the time, though we all take it for granted now.  With a push of a couple of buttons you could go from hearing The Allman Brothers Band to The New York City Orchestra playing Stravinsky.  This was previously only possible if you owned a gigantic and wildly expensive personal jukebox, or if you made a mix tape.  But mix tapes were fixed and whatever blend you made was that way until you re-recorded over it.  The CD and multi-disc changer allowed you to follow your whims and create your own musical adventure at the push of a couple of buttons.  I remember the first time my family got a multi-disc changer and were just awestruck by the goddamn shuffle all discs and songs button.  We'd hit the thing and we'd all literally sit there trying to guess which song it would play next.  It seems incredibly laughable now, but in 1992 it was a huge fucking deal and somewhat shifted our relationships with music.

The CD, however, was still just a physical medium for music.  This began to become clearer when people first discovered that you could actually transfer the digital content of a CD to your computer.  This wasn't much use at the time, since most hard drives were less than 1 GB (yeah, stunning) and thus could really only hold one CD before it filled the damn thing up.  But it was clear that this was temporary, as that was only a limitation of technology, not a limitation of form.  Eventually two things allowed this realization to become a practical fruition: mp3 compressing and larger hard drives.

Larger hard drives are pretty self-explanatory.  They just slowly (or not so slowly) kept having larger and larger capacity in smaller and smaller enclosures.  So, let's focus for a second on mp3 encoding.

MP3 encoding was born out of a desire to store music on space limited hard drives.  CDs were non-compressed forms of music.  They had their technical limitations that meant that they stored less information than records, but that's a highly technical, nitpicky side track we won't get off on, because it's basically irrelevant for our intents and purposes.  That meant that if a CD had 10 seconds of blank space, it took up just as much hard drive space as 10 seconds of Jimi Hendrix's solo in Machine Gun.  MP3 encoders also found a lot of other tricks based on the nature of how humans hear (we can't hear below 20Hz or above 20 kHz, we don't perceive soft sounds that quickly follow loud sounds and all other sorts of things).  MP3 encoders took these things and came up with a way to compress music, at varying levels of sound fidelity, so that it didn't take up nearly as much space on a hard drive (or any digital storage medium for that matter).

For a while this technology laid dormant.  People already owned CD players.  Your computer with a dedicated program was the only available MP3 player.  On top of all that the CD-Rom was already a part of computers and thus it would play your CDs anyway.  In its advent the mp3 was a technology that fixed a problem nobody cared about.  The mp3 was a huge deal because it meant that you didn't need a physical medium for your music, but nobody really gave a shit for a while.

Then came the internet.

While the mp3 was originally invented so that we could fit lots of music on our hard drives, compressing it gave another advantage that was ultimately why people cared about it to begin with.  Eventually people kind of realized that we had this medium for transferring digital information and that music, first by the CD and then by the mp3 had become solely digital information.  It didn't take a scientist to figure out you could put the two together and and transfer music over the internet (well, actually it did take a scientist in practice, but not concept).  There was just one problem: the early internet was very slow.

To transfer a single CD over circa 1998 internet speeds would have taken multiple days.  To get this down to manageable levels, we needed mp3 compression (and often a whole fucking lot of compression, to the point where you couldn't differentiate the saxophones and violins on that sick DMB bootleg you scored on napster).  But this changed music consumption in the most fundamental way since the invention of the vinyl record itself.

If for the first time the vinyl record allowed people to listen to music without having to have it performed live, the mp3 and internet allowed us to have music without having to own it in any real sense.

At first the paradigm was viewed as if we owned it.  We did, after all, own the hard drives where by some sort of magic that none of us actually understands, it is stored.  But really, did we own it?  We almost never actually paid for it.  You couldn't hold it.  You could hold your computer, but you were then holding the device that you used, not the music itself.  When you held up an LP of Abbey Road that you bought with your allowance, you were holding a part of The Beatles.  The MP3 had divorced music from being a physical thing.  It also began to divorce us from the idea that recorded music was something we needed to pay for in an absolute sense.  Since we didn't really own music any longer in a physical sense, why did we need to pay for it?

For a while the mp3 was only a transfer medium, as mp3s happened so fast, and record companies were so against them. Outside of a desktop computer most people had no way to play an mp3 other than to burn it to a CD.  Which when you really think about it is profoundly silly, but we did it by the truckloads of burned CDs.

