When Apple introduced the iPod eleven years ago, it boasted that you could carry a thousand songs in your pocket. To put this in perspective, that was roughly a hundred record albums – or 65 pounds of vinyl and cardboard. To this day, I still use what the company now calls its iPod Classic (a much better name, of course, than either the iPhone Dinosaur or the iPhone Luddite). It holds 40,000 songs – or one and a half tons of vinyl and cardboard.
That’s not hyperbole. We’re talking 2,600 pounds of old-fashioned record albums and sleeves.
Now, vinyl had become a niche product long before the iPod. By the time the device was introduced toward the end of 2011, albums had been rendered obsolete by eight-track cassettes, cassettes, and compact discs. I hadn’t owned a turntable since I’d been in college.
That changed this past Christmas. Under the tree I found a turntable, courtesy of my wife. It is one of those devices that allow a listener both to play record albums and to preserve the music digitally. I loved the gift and we both imagined I would climb into our attic and exhume from the dust and debris our boxes of old vinyl albums.
I will do that. I haven’t yet.
But I did do something else. When I was in Burlington, Vermont the other day, I visited Pure Pop on South Winooski and Burlington Records on Bank Street. When I was in Manhattan between Christmas and New Year’s, I browsed in the stores that sell vinyl in the East and West Village. And I was buying records – used records from my adolescence and new recordings by current pop stars. I was, I discovered, as likely to purchase the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as I was Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” I was actually a little astonished by how much brand new vinyl is available. There are new copies of old classics as well as new records by the young stars who took home Grammys last Sunday night. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of vinyl’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
But given the unbelievable ease and convenience of digital music players and the sheer prevalence of digital culture, I was surprised. I know some people believe vinyl gives music a better sound quality, but someone like me sure can’t tell the difference.
When I was in Burlington Records, I asked owner Jacob Grossi to explain to me vinyl’s appeal. “Music is much more than music,” he explained. “There is a physicality to it. It’s just so much fun to play ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and look at the 24-page booklet that comes with the album.” In that regard, it’s rather like the way I still read books made of paper and glue. I have a totemic connection with pulp. I still want to hold a book in my hands.
And, it seems, I still enjoy holding a record in my hands.
But there is even more to it than that. Grossi held up an album cover and said, “When you see a cover this large, it creates an instant memory.” I knew just what he meant. The Ramones “Road to Ruin” is a Proustian madeleine that catapults me instantly back to college. Grossi is 39, but he can tell you the first music he bought: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on cassette. (Me? Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.” as a 45 rpm single. I’m not proud.) He can also tell you his first experience with vinyl: The Beatles’ white album with its extraordinary gatefold and poster. In other words, from the very beginning for Grossi vinyl was about more than just the music. It was about the experience.
His store has been around since April 2009 and the majority of what he sells is used records. His clientele includes students, hipsters, and middle-aged folks like me. In addition to bins of alphabetized records, he sells posters and music memorabilia – including his favorite image, a 1960 poster promoting a Roy Orbison concert in Suisun, California.
Does vinyl have a future? Apparently it does.
And that gives me hope for the old-fashioned book, too. I may just have to buy another bookcase to go with that record player.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on February 17. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives on July 16.)