Old Habits II

Posted on July 3, 2014

This is a followup to Old Habits, my first post about getting back into vinyl.

What is it about vinyl? Skips and defects don’t seem to matter the way they did when CD’s first came out.

CD’s were so amazing for the clarity, but I hated the smaller package. Not enough room for art, not the same physical experience. I could overlook it because a lot of my vinyl had been worn to a frazzle. Bad needles, multiple moves and play after play after play. There were days I could have sworn I was born in a set of headphones. The ability to disappear inside of music, not passively absorb it, not use it as background, but actually listen.

This is not about nostalgia, otherwise I would still be stuck firmly in the punk rock of high school. Not to say that “Never Mind The Bollocks” doesn’t still melt my brain. I still play the older records, but I am buying new stuff; Matt Pond, Nada Surf, Fu Manchu, Pinback, Alvvays and Pete Yorn. I am also hitting the “Way Back Machine” and using Amazon/Ebay/Discogs to order things like Camel, John Coltrane, Queen and Supertramp on vinyl.

Nada Surf: "The Weight Is A Gift" and "The Stars Are Indifferent"

Nada Surf: “The Weight Is A Gift” and “The Stars Are Indifferent”

Tonight, while drinking a bit of Chianti (drinking and shopping is evil), I found that Sunny Day Real Estate had a re-issue of “Diary” (Ordered) and Polvo has a release from 2013 that I had never heard of called “Siberia” which will be ordered shortly. I pulled up a bit of “Siberia” on Spotify and decided about 2 songs in that it needed to be in my life.

I think that’s the key here… digital music is around my life. I can tap a button and hear anything, but I mostly listen when I am at work, and then it’s mostly background while I code. It’s about $9 a month and I have almost no connection to it. I throw stuff in the playlist, it plays, I like it and it’s gone. There are a lot of songs on Spotify that I really love, but I have no idea what the name of the song is, who the artist is or what album it’s on. It flows past, ephemeral, accessible, repeatable and without any tangible experience.

Now comes the part where I am going to sound like some old gummer telling kids to get off my lawn… but it’s really not about that. It’s about the concept of an “heirloom.”

The Dictionary defines heirloom as “a valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations.” I think there are two key parts to this and they apply to more than just music.

A single of Syl Johnson's "Could I Be Falling In Love?

A single of Syl Johnson’s “Could I Be Falling In Love?

The first part is a “valuable object.” Digital objects are by their very nature infinitely copyable, sharable and also ephemeral. This is not to say they have no intrinsic value, but their value is lessened by their ubiquity. At the same time, they are not actually owned by the actual consumer. If you forget to pay your Spotify monthly account charge, you lose access to the music. However, if you pay the fee again, it’s back as if nothing ever happened. There is no real risk of loss, but there is also no real ownership, no investment.

This brings us to the second part of heirloom: “belonged to a family for several generations.” If I give you the MP3s from a new album I want you to listen to, I still have my own copies. There is no incentive on your part to listen and get the physical item back to me, and no anxiety on my part to giving this item to you. My copy is still intact and I can still listen to it. While this is a huge benefit to me, it also diminishes the value of the music. There is no risk, no ownership. The electrons don’t actually belong to anyone. Music becomes a Tamagotchi pet. You forgot to feed it? Oh well, start over. No worries.

Camel's "The Snow Goose"

Camel’s “The Snow Goose”

This is not to say that digital music has no value. I have sampled more musical styles and genres than I ever would have with physical records. When there is no risk, you can listen to anything. This is hugely powerful and liberating. However, I also came across a lot of music that I wanted to connect to, keep and pass on. Giving someone and MP3 or a link to a stream was always a bit unsatisfying. A month later, they still had never listened and why should they? Those electrons where going to be there forever.

This is the odd contradiction with digital music; It’s permanence, it’s persistence makes it less urgent. If you where going to live forever, why rush anything? At the same time, it’s transient, you don’t actually own it. It’s loss is less meaningful.

I think a digital life is easier, but an heirloom life is better. Does that make any sense?