Am I a Vinyl Record Guy Now?

I recently purchased a record player and five vinyl records. This is my first time purchasing either item. I even made a list (shock of shocks!) of twenty or so records I want to eventually get. Have I become a vinyl collector now? Well, yes and no. Don't expect me to have a wall full of cherished limited edition records in protective covers, rant about the state of rock, or wax eloquently about a high fidelity sound while sipping a fine liquor. Wait...maybe I have purchased some cheap plastic protective sleeves but don't expect the rest of that suff. If you allow me a bit of a pretentious philosophical comment on my shift: I do think it has to do with getting in touch more with what it means to be a human. So what's happening?

I admit to illegally downloading some songs from Napster in my youth. Who among us when given the chance to download a bootleg version of Tim McGraw's "Leader of the Band" cover wouldn't reconsider their personal ethics? While I wasn't a massive Napster user, I knew then that the ability to have digital access to individual songs was a genuine gamechanger. In the early 2000's, I loved ripping my CD's to my E-Machine computer desktop and burning a playlist that was all killer and no filler. My discretionary budget then was small so spending full price on a CD that only had a few enjoyable songs was always a tough pill to swallow. My hard earned dollars working at McDonald's had to be stretched!

Making some modifications to my E-Machines Desktop in 1999

I moved around a lot in college and all of my CD & DVD cases were a bit of a burden. It wasn't really until the age iTunes and iPods (I owned a Zune for a time) in the mid 2000's that I began to ditch my CD jewel cases and just keep all the discs in a traveling case. Eventually I even ditched the discs themselves (remember when it became standard for laptops and cars to no longer have CD players?) A similar story could be told of my DVD collection as the advent of streaming and owning videos on Amazon just became so much more convenient for a single guy like me who moved around a decent a bit. Digital music and streaming videos were just infinitely more practical and offered me so much more choice.

While I am still a heavy digital user, my feelings towards physical media have begun to change over the last year, resulting in the recent purchase of a record player and small album collection I mentioned in the opening. There are really four reasons that have driven this shift:

First, I've increasingly found myself desiring the experience of listening to a full album of music. There's just something unique about listening to one single album, clocking in around that forty minute mark, that has been assembled generally as a piece of music representing a certain slice of time into that artist's vision Albums can capture a particular mood or vibe that a collection of singles is just incapable of. l still love the experience of a great playlist of singles (Check out the 2024 update to my Top 100 Songs list), but I remember fondly the days of playing a CD from beginning to end. Sure, there are plenty of albums that feature 1-2 good songs and tons of filler - those aren't the ones I'm talking about. I'm talking about those rare albums whose songs come together in a way that transcends the individual pieces into something greater. This is why I'm not interested in becoming a "collector" kind of guy who wants to assemble a large wall of records. I am looking to put together a small ensemble of albums I enjoy from beginning to end.

The first five entries into my curated collection

The second reason driving my shift is I've increasingly found myself desiring limitations. The obvious retort to my first reason is that one can easily listen to a whole album digitally without ever purchasing a record player. I do this often (my digital collection is just to valuable and vast to reasonably recreate on record), but there's a catch to it that frustrates me. Pulling up my iTunes library and scrolling through thousands of options can be a bit exhausting. It's a world of possibility but it's also a workout! Even then, once I've found my choice and started it up, I often find myself changing it up midstream since it's simply a matter of a simple click here and there. Having so many options is often paralyzing and being able to change my mind with very little work often means I give into my impatience when a single song comes on I don't particularly enjoy. 

For those of you with better self-control this might not be a problem, but I am finding the natural limitations of a record player helps counteract those issues. Having a smaller record collection makes my choices much simpler. Having to fish out the record, open the case, move the arm, and then walk away means deciding to change it up comes with a much bigger physical cost than simply a mouse click or swipe on a touchscreen. Lastly, the record player has to stay in my living and can't accompany me into every space of the house. While all of these limitations make the process much less practical, it has also made it much less stressful and intrusive. 

The third reason driving my shift is I've increasingly found myself desiring to be disconnected from a digital space. Playing my digital collection means opening up the laptop or unlocking my phone. The number of times I fired up iTunes and got distracted by some other thing to do or went to play some music on my phone through youtube only to get sucked down a viral video rabbit hole is enormous (walk away from the phone and you're bound to get one of those dreaded long ads). Those two acts open up a world of digital distractions that threaten to take me away from the one act that I wanted to accomplish in the first place. Additionally, the idea that iTunes, or Pandora, or Spotify, or Amazon could change their digital rights or access and I find myself shut off - charged additionally - or inundated with ads is a genuine concern of mine.

I already spend way too much of my life digitally connected (much of it is for practical reasons) so I really want to try and make some of my private time disconnected. I already favored keeping some kind of mp3 device for this reason (can't stand having to use my phone connection to listen to MY music collection), this just feels like a next logical step. Having a small collection of music that is mine no matter what the large corporations decide to do is a nice feeling.

The record player sits in the living room

The final reason driving my shift is I've increasingly found myself desiring a more tactile experience. Have you ever had the experience of scrolling through hundreds and hundreds of titles on Netflix? Wasn't it exhausting? At the end of those times I never felt more excited about movies, always less. Compare that feeling to what it was like to walk through a Blockbuster Video on a Friday night in the 90's or 00's looking for your weekend entertainment. It felt like the world was at my feet as I wandered through the aisles picking up boxes and looking over their cover art. Sure, it was exhausting too, but I always felt more excited about movies afterwards. I find a similar experience with books. Compare going to a library, a bookstore, or perusing someone's personal library with scrolling through a list of kindle books available and you'll understand what I mean. I think there's something inherently enjoyable to humans, at least this one anyways, when we get to engage more of our senses in an experience and physical touch can be a big part of a music listening experience. Scrolling through a list of albums on iTunes or Spotify just can't compare to thumbing through a physical collection of records, pouring over the album art, and reading the liner notes/lyrics. I did this to an extent with my CD collection, but vinyl records are even better at it given their size. 

The key word that ties all of my reasons together is experience: moving from an unlimited digital musical experience to a more limited and tactile musical experience. I claimed in the opening paragraph that there was something more "human" about this and I hope that it's pretty self-evident what I mean by that. Human beings are inherently limited beings. We can only have so many friendships before they are stretched thin and become just acquaintances. We only have such a large attention span and can't really multi-task. We are embodied creatures who are driven and shaped largely by our senses, by physical spaces, by connections with other human beings. 

The Beatles' Revolver was the first play on my record player

The recording of music already takes the idea of being physically present with a live human being playing music and abstracts it onto a piece of media. For those who have been able to enjoy live music - you understand how inherently different the experience is than just listening to a recording of it - it gets disembodied in a major way. We put up with that abstraction because of all the awesome opportunities we gain from it, but we should remind ourselves that we disembodying the experience in a major way: removing the music from the physical presence of the musicians and through technology spanning time and place with a recreation of it. I feel like the move to digital streaming with its anywhere/anytime access has crossed a key line of disembodying that I've become even more wary of. In a world that is increasingly viewing our embodied nature as an obstacle to overcome, digital streaming combined with ubiquitous air pod use is a front we should be watching even closer. 

Maybe these last two paragraphs are a little overblown, maybe I am becoming that "vinyl snob" guy afterall. Then again, maybe not. For the time though, I'm in a season where I'm trying to disconnect from digital a bit more (music and movies) and trying to reconnect with physical media. I've almost always felt this way about books, but only lately coming around to it with music. What about you? What are your thoughts on the matter? Have you experienced the same frustrations with your digital music experiences? Have you made any shift back to physical media? I'd be interested to hear.