Vinyl: The Thing That Wouldn’t Die

Recently, I’ve written about visiting “hip” record stores and  buying vinyl records. Make no mistake about it, I am definitely most interested in vinyl when I hit the stores. I have been for at least 18 years now. But you should hear where I’m coming from with this posting and a little background is in order.

Since The Monk is an old, crusty guy, of course he grew up buying vinyl records. I never bought cassette tapes. For one, they always sounded awful. Secondly, I couldn’t buy into the Walkman® when it came on the scene in the late 70s. Of course, I always recorded each album I bought on one side of a C-90. These were often decent, high-bias chrome tapes made on my nice Akai deck. I listened to those instead of playing the record repeatedly, thus saving it from stylus wear. Why didn’t I like the Walkman®? Two reasons. The constant purchase of batteries would take precious cash away from buying more records and secondly, I didn’t like wearing headphones and cutting myself off from my surroundings.

I vividly remember seeing the first CDs. These were Japanese/German imports in late 1982. They were in the glass case up front at the record stores and of only theoretical interest to me since the players were over a grand to start with. But by 1985, I was ready to buy into the compact disc world. The players hit $500 and I was ready. I started buying discs even before Radio Shack put their first player on clearance for five smackers. From 1985 to 1992 I bought a lot of compact discs and almost no vinyl, except for the occasional single. By 1986, CD singles started to get released and I was so there for them. By that time, the vast bulk of music coming into my home was in CD format. I no longer had to buy high-bias C-90s to record this music since the play medium was a nice and durable digital disc. As a bonus, I could play exactly the tracks I wanted to as easily as punching a button and I no longer had to put up with:

  • surface noise
  • stylus wear of the disc
  • wear of the stylus itself
  • paying the cost of C-90s to record my collection on
  • the Vangelis Effect®

The first several bullets speak for themselves. The last bullet bears some explanation. Back in the late 70s, Greek synthmeister Vangelis released a lot of albums where side two is a full composition. And as is his wont, these compositions tended to have looooong, slow, ambient fades over 8-10 minutes. At a certain point, the music was fighting with the noise of the stylus scraping the disc for dominance. And the surface noise always ultimately won. It really bummed me out! So in any instances of low decibel, subtle music, the mechanical effect of the stylus scraping on the record itself, made serious inroad into one’s enjoyment of said low decibel, subtle music.

It was some time in 1992 while attending a record show that my return to vinyl consciousness got rekindled. I saw a batch of Duran Duran/Arcadia UK 12″ singles in a bin marked 2/$5, so I bought them. I began to think that after ten years of the CD, there were a lot of songs, mixes, and performances that will not make the leap to digital re-issue. At the same time, the ability to digitally record from vinyl myself to optical media was imminent. In 1988 Radio Shack held a press conference for what they called T.H.O.R. and I waited patiently for that. In the mean time, I bought my first computer in 1993, and it had full CD quality digitization built in. I would be ready to make my own CDs one day! In 1994 my place of work bought a 2xCD burner that was as big as an early VCR. It would only reliably burn to gold CD-R media that cost a fortune. My number one priority became not buying CDs that I wanted to hear any more, but instead the singles by my favorite artists for their unique B-sides, remixes, and live tracks. Also the albums that were not ever popular enough to rate a reissue on CD.

And that still holds true today. I spend probably 50% of my music budget on vinyl. In the last month I’ve spent over $80 on just two singles! So you ask The Monk how it feels to walk into a hipster record store today in 2011 and see rack upon rack of not only classic albums re-issued on 180g vinyl, but scores of new releases? I’ll tell you how it makes me feel. It pisses me off. That’s what.

Maybe all of the hipster kids dropping heavy money on the new vinyl feel like they’re being rebels by buying the vinyl format, but it cuts me to the quick to see how this has played out. First [late 70s] they gut the quality of vinyl and offer even worse sounding cassettes. Cassettes become the dominant format by the early 80s. Then [mid-80s] they say “replace your worn out vinyl with pristine sounding CDs.” So you re-buy the album in a new, more expensive format. CDs become the dominant format by the late 80s. Then they start mastering the CDs to sound like noisy garbage [late 90s] and at the same time, the even worse MP3 format becomes widespread. The MP3 codec uses lossy compression to simulate 90% of the soundwave in order to get filesize down. It sounds lousy at low bitrates. At high bitrates it still doesn’t have the bandwidth or dynamic range of a CD. Now the coup de gras has been administered: vinyl is re-introduced [mid 2000s] in audiophile format that sells for $20 and upward! And these albums often come with a code to download the same music in lossy, digital MP3 format!!! The worst of all worlds at a premium price!

