Nick Mango

Digital and Vinyl Serve Two Different Purposes

The fine gentlemen at I Live Sweat gave me the opportunity to write an article comparing digital to vinyl, but to be honest, as I started to think about it, I realized that the only time you see articles comparing these two things is when someone has a passionate opinion about one or the other. And yes, I could do that kind of article, but what good would it do us? Not much. My opinion on which is better or worse will not change anyone’s mind. It’ll just be another ranting piece of drivel falling on the deaf ears of those opposed to my opinion. So I thought it might be a better idea to do an article about how digital and vinyl serve two different purposes, and it’s those purposes that we actually have passion for, not the medium in which we experience them.

I Own More Than a 1000 Coffee Tables

The term “format”, by definition, is the form in which content is presented to an audience. For instance, the digital format is presented to it’s audience as a music file encoded as MP3, AAC, FLAC, etc. The CD format is a disc that stores encoded data. The cassette… well, you see what I mean. Notice that in all these cases, the format is never more important than the content it presents. People don’t buy multiple CDs of the same album, unless the content is different. Meaning the album is remastered, or maybe they’ve added a couple B-sides, or live tracks. Vinyl on the other hand, isn’t like that at all. People buy multiple copies of vinyl all the time. It’s one of the things that keeps vinyl growing as a business. So in vinyl’s case, the format can be more important than the album. Which really means, sometimes vinyl isn’t really a format. Especially by today’s standards.

Consider this, if I sold you a magazine printed on a table, and all you did with this magazine was rest your feet on it while you watched TV, would it still be a magazine? No, that’s a coffee table. Will some people read the coffee table? Sure, for a little while, but when they’re done the object they’ve purchased is still a coffee table. And that’s what vinyl has become. Yes, there’s music on that piece of plastic, and yes some people listen to it every once in a while, but when they’re done with it, it’s still there to be shown off and admired like a piece of furniture.

Digital, on the other hand, is a format. Digital exists for one purpose, and that purpose is to present music to an audience. When it’s not being played, it lays dormant. You can’t rest your feet on it. You can’t use the format as a conversation piece. You can only discuss the music the format presents. This is the first major problem with vinyl. The world is full of people that have no use for a whole bunch of coffee tables.

How Strong’s Our Will?

If you’ve read some of my articles or follow me on twitter, you know that I don’t believe many people listen to vinyl anymore. Yes, millions of units are being sold, but this doesn’t mean people actually listen to them. People might enjoy listening to vinyl. They might love it in fact, but they aren’t doing it, and one of the main reasons they’re not doing it is technology has made it so much easier to watch TV.

Back when vinyl was on top, TV was impossible to fill up on because of all the technological restraints of the time. The three major restraints were: there weren’t enough channels, there was only one TV in the house, and finally, there was no way to watch a show you missed. If your parents were watching Merv Griffin, you had to find some other way to occupy yourself. This meant make-out parties and music. The radio was originally a piece of home audio equipment, not just something in your car. You heard the song once, and if you wanted to hear it again, you kept listening to the station, or you went out and bought the record. If you wanted to know the lyrics, you didn’t go to “Insert Random Song Lyric Site Here” you read the inner sleeve.

Music was essentially our spare TV. It was a source of entertainment that you could never overdose on, because just like the TV, it was throttled by technological limitations. Here we are 50 years later and music is more accessible than ever. Unfortunately though, music didn’t go the way of the TV and get even more popular. Now that music is so easy to find and listen to, it’s taken on a different role. The role of the soundtrack.

Soundtracks Always Play Second Fiddle

Remember when lyrics started protests and riots? Now the only words that start protests are posted on Facebook walls. Remember when fans would cry hysterically and pass out at concerts? Now the only time we pass out is when water is 7 bucks a bottle, and we spent all our cash on the ticket. Remember when music separated us from our parents? Well back when music was one of our only distractions, parents were “square” and kids would hide their cigarettes.

Music used to inspire us to take up arms, or lose control over our emotions. Now everyone has a blog to preach their views. Everyone has a twitter account. Clothing is a 150 billion dollar industry in the US alone. And because of these things, expressing ourselves is not limited to blasting the Beatles and growing our hair long. Why do so many people say there’s no one making great music anymore? It’s because they think music has changed. But it’s not music that’s changed, it’s us that’s changed. The world has changed. Music doesn’t grab us like it used to, because we’re being grabbed by so many other distractions, we can’t experience it like we did in the past.

We still love music though, and we still want to listen to it. So what happens when you combine the ease of digital with 21st century distractions and commitments? You get a soundtrack. Music used to be our entire lives. Now it’s essentially become the soundtrack to living, and the soundtrack always plays second fiddle to the movie. It’s all just background music. We listen to it while we’re accomplishing something else. We listen to it while we’re working, or exercising, or driving from point A to point B.

We’re not using it for it’s intended purpose anymore. It’s intended purpose is listening. And wouldn’t you know it, if you use vinyl for it’s originally intended purpose, it doesn’t easily leave you the ability to do something else at the same time. That’s the root of vinyl’s problem. We don’t use music for it’s intended purpose anymore. We use it as the soundtrack to the distractions of our lives. You think you can really experience an album while taking the subway to work at 7am? Music was meant to be listened to in one of two places. Live or in your bedroom. It was not created to keep you occupied while you walk on the treadmill.

Life is Complicated

So if the people buying vinyl don’t listen to it, then why do they buy it? I can sum that up in one very simple statement: The reason people still buy vinyl is because they either want help remembering the past, are trying not to forget the present, or want something to reflect on in the future. Vinyl is an object that helps you remember and discuss a particular time in your life. This is what draws people to vinyl. It’s what draws me. But even though I’m one of the biggest collectors of Punk and Hardcore out there, I still listen to digital all day long. Do I wish I could listen to vinyl all day long? Yeah, I also wish I had a garden that grew sold gold bars, but I don’t. Life is way too complicated to listen to vinyl whenever the mood hits me. But I still buy it. Why? Because one day life won’t be so complicated, and I’ll have a house on the beach with all the time in the world to rearrange my furniture.

This was originally posted on I Live Sweat on September 28th 2011