The first time I saw a vinyl record, I didn’t know what I was looking at. It was wide and glossy and black, and I ran my fingers along the grooves. The paper label in the middle said it was Eric Clapton’s song “Layla.” The needle came down like a plastic snake with its fangs exposed, and sure enough, it started to hiss. A few pops, and the incendiary opening to that great rock song tore out of the speakers. Somehow, this compressed Frisbee played music, and it sounded so much richer than the CDs I bought myself at Hot Topic that I just sat and stared. I couldn’t get over how much had changed since this turntable had been on the cutting edge of technology. If someone had told me my CDs would be obsolete before I went to college, I would never have believed it.
My first mixtapes were terrible. The tag end of DJs’ hackneyed introductions cut into the beginnings of songs, and ads for mattress discounters often ruined the final chord. Hours of sitting beside the radio waiting for the right song to play paid off in warbling, fragile recordings of pop edited for radio play. Burning my own discs was like a revelation after that, and I amassed three fat CD magazines of purchased and pirated music. The format was not durable, but at least it was mine.
When I got my first iPod, I deliberately shook and juggled it. I had cursed my Discman a thousand times for the way it skipped when I rode my bike or walked or even so much as bumped it. I scratched up expensive discs, and they stopped working. My iPod was loaded with thousands of songs that I couldn’t destroy, and no matter what I did, it didn’t skip. I would never have to hold the player level, fast forward or rewind again. This was the future of music.
Napster was the glorious arbiter of all things, and I taught myself to download. iTunes in the street, Limewire in the sheets. Gnutella and Kazaa and The Pirate Bay became the refuge of those seeking songs, but one after another fell to the feds or the RIAA. Debate raged over the rights to copy and share with the argument centered around digital rights and what it means to own something.
What it means to own a huge collection of music that fits in your pocket is compression. It means minimized files that sacrifice the richness and dimensions of studio recording in order to exist in the thinnest possible space. It also means you don’t really own it. Legally obtained digital media can be revoked at any time, changing the nature of ownership and the meaning of what it is to buy a song. iTunes users are more borrowers than collectors.
Aficionados return now to the simplicity and ostentatious space-occupying collection of vinyl. Obsolete format has become the mark of wealth: Arcade Fire’s new album, Reflektor, can be had on two 12” double vinyl records for $19.98 or in digital for $11.99 on iTunes. Hipsters and underground recording artists have returned to the use of now-scarce cassette tapes for nostalgia’s sake and to deliberately set themselves apart. People collect vinyl because the sound is rich and the feel is deliberate; your playlist is not by shuffle or Pandora or Spotify. The record is a limited and contained universe, and the listener commits to letting it roll. Cassettes have reappeared in the market more out of nostalgia and affectation than qualitative reasoning. Anyone who has ever had to fish loose tape out of a mechanical snarl or rewind a cassette by hand using a pencil can tell you the shortcomings of the format.
Today, the future of music looks different than it did when the iPod was new. Electronica artist Nicolas Jaar released a compilation album last year in the form of a multiuser aluminum cube that is both player and storage. It’s a palm-sized cube that places digital music in an entirely new physical package. It looks like no disc or cassette or player we’ve ever seen before, but surely other iterations of this statement will follow. The containment that characterizes vinyl can be brought into digital media, but it remains to be seen whether sound quality can follow suit. We will continue to engage with music as a physical and nonphysical product and grapple with the erosion of recording quality, the meaning of ownership and the endless race for storage and space.
“Layla” is available on iTunes for $1.29. It’s easier to carry and less conspicuous than 12 inches of vinyl, but the experience will not be the same.