January 25, 2016

DOOLITTLE | The Gift of the DJ

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Of all who give and receive vinyl, such as they are the wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the deejays.

I spent this New Year’s celebrating Christmas. My girlfriend, Kaitlyn, arrived midday and we immediately took to opening our presents. We exchanged our gifts, two moderately-sized boxes each accompanied by a few smaller, flat, wrapped-and-bowed boxes, all adorned in reds and greens and golds. Panic swept over me.

“Bud, did we just get each other the same gift?” And we had. Two turntables, one faux wood and one robin egg blue, procured from a pleasant man from Craigslist outside Tiffany and Co. who turned out to not be a serial killer after all.

We were a walking holiday cliche, almost ripped from the pages of O. Henry. Yeah, yeah, it’s not a perfect comparison — irony and coincidence, yadda yadda yadda — but it was undeniably mawkish, true-spirit-of-Christmas-y.

Since then, I have developed a vinyl collection 20-strong, thanks mostly in part to a few raids on my dad’s musty attic collection (“People still listen to these?”) and some choice purchases at the local record store. Now that we’re back in Ithaca, we should all visit Angry Mom Records together. That’d be fun.

A few days ago, Nielsen released its annual Year-End Music Report, which contains no more and no less than three photos of cheery people wearing headphones, an extended Adele advertisement, and some lovely graphs and statistics about our music consumption habits for the past year. Some trends are to be expected; digital and CD album sales continue to fall as streaming skyrockets, nearly doubling 2014’s numbers. Others are more noteworthy: 2015 was the first year (ever?) in which catalog album sales were higher than current album sales, and vinyl album sales have actually increased nearly 33 percent in the last year alone.

Now, that doesn’t mean that David Bowie, Praise Be His Name, May He Rest In Peace, was more popular than Taylor Swift. You have to remember that this number only applies to actual sales of albums, that is, among people who still buy albums, older music is more popular for once. And by older, Nielsen doesn’t even mean that old; “Catalog” albums include anything that is over 18 months old, ancient to music industry execs, but still kind of recent to the average consumer. I mean, think of all the great music to come out over a year and a half ago. good kid, m.A.A.d. city! Red! Revolver!

The numbers speak more to the prolific rise of digital streaming (woah, like, Spotify is popular, huh?) than the fall of pop music, but it’s still an interesting moment to think about, the moment in which album sales sort of just … stopped mattering and the music industry began pursuing the almighty stream count. Game, set, match, T-Swift.

I find the recent vinyl revival, which is a fun phrase to say, to be a little more intriguing. Vinyl was proclaimed dead by most forecasters sometime between the mid-’90s and early 2000s, but, like Elvis, vinyl isn’t dead. It just went home. So why are people all of a sudden (read: for the last five years, at least) flocking to record stores?

Now, I’m only the latest in a long line of vinyl trumpeters, a total wannabe poser with a cheap turntable. I don’t claim to be an audiophile or a hipster or a cool person at all. But listening to vinyl is fucking neat. That’s why.

For one, it sounds awesome. Proponents say that vinyl captures the “full” sound of a song, that there’s a certain “warmth” to the music that a digital recording can’t replicate. Now, I have never administered a Voight-Kampff Test to an mp3 file, and my speakers are not of the highest quality, but I think I can hear the difference. And even if that’s just a placebo effect — which it very well could be — I like the folksy authenticity of a record’s crackle. Sue me.

Perhaps more important to its appeal, the vinyl aesthetic is simply glorious. For decades, one of the selling points of an album was its cover art and the additional materials enclosed with the album. Today, art for digital music is often relegated to a thumbnail in the bottom lefthand corner of Spotify. When you hold a physical LP in your hands, admire the art, and open it up, you feel a certain intimacy with the music, almost as good as smelling an old book before you read it. Heck, even watching an album spin on as it plays is mesmerizing, like watching a washing machine that just so happens to play music. What more could you ask for? And don’t even get me started on colored vinyl…

The last month has been such a wonderful experience that I felt like I should share it with you, in the hopes that you might join me. Not to venture too far into the realm of the hyperbolic or sentimental, but as I listen to Pet Sounds for what feels like the first time, I feel a bit like my journey into the world of music has suddenly diverged, and for the better. It’s a marvelous thing.