vinyl adoration is a cargo cult


vinyl adoration is a cargo cult

In 2016 I moved from Brooklyn to Queens. I packed everything myself but hired movers to, you know, move it, carry it down three flights and then find parking and shuttle it up two floors in the ancient elevator in the new building. During this process, one of the movers remarked, upon reading the labels on some of the boxes, “Wow, you really like vinyl.” That is when I explained to him that it was more that that was the media available at the time I acquired them.

I own about a thousand albums, close to that in CD’s, and then probably close to that in 0s and 1s, official releases I purchased in digital form (until I stopped doing that) and then hundreds of recordings of illicit origin, or bootlegs of live concerts. I own a lot of music, I have moved it across the ocean twice and across the country two and a half times. My mother started complaining about having to move my record collection sophomore year of college, when everything I owned could fit in one of those wooden fruit crates that was made for record storage (because the real things were either too large or too small, the latter implemented to stop hippies from stealing milk crates etc to store their albums) and I think one other milk crate and then a little box of 45’s that looked exactly like this:

it is so darling
it is so darling

I had a stereo that included an 8-track player (not my choice, it was a Bat Mitzvah gift, and I got the 8-track instead of the cassette because it was cheaper) and I owned maybe three 8-tracks ever because it was the shittiest possible format in which to listen to music, you had to listen to a song be interrupted in the middle by a metallic KA CHUNK as it switched to the next track. (How did we let ourselves be convinced this was a viable format? I know, because you can’t play an album in the car.)

I acquired a CD player in 1988 and ran it through the aux jack in the better-but-still-all-in-one stereo (with a double cassette player so I could dub live tapes, that is another essay) I bought from J&R Music on Park Row in NYC, schlepping it back to Hoboken via the PATH train with the large carton wrapped in string and manageable only because of two of those cardboard and wire handles people of a certain age in the City will remember, it made heavy plastic bags easier to carry without cutting grooves into your hands.

When I got the CD player, I now had the decision to make with every new release: CD or LP? I wrote some reviews of CDs for a fledgling publication whose name I don’t remember and one of the reviews was for Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska; it was my opinion that this wasn’t a recording one needed to own on compact disc, “he recorded it in the kitchen--what, do you need to hear what was going on in the living room?” I thought I was hilarious.

I can tell you the first handful of CD’s I owned: Exile on Main Street, London Calling, Sly & the Family Stone Greatest Hits, the Cure Greatest Hits (at the time it was one of the longest CDs in duration out there), Quadrophenia. If you have detected a pattern there, you would be correct, although I don’t think I even realized it at the time. It was much easier listening to a large quantity of music on two cds as opposed to four sides. “Easier” literally means “i didn’t have to get off the couch.”

Before you ask about cassettes, no one bought cassettes, at least no one I know bought cassettes. They were shit quality and shit sound. You would make your own cassettes, taping the 44 minutes of an LP (each side was 22 minutes) onto one side of a Maxell XL-90, very carefully so you got the whole thing. If you were particularly obsessed with a record you would do it twice so you could listen repeatedly without having to rewind or without dead space and having to fast forward, and good cassette tapes weren’t super expensive but they cost cash money even if you were at a level of dedication that you would buy them in a bulk, those slim green-gold and black cardboard boxes of 10 blank tapes. Buying them by the box meant that you were Serious. Record stores included the price of tapes in their ads.

a thing of beauty
a thing of beauty

Even when I had a CD version of an album, I didn’t ever get rid of its vinyl equivalent. It never occurred to me to do that, again, despite carting this weight across bodies of water or continents. It was just my music collection, and my music collection embodied multiple formats. When I moved back to the US in the early 90s and got my first job in technology, I went to Car Toys in Bellevue and bought the Denon receiver, double tape deck, and Technics turntable that I still own and use. I have had a series of different CD players through the ages, have used a DVD player as a CD player, etc.