You must now pay a king’s ransom for a degradable playing medium that offers lots of sound other than what the musicians recorded as well as a download file that you must now keep backing up for the rest of your life since it does not physically exist and your hard/flash drive will eventually fail. Worse yet, the new vinyl issues are crowding music that I am interested in buying out of the store! Between the overall death of the music industry [21st century] and the growing trendiness of vinyl, CDs are looking like the odd one out. There is almost no desire to re-issue material I am interested in on CD, apart from the once-more-to-the-till deluxe reissues, which only happen to the most popular albums. Where’s that first Tourists album already?

Finally, there’s only so much room in hip record stores. When a proprietor has to choose between stocking 12″ bins full of 20-30 year old records at chump change or a deluxe vinyl re-issue of something that never got an LP release during the CD era for $20+, guess what he’s going to devote his resources to? The sight of The Monk waving his slim wad of bills over some obscure New Wave 12″ers gets the short shrift next to some noveau hipster’s waxing on 180g vinyl [with code for free 256KBPS MP3 download inside] that is an all together much more profitable consideration for his investment of store space and resources.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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3 Responses to Vinyl: The Thing That Wouldn’t Die

  1. chas_m says:

    I will, I’m sure, come in for some abuse from what I’m about to say, but by gum I’m gonna say it anyway: high-bitrate AAC format files are indistinguishable to these aging ears from CD. And yeah, I’ve probably lost some high-end hearing — thanks to bands like Killing Joke in concert — but at least I lost it for a good cause! :)

    And digital, whether you like it or not, is ultimately good for obscure music. It costs Apple (et al) exactly the same to stock Lene Lovich’s last album as it does Justin Bieber’s, and thus they simply don’t care how many of each get sold. Music need never go out of print, so long as the licensing is reasonable (aye, there’s the rub!). Furthermore, digital has at least the potential to give the artist much more direct control over their music distribution — if anything’s going to kill the record companies, iTunes is quite frankly our best hope (at least, so far). Once the companies are gone, Apple will be happy to deal just with indie collectives (much as they do now) like CD Baby, and maybe even individual artists.

    I don’t mean to denigrate the pleasure of music on physical objects, but we all saw this coming. It will be up to people like PPM himself to be the future gatekeepers for the increasingly-niche hobby of collecting “physical music.”


    • postpunkmonk says:

      chas_m – Sure, we all lost vital high-end hearing at the Killing Joke concert – but it was so worth it! How I wish I could revisit that show. Oh don’t pay too much attention to me moaning about non-physical formats. I hate ’em [the lifelong backup and no-resale thing rears its ugly head here] but I have bought them when it has made time/economic sense for me. I recognize that a lot going forward will be download only. At a certain point, high bitrate files are better than manually denoising less than stellar vinyl rips, it’s true. I just made over 1300 manual wave edits in a file I digitized of “The Girl That Took Me” by The Associates. It probably took at least five precious hours of my time. The track sounds 80-85% better, but it’s not anywhere near perfect. Would I have preferred to have bought it for $0.99 in a 256 KBPS AAC file from Apple? Most certainly! But the never OOP digital world of music will never happen. Track releases in your precious iTunes store. Things go OOP all the time there, because of licensing terms. As long as weasels own music, the listeners [and probably the artists as well] will always get screwed. On the upside, high-res downloads certifiably better than CD quality are already a reality. I have the last Eno album in 24/44.1 WAV! Hopefully, this will become widespread; at least if America ever gets a comprehensive broadband policy that brings us up to par with the third world countries we used to laugh at in the 90s who are now killing us on this front! [don’t hold your breath]


  2. Echorich says:

    So on target!!
    New vinyl is marketed like a specialist commodity to people who have gone out an bought a ridiculously priced 21st century record player or ‘kids’ who think it’s cool to own albums like their dad’s did (yeah maybe granddads).
    I remember buying David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees on UK import cd AGES ago and when I popped it in my 6-cd Sony cd changer (which overheated more than my 50in plasma tv does now) and wherever there was empty space in the music, all I heard was electronic hiss!! I was gutted! I even read somewhere that the reason Sylvian remixed and remastered almost every track on the Everything and Nothing compilation in 2001 was because the original masters just didn’t translate to cd or mp3 well at all. Nowadays I buy Sylvian on Lossless FLAC from his website and have started a 1TB drive just for uncompressed and high quality compression files.
    You mentioned Lexicon of Love previously, yes it was a cd mastering travesty. So were Penthouse and Pavement and Luxury Gap by Heaven 17. But one of the WORST is Ultravox’s Rage in Eden. I was ecstatic when the remasters came out!!! Rage In Eden was a sonic powerhouse on vinyl and finally it is on cd as well.


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