Remember how the mp3 was originally envisioned as a way for us to store music in a compressed form on a computer?  Well, here we were undoing that and putting it on physical disks again, that is writeable CD rom disks.  It was clear that this was a temporary solution, as it would be wildly more efficient to simply play the digital file on a device designed to directly play mp3s.  But those devices didn't exist at the time and everybody already owned a CD player.  But however much record companies tried to hold back the inevitable flow of history, in retrospect it was clear that the mp3 player would soon become a thing, no matter how much you didn't see it in 2003 while you were burning Phish's entire discography on discs that you painstakingly wrote out the track listing for with a sharpie (and then later used other files to make a mix CD for that road trip with the girl you secretly had a crush on).

There were other mp3 players, but it's pretty non-controversial to state that ultimately the iPod was the piece of technology that ultimately killed the CD.  We didn't need CDs to get music, we didn't need CDs to play music, ergo we didn't need CDs.  CDs, while once small and transferrable were now considered big and bulky.  They tended to skip with either hitting a bump in the road or if you scratched the disc.  With the iPod there was no disc to skip or scratch and you could carry tens of CDs worth of music on a device roughly the size of a single tape.  CDs held on for a while because car stereos had CD players and not mp3 players.  But this was a problem whose solution was as complicated as allowing you to plug in a cable from the headphone jack of your mp3 player into your car stereo.  That is ultimately a pretty damn easy problem to solve.

The next major product that finally put the nail in the coffin for the idea of music as a physical thing you own was the iPhone and always-on data connected to an mp3 player.  It took a while for people to put this together, but music transfers via data. The iPhone plays digital data based music. A data connection transfers data.  You can stream music that isn't even stored on any device you own to your ears!  Even if you paid for music now, via a streaming service, nobody had the feeling that they actually owned it any longer, and they were okay with that (Steve Jobs' original insistence that people would vehemently NOT be okay with this was about the only thing he ever got wrong about the way the music industry was ultimately turning).

That's where music roughly stands today.  There's really no physical aspect to music, we can play basically whatever music we want and we have no illusions that we own it.

Let's look at Steve Jobs assertion that people wanted to own the music they had.  Steve was a brilliant guy obviously, and he was probably the single most in tune person to the way people felt about music of anybody, how could he mess this up?  It's actually not because he was completely wrong, I think he was actually at least partially right, he just didn't understand that this yearning to own music already wasn't being fulfilled by the technology he was partly responsible for.

Steve took a sort of lawyerly view of digital ownership of music.  That is he believed people wanted to have digital music files that were theirs.  But I don't think people ever really felt this way.  People didn't really care how they got their digital music, just that they got it.  They never felt a sense of ownership over it, since it wasn't a physical product at all, and if they bought it at all, they bought it through an online store where they clicked their mouse over a portion of a screen and it automatically deducted money from their credit card.

I think Steve was absolutely correct that a lot of people want to own music in the way that a lot of people want to own art.  He just misunderstood what it meant for a person to feel an ownership connection to their music.  They never really felt that way with MP3s, even in the few cases where people were actually paying for MP3s.

Peoples' relationship with music is multi-faceted, but for our purposes here, let's separate it into two aspects.  The simple hearing of music, and the ownership of it as an act of owning a work of art.  To understand this let's think of the difference between owning a painting and visiting a museum.

You visit a museum, and let's say that the museum lets you take pictures of the art.  Maybe you pay for this visit, maybe you don't.  But you never feel like you own the Michelangelo painting you're looking at, even if you paid $20 to get in and you take a digital picture which you then put on your computer.  You don't have any illusions that you own that art.  You own a picture of the art, sort of, but you never feel like you own the art.  You enjoyed looking at it when you were at the museum (along with all the other paintings you viewed) maybe you even immensely enjoyed it, but you don't feel like you own it in any real sense.  Now let's say you buy an artwork from an artist at a fair.  You talk to the artist or salesman, you buy it, you take it home, you put it on your wall, it's yours.

That's what our relationship music is like.  And the current age allows us to scratch both of these artistic itches simultaneously, really for the first time in world history.

Previously because these two desires were bound together, the various mediums we used to fulfill them were always bound in compromise.  When we just wanted to listen to the music, the bulky physical form it had to take was an inconvenience.  When we wanted to be connected to art that we owned a gigantic mp3 track list felt hollow.

We have arrived to the point of complete physical disconnection of the listening aspect.  If you just want to listen to a song, virtually any song recorded since 1940, you can do it, instantaneously and at relatively low cost.  However, Steve Jobs was right.  A lot of people do have a desire to feel a physical artistic ownership connection to their music.

While we have now created a near perfect "music museum" allowing us to experience any music in the history of recorded music, the owning art aspect has suffered.  We don't really feel the same connection to our music as the teenage girl in the '60s felt to her copy of Meet The Beatles.  So let's think about what is missing.