visible proof
spotify wrapped lol

When dudes I worked with at Microsoft started these unofficial consortia where you gave them your CD’s and they gave you back a hard drive, I declined. I did get on the iPod track in the 2.0 era; I went back to Car Toys and got them to connect a wire to my aux jack so I could plug the iPod in, something they told me only a couple of dozen people had asked for at that point (it was ‘02 or ‘03). I drove cross-country for the first time with my iPod and one small CD wallet. It was insane. Compare that to when I went on a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia not long before that and I only took one wallet of CDs (which was still, you know, significant WEIGHT) and the decision of what to take was agonizing. I asked friends to make me mixes. I have such specific memories of the music I listened to on that trip, lying in a hammock as the sun set in Thailand listening to Mad Season, Exile on Main Street on a ferry between islands, CCR as my plane landed in Cambodia.

When we went digital it never occurred to me to, again, get rid of what I had. I bought some new music digitally but I definitely didn’t use it to replace what I already owned. I stopped buying digital releases in 2017 after I moved and somehow in the process of moving, borked the hard drive that had my music on it. I paid way too much to restore the data and after setting up two redundant backups made a vow I’d never do that again. When I was weighing whether or not I was going to spend the $1k I absolutely did not have at the time or just … start over again, a good friend whose opinion on this subject I solicited said, “I like owning the music that I own” and although he now does not remember saying that, I found it tremendously wise advice.

I go record shopping because I want music, not because I want “vinyls” sitting on top of a bookcase to make me look cool. I will buy it in the format that makes sense to me, which, these days, is highly unlikely to be vinyl because there are 5701347 people with shitty Crosley turntables for whom owning albums is now a personality trait. Every time there are records at an estate sale, I flip through once and then give up (if I can even get near them past the 5739138 men who would stampede over their grandma to get to them when the doors open) because the condition is questionable and the prices are completely out of line with what they are actually worth. I can remember buying my niece a bunch of albums for her 16th birthday, I went to Academy Records’ used outpost which was 3 minutes from my Brooklyn apartment and with a limit of $30 I walked out with 8-10 records - Dylan, Elton John, the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, just a wide variety of stuff for her to play and like or not like (part of being a music listener is learning what you don’t like, it is as important as learning what you DO like). I could not fucking do that now. All of the records I paid $3 for are definitely going for $10-15. It’s stupid.

And now, apparently, CDs are in the garbage lane and I keep getting cassettes when I buy stuff on Bandcamp, which I throw in the car (I inherited my dad’s 2004 Toyota which has a CD player and a tape deck; I run my phone through one of those Bluetooth adapters, every once in a while I think about switching it out and then I decide that is dumb, this system works fine to play music while I am driving). I also still own a tape deck which I set up when I moved into my house in Detroit because I am never moving ever again and I have room to do it. (I still had the box in the basement until we had floods this past year; that will mean something to some people but this is already too long so I am not going into it here. Just know that as the kids say these days, IT IS A FLEX.)

This is a great many words to say that I do not understand when vinyl became the sine qua non of music fandom. Who decided this? It is a lovely warm format but I gotta tell you, when CDs first came out, no one who bought music because it was music, not because they were buying an attractive form factor, thought that buying records on CD was lesser than. It was nice to not have to worry about your phonograph needle and it was fun to take your music with you without elaborate tape recording strategies. (We are not going to take this opportunity to discuss the superiority of a 12x12 square vs a 5x5 square in terms of album artwork or liner notes and recording session data, this could have not been a problem if we had ever standardized a format for music metadata, again, not a subject I am taking on right here.)

