Going Out

CULTURE: Waxing On About Why Records are Essential in the Digital Era

The popularity of records is more than just good vibrations. With Record Store Day on April 18 and the city’s own Community Record Show on April 12,  Matt Harrison discovers why vinyl
is an essential lifeline in the age of ones and zeros

Ott-mag-culture-column
Illustration: Michael George Haddad

 

BY MATT HARRISON

This was originally published in the April 2015 print version of Ottawa Magazine

Closing.

CD Warehouse owners Stephen Bleeker and Janice McDonald cited “substantial shifts” in the industry when they held a press conference this past autumn to announce the closure of their 23-year-old store.
The owners were referring to the music industry’s move to digital downloads (legal or otherwise) and streaming formats.

This spring, CD Warehouse — one of the largest independent music stores in town — will close its doors, joining a long list of Ottawa music stores (Record Runner, Organized Sound, Sounds Unlikely, The Record Shaap) that have exited the scene in the past decade. Even chain stores such as HMV look much different than they did a decade ago, with fewer rows of CDs and an emphasis on such digital music gear as iPhones and headphones.

Paradoxically, at the same time CD Warehouse announced its closure, John Thompson announced the opening of The Record Centre in Hintonburg. The beautiful modern space, dressed in finished plywood and outfitted with trendy lounge chairs, is garnering great acclaim. Central to the store’s appeal are the rows of carefully selected records and turntables — everything from Technics (a favourite among DJs) to a giant reconstructed Lenco, a defunct European brand that remains popular with turntable hobbyists.

The only part of this place that doesn’t shine is the small bin of CDs at the back. Relics from a bygone technological age, CDs are quickly taking their place alongside reel-to-reels, eight-tracks, and cassette tapes.

But wait a sec. Shouldn’t vinyl be resting peacefully in this graveyard as well? After all, records are older than CDs: the former were conceived in the late 1800s by such inventors as Emile Berliner, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison. Why is there still a place for unwieldy circular pieces of plastic that require a very unportable sound system? Records are completely antithetical to the miniaturization of music devices and the digital age, an era that sees much of our daily life compressed into ones and zeros.

Given this state of affairs, Thompson’s decision to invest in a record store might seem likely to lead to financial ruin. But vinyl is once again popular, with demand for records on par with CDs — soon to outpace them, according to Compact Music owner Ian Boyd. In terms of record sales, “what we used to sell in a month, we now do in four days,” Boyd says.

Compact Music is one of the few remaining independent music stores in Ottawa: Boyd operates two stores on Bank Street. He says that though there has been a significant drop in CD sales, an increase in record sales is compensating for that loss in revenue. “It’s growing, there’s no question about that.”
Boyd traces the trend to the mid-2000s, noting that things really spiked in early 2008 when Radiohead released their seventh album, In Rainbows. “We sold 28 [vinyl] copies in 20 days in January,” he says about a month that is typically slow. “It made me realize that there must be a lot of turntables out there.”

Indeed, there must. Just ask the organizers of the Community Record Show, an event that’s held twice a year at St. Anthony’s Hall in Little Italy. This season’s event, its 10th anniversary, happens April 12.
According to David Aardvark, program director at CKCU (Carleton University’s community radio station) and one of the organizers of the event, interest in records is booming. For the past decade, music aficionados have sifted through “tens of thousands” of records, leading to many great finds — treasures such as a rare copy of Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins, which was purchased by local music blogger Calum Slingerland at last spring’s show.

In a YouTube video, Slingerland proudly shows off his acquisition.

“An original, actually,” he says to the camera, noting that his copy has a white background, while the reissue is coloured differently. “Being an original, this is also a gatefold,” he points out, opening the album like a book. The pièce de résistance?

The record is purple.

It’s those kinds of discoveries that continue to draw collectors of all ages, including a growing number of women. “The age range is all over the map,” says Aardvark. “It’s still more men than women, but the ratio has improved over the years. I would say … maybe five to one.”

Vinyl’s appeal is complicated. Firstly, there’s the “best of both worlds” argument: most new vinyl comes with a digital download for your mobile device, so you get the record and the download (and you can always burn a CD). Secondly, there’s the “appreciate the album as the artist intended” argument, which suggests that listeners take in all the songs rather than selecting individual tracks and discarding the rest as fillers. Thirdly, there’s the artwork: vinyl has some great cover art that, given its size, can be appreciated either on a shelf or in a picture frame. Then there is the “it really doesn’t cost that much more” debate: a record typically costs only slightly more than a CD, which costs only slightly more than a digital download (especially given digital’s cost, which is steadily creeping upwards from the original 99-cent mark). Finally, some people think that vinyl is just so damn cool — in the movies, hipsters are dropping needles onto records, not slipping CDs into trays.

But hands down, the overarching reason cited for the increase in vinyl is the age-old argument that records just sound better. “Many people … prefer the superior sound quality of how analogue sounds,” says Aardvark.

Critics of digital music files argue that most formats (i.e., MP3 digital files) hack off tons of information in order to save space. This data is considered unimportant, since the range is undetectable by the ear. Not so, argues Boyd. “The brain detects the missing sounds, even though the ear doesn’t.”

Record aficionados tend to agree with Aardvark’s and Boyd’s assessment — as does Pierre Chrétien, one of the members of Souljazz Orchestra, a local soul/jazz/funk band that remastered two of their past albums — Freedom No Go Die and Manifesto — and released them in November on heavyweight 180-gram wax, which is considered the epitome of vinyl because it’s less prone to warping. (Plus the grooves are deeper, which allows for a deeper bass sound.)

(Read more about this release in Fateema Sayani’s SOUNDSEEKERS article)

“Digital is always an approximation,” Chrétien says, “it’s ones and zeroes. You connect the dots between them to make the sound. But vinyl’s sound is analogue — it’s infinite. There’s something that just feels more natural to the ear.”

“Analogue [sound] does something to the brain that digital doesn’t,” Boyd adds.

Good vibrations, in other words.

The fact that what these purveyors of sound are describing is somewhat intangible speaks to another facet of vinyl’s popularity — a connection with the tangible in an increasingly intangible world.
“You touch it, you feel it, you pay attention to a record,” says Chrétien. After all, you have to get up, walk over to the turn-table, and turn that record over. “The digital experience is more throwaway,” he adds.

Thompson boils it down to the idea of ritual. “I’m constantly talking about the ritual: holding the record, cleaning it with the brush, setting it down on the turntable, lifting the arm and dropping the needle — and, after it’s finished playing, sliding it back into its sleeve.”

He argues that as a society, we are losing rituals. And so even something as seemingly insignificant as playing a record forms a ritual in our lives — and this particular ritual reconnects us with something physical that possesses a timeless quality.

It’s cliché, but it’s also easily forgotten in an increasingly ephemeral world, where our time is spent on things that last mere seconds and exist only as ones and zeros. Even the fact that one needs to dust vinyl before playing it is a reminder of the slow passage of time — something we tend to forget in the everyday click/flick/tap/pan of our digital lives.

“Technology changes all the time, but records have been around since Edison. That’s longevity,” says Chrétien.

Matt Harrison is the senior editor of Ottawa Magazine and former editor of the Ottawa Xpress. He has reviewed music for Xclaim! and XLR8R.