Part one is the physical part of the music.  We are a people of physical objects, for good or ill.  We want stuff, we especially want meaningful stuff.  We really love meaningful stuff that we can touch and interact with.  We haven't had this since the CD, and even then we had what was a fairly bullshit version.  CD art was pretty shitty, a small booklet.  We almost always stored the mountains of jewel cases for our CDs in a dark closet and stored the CDs in large books we took with us.  Really we haven't had much a physical object connection to our music since... vinyl.

Part two is the view of a work of music as a whole.  2 minutes and 45 seconds is only sort of a work of art.  There's nothing wrong with just listening to a single and then moving on to another song by another artist, but it is a profoundly different act than listening to an entire album.  But people can sometimes be lazy and impulsive, even when they don't want to be.  Great art makes you work a little bit to understand it, to appreciate it.  When we constantly hit the skip button to our favorite songs, we are often just re-experiencing highs.  We aren't really attempting to understand anything new.  A great album is a work of art both in its particulars and in its whole.  Since the CD, we haven't really experienced that.  People rarely listen to albums front to back.  It's so easy to not put in the effort and hit skip.

Part three is letting the music wash over us in a meditative sense.  This is somewhat related to part two, but still different and important enough to warrant its own mention.  One aspect of music that we love is its ability to take us away.  That we can sit back and take 45 minutes of our day and relax and experience the sublime.  You can't really do this when jarringly different songs from completely different artists are constantly coming up.  We definitely can't do this when we are having to think "what do I want to hear next?" every 3 minutes.

Part four is going to a place, thinking about what we like, what we don't like and what we are willing to pay money for in order to have.  One under discussed aspect of the move to music as digital is that it's so easy to acquire it, that takes virtually no thought or physical action.  People don't read music reviews any more because the investment in reading the music review is larger than simply buying or downloading or streaming the album in the first place.  But there's something to be said for going to a record store, maybe talking to an actual person or maybe getting lost in flipping the titles and thinking "do I want to pay $25 for that?" that is an itch many of us need scratched.  As a teen I could spend hours just wandering around a music store going through the possibilities.  When I brought home the album, it was special, I immediately went upstairs and listened to it front to back, usually several times.  These days I have literally thousands of albums on my hard drive that I've never even listened to a single goddamn time.

Part five is a ritual of time and place and atmosphere.  My phone is every damn place I go.  I listen to music at my desk, in my car, on my run, while cooking dinner, while showering, while grocery shopping, while walking the dog, basically any time and place Im not actively engaged in a conversation with a person (and even then music is often in the background).  It used to be that your music player was in a place, a single place, and it was relatively difficult to move.  At my parents house exists a music room: a room dedicated to the playing and listening of music.  The speakers are in a certain spot that is good for sound, you sit in certain places to listen.  Music playing is something you engage in, not something that is happening in the same way that the wind is blowing.

Putting these together, the best medium we have to fulfill what is missing in our musical lives is fairly clearly the long passed by vinyl LP.

The vinyl LP is big, it has large art, the packaging in and of itself is art.  It takes up space in your life.

The vinyl LP is difficult to skip songs on.  It more or less forces you to listen to albums as a whole.  It forces you to stake out some time in your day when what you are doing is listening to music, where music is the thing you are doing, not a thing that is happening around you while you do other things.

The vinyl LP is most often purchased at specialized stores.  You usually flip through bins of thousands of albums, taking in the history of the music in the process and forcing yourself to think "what do I really want?" Because the decision is of some consequence, we often read things, and talk to people, or have a conversation with ourselves about what we really value in music and art and life.

The vinyl LP is played by a device, in a place, forcing us to be still.  There's a ritual of thinking about what you want to listen to, taking it out of the jacket, putting it on the player, sitting in your chair, putting your head back and really taking it in.  Rituals and stillness are important parts of human existence, no matter how much they may not fit in to modern life.

The vinyl LP fills a lot of these wholes in our existence.  And that's why it's coming back.  It's not coming back in spite of the incredible innovation of digital music, it's coming back because of it.  We have the best of both worlds these days.  We live in a world technologically advanced enough that we can have whatever music we want whenever we want it at no significant cost.  We also live in a society well enough off materially that we can waste a fuck lot of oil, and time, and space just embracing art in the form of a storage format that looked to all the world to be dead.

Because we pay so little for our digital music these days, and we're a relatively affluent society, we're freed to pay exorbitant amounts for our absolute favorite music in vinyl format.  Not many people are running out buying copies of Creed on vinyl, but the latest Sturgill Simpson album has sold more vinyl copies than physical CDs.  You're embarrassed to have a really shitty vinyl LP in a way that you're absolutely not ashamed if somebody sees your spotify most recent played list, or even your iTunes track listing.

The mp3 and the vinyl record are not at all at odds, they're the yin and yang of our needs from music as a part of our lives.