It’s not as though I am above using someone’s music collection to judge their taste, but that has always been done through what music they have, not what format it is in. That is because the thing that is essential here is the content, the music, not the form factor. It is the dumbest thing in the world that people who are not serious music listeners (I will judge, yes) have fetishized “vinyls” to the point that the musicians who never stopped making albums on vinyl (or at the most, paused briefly) now have to get in line behind multimillion-selling artists whose fans are buying it as a gimmick, as a souvenir, and not because they have an actual preference for the format. To make my point, when I was double-checking that the Adele album came with a download card, I did a websearch and landed on Amazon, where I discovered this:


This has nothing to do with anything tangible or beneficial (except, I guess, for the artist? But this is Adele, she and her record company are not hurting for funds). It is an act of consumption and not an action of legitimately participating in appreciating music. In some ways, It’s like going to Disneyland and buying mouse ears. You are never going to wear them ever again (Disney people, please do not start). It is a performative gesture that makes sense in the moment, but in a year we’re going to see all of these Adele records at Goodwill, because the people who bought it didn’t own a turntable, and after a while it becomes a big square dust collector.

A label sent me a press release recently that they were releasing a “collab” where an artist and a musician worked together to put out a record. There is a series of these. I was thinking about this essay at the time so I clicked on the link. The vinyl is black; the “collab” is on the album cover.

My head hurts. I feel unwell.

I don’t disagree that streaming or digital music does not have the same emotional response that going to stand on line outside of Tower Records on Monday night around 10 or 11pm to wait for the midnight drop of your favorite album (the last time I did that was for Soundgarden’s Superunknown, where myself and my friends were the only people not waiting for the new Snoop Dogg album, so it was us and a bunch of UDub frat boys with their baseball caps on backwards). I don’t want to fetishize that as The One True Experience because, like, I lived in cities where I could do that.

What I do want to center is the idea of conscious choice and action. I’m not dissing the frat dudes who were in the queue with us (except the ones who tried to be obnoxious until the Tower employees came out and told them they could stop or they could go buy their record somewhere else). It was important to them to have the music as soon as they could so they, like us, prioritized getting to Tower and spending time standing in a parking lot on a Monday night. I literally can see the insides of both Tower on 3rd & Broadway in NYC and Tower Mercer in Seattle and remember what it was like to stand there and wait and talk to other people about what they were buying. Sometimes it was six of us, other times it was a big thing (the Springsteen 1975-1985 was [] this close to a block party at Tower Broadway). But I think those experiences were so meaningful to me because I already had an emotional relationship with the activity of buying records.

You went to record stores because that was where you got music. You would sometimes go without a particular release in mind, because sometimes the only way you knew something had come out was by physically seeing it in the store, or someone who worked there mentioning it to you, or just flipping through the racks and deciding it looked interesting. Or you came for one thing and in the process found out about other things. But it was an activity you took part in.

Along with that are things like reading magazines that wrote about music and my favorite, calling the radio station to get them to read the concert calendar to you. (You had to wait for commercials or a really long song, not all stations always had someone whose job it was to answer the phone.) What all of these actions have in common is that it was active discernment on an ongoing basis. It was an elective choice. Which is what differentiated you from your friend’s roommate who owned the soundtrack from The Commitments and two Phil Collins solo LP’s. Yes, they had to go to a record store to get those things, but it was not an activity that they regularly engaged in. They went to a record store because that was where you bought records. If they could have bought them in the grocery store, they would have done that.

We went to record stores as part of our larger personal universe as music fans. Being music fans required active seeking and a portion of your brain devoted to what you wanted to buy or acquire or take out from the library or get your friends to tape for you. None of that is casual or passive. It is not the same muscle as the one that always clicks “shuffle” or doesn’t notice that clicking the giant play arrow in Spotify will play an album in a random fucking order that no one asked for. The people ordering the Adele album on vinyl are not doing this as their regular course of action, nor will this one-off activity turn them into someone who does. What it does do is fuck up the supply chain for the people who need it.

All of this is why people have conversations at volume at concerts and why NFT’s exist. But this piece is almost 3,000 words so I am saving that for another time.

By my personal accounting this is a week late. I am absolutely committed to doing this 2x a month so it bothers me when I miss deadlines. (I also never miss writing deadlines.)

As a consolation bonus, here is a photograph of Marvin Gaye from 1976 that I bought at an estate sale recently at a price so low I feel guilty. I did however, get up very early on a Saturday in the cold to have the chance to buy it.


‎See you next week, back on schedule. Same bat time, same bat channel.