The ways we listen to music have been at the forefront of this reordering of experience. Long before people were comfortable with Kindles, the iPod was a cultural norm. And in the last few years, cloud-based music streaming has completed the abstraction of the listening experience. With music-streaming services like Spotify, anyone can access an exceedingly vast music library anywhere at anytime with the click of a button: music is entirely abstracted from presence in time and space. And due to this total abstraction, the problem of attention has been exacerbated: music increasingly assumes the role of background, an aural accompaniment devoid of meaning, listened to en route, on headphones, in passing.
And yet, as digital music has become ubiquitous, a significant number of people are returning to vinyl records. Sales of records have grown steadily over the past six years, with over 35-percent growth in 2011 alone. Suddenly, vinyl is popping up everywhere. You can get your favorite album in this antiquated format at your local Best Buy. Amazon offers special vinyl shipping envelopes to keep records safe in transit. Sales of vintage-looking record players like Crosley are soaring. It has become common practice for contemporary recording artists to release new albums not only as digital files, but also on vinyl. Records have definitively surged back into our cultural consciousness, even as the music industry crumbles.
It may seem surprising that this growth in record sales has been driven by young people—teenagers and twenty-somethings—a group of people born well after vinyl became obsolete. But from a certain perspective, there is logic to it, which reveals a simple truth about humanity’s uneasy transition to digital. These people, myself included, are not “digital natives.” We have not spent our entire lives with the technologies that are now ubiquitous. Instead, we are intimate witnesses to the seismic shift in media. We have a clear view of past and future, of what is at stake in this unprecedented development. We have celebrated the tremendous gains, the incredible conveniences of digital media and the Internet. We have reveled in the vast expansion of taste and variety in our musical choices, in our information sources. But we also feel a sense of loss, for the musty truth emanating from an old encyclopedia, the earnest attachment to an old photograph, the indelible joy of a new CD purchase. We remember the time before digital, if only as in a dream. And from somewhere beyond this dream, this strange cultural ghost, the vinyl record, calls to us and demands our attention.
Our liminal generation’s embrace of records reveals our discomfort with digital and the experiential world it has wrought. If life is to be lived digitally, it must be true to the need which expresses itself here, in the rediscovery and renewal of an obsolete technology. The return of the record does not signal an embrace of the past, a reactionary opposition to change. Rather, it calls attention to what is vital about our old forms, what we have still to learn from them. It points to a way the transition to digital can be mindful of our roots. We encounter records as a new and fresh experience of media, where we can find what moves us in music, in life. Whereas the digital world seems to already contain everything we might experience, every record holds the promise of something unheard. It requires a kind of attention that interrupts the digital noise and holds us in its sway. The record asserts its power over us, forcing us to slow down, to pay attention to it, to experience it.
I won’t soon forget the day when I realized that a record player produces sound without amplification. Believe it or not, if you play a record with your speakers off, you’ll hear a faint, tinny version of the music, emanating directly from the surface of the spinning disc. It sounds like your music is playing somewhere far away, in a microscopic universe where the grooved terrain of the record constitutes an entire world. This is the record’s unmediated sound, brought to life by the contact of two physical objects. Amplification merely brings the sound out of that two-dimensional world and into our own.
For me, hearing this tiny sound was a miracle, the water turned to wine and downed in one gulp. I felt transported back and forth between these two aural planes,flattened into two dimensions and expanded into three. What was this machine that could bring forth sound so effortlessly, so naturally?