12:26am, 2 March 2016
I did something stupid at the Bon Iver concert in Singapore last week – I queued up at the merch counter right before the event and dithered between buying CDs or vinyl … and halfway through the line I decided on buying the vinyl records. Which is what I did.
Which was also really stupid, because I not only do not own a record player, I won’t be able to buy one for a few more years, given my current state of flying between countries every 3 weeks or so. I simply can’t justify having a sound system, when within a couple of years I may choose to up and move to a new country.
(Having stuff and being able to live out of a suitcase are mutually incompatible concepts, as it turns out. My compromise is to save up for a portable bluetooth speaker.)
The interesting thing, though, is why one would buy vinyl records.
To recap, vinyl is a terrible technology. Vinyl is unable to hold extreme dynamic range, it’s quiet relative to CDs, the grooves wear out or get scratched, it’s a bitch to store (though it looks great, for sure, sitting in those pretty cardboard sleeves on your bookshelves) and worst of all, the closer the stylus moves towards the centre of the record, the lousier the record sounds.
The only technical reason to own vinyl is that of the Loudness War – the tendency for CD music produced in my generation to be mastered so loudly that dynamic range is compromised; sound engineers wiping out the highest and lowest frequencies for maximum volume. From our era, at least, vinyl masters tend to produce remarkably better sounding music.
But technical reasons were not why I bought the records. I bought them because – as my friend Jin puts it – “I like the idea of owning a physical representation of a piece of music.” The first time he said that I thought he was nuts; now, however, the concept isn’t so crazy. The idea of having music suspended on grooves in a physical medium, playable with a needle in some post-apocalyptic future (where, say, we lose laser technology) really appeals to me. It appeals to me the same way paper appeals to me – I consistently buy physical books if I think them important enough to own.
And it appeals to many, I suspect, for very similar reasons. We live in a world of infinite bits; the more bits we own, the more we treasure finite atoms. The really precious photos get printed out and framed (or stored); the most-loved music gets saved in physical form, and hung from places of pride in our homes. Handwritten letters become more meaningful the easier it is to transmit thoughts from one person to another.
It’s interesting to see this effect play out in different mediums. Social status is now earned by collecting what is rare in a bit-rich world: offline experiences and physical objects – the more ridiculous the physicality, the better (think: mechanical watches, vinyl).
To some degree, that’s all Instagram is, really: a marketplace where people trade atoms and time for social recognition.
I opened my iTunes library earlier tonight, to see what albums I might consider buying records for. Not many, as it turns out: apart from the two Bon Iver LPs I now own, I would likely only purchase six others.
The rest of my music collection simply isn’t as meaningful for me to make the jump from bits to atoms. And perhaps that’s a useful test: what albums are you listening to today that you’re willing to make pressed resin copies of? You’re going to need something to listen to in that post-apocalyptic wasteland, after all.
 John Mayer’s Continuum, RHCP’s Stadium Arcadium, Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Death Cab’s Plans, Jonathan Wilson’s Fanfare and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
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