Music formats: a journey of inconvenience

Warning: rambling ahead.

Memory time!  In the 70’s, my dad was a DJ at the Los Angeles mega-station KFI (his call name was Roger Collins — he passed a few years ago but his legacy lives on via his Facebook page).  My brother and I still lived in Arizona, but my dad would mail promo LPs to us when they went out of rotation — so as kids we had a steady stream of cool records coming to us, which was how we enjoyed a lot of music that was otherwise hard to come by in our little country-music town.  We had a lot of records by a lot of popular bands, but I remember The Bee Gees and Donna Summer most.

This is exactly what I had. ‘Cause I was classy.

I mostly grew out of LPs when tapes came along. I loved buying them, but I loved recording them more. I kept them in those ugly-ass plastic cases with the fake wood look. Several of those were needed, mostly because of all my horrible mixtapes… It’s kinda funny to think about this now, knowing I’d later be listening to so much music in so many new ways, and also having to find a way to store (and re-store) it all.

Side note: even after getting to tapes as a teen, I did still listen to a lot of records when I discovered 12″ remixes.  This was long before the 90’s came along and ruined remixes for me almost forever — they’d take a song you loved and completely annihilate it, leaving barely a lyric or two to remind you of the original.  But I digress…

So tall…and so heavy. Never again!

Like most people in the 80s and 90s, I abandoned my vinyl and tapes for CDs, amassing 300 or 400 of them at some point. I used to buy those giant spinning towers that could hold 200 CDs each. Gawd, what a pain in the ass it was to move all that crap from apartment to apartment in my 20s! (The secret is to put rings of tough masking tape around the tower to hold each shelf of CDs in. Or strips from top to bottom on all sides, if they’re stacked horizontally. Then have a buddy help you carry the damn things out like furniture. Great fun on stairs!)

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Of course that got super tiresome to deal with after a while, especially when they got so stuffed with CDs that they’d no longer spin, so I got the bright idea of getting rid of all those space-hogging CD cases. This meant dismantling every single CD case, pulling out the booklet and backing sheet, and putting them and their disc into a giant binder. Yeah, tedious. I ended up with several of those, but they were a hell of a lot easier to lug around. A friend of mine had entire shelves filled with these binders full of CDs and DVDs. Another of those storage “innovations” that worked at first, but ended up taking up far too much space when you reached a certain point in your collecting.

A huge space-saver, until you have over a dozen spindles…

Soon after I moved to Seattle in 2000, I took the plunge and began moving all my music into the digital world, converting hundreds of CDs to MP3 files.  Years later I did the same to my DVDs and Blu-rays, and also began building a library of e-books.  I basically abandoned physical media as much as possible, which was freeing in a weird way. It was a huge relief to just dump everything onto my hard drive (or, ironically, CDs full of music files) and just be done with it.  So I emptied all those CD binders, putting the booklets/covers into a box and slapping all the discs onto 100-disc spindles. A few years later, I even got rid of those!

Since going 99.5% all-digital, I’ve chosen to buy/download digital copies of everything. I’m saving space, I’m finding music I never knew existed, and it’s just been super-duper great.

Until it wasn’t. Sad trombone sound.

After so many years of amassing digital music with abandon, I have over 82,000 songs, which iTunes tells me would take 286 days to play.  Even after converting most of it to more space-efficient formats (hello, High-Efficiency ACC!), it still takes up around 265GB on my system.  Not only is that far more music than anyone could ever want or hope to listen to, but it’s a challenge to keep regular backups of it all.  I have so much music I can barely decide what to listen to, and that doesn’t even include Spotify which I use often for new music.  It’s insane.  There’s stuff in my collection that I don’t even remember getting, or why I even have it.  And yet there it is.

A few years ago we went to a show by the fantastic St. Vincent. Before the show, one of our friends went to the merch table and bought the deluxe vinyl edition of her (then) latest album Masseduction, which has a clear plastic cover, a poster inside, and blindingly neon pink vinyl. Something about it immediately made me want one, so just before the show started, I ran over to the merch table to snatch one before they sold out. (I can’t recommend this album enough, especially the song “Pills”. She also puts on a fucking great live show. But again, I digress…)

Go buy/play this album. I mean it! But not the slow piano version. (Sorry, Annie.)

So I bought this LP fully aware that we didn’t have a turntable to play it on. But I think it knocked loose some warm fuzzies about how much I used to enjoy shopping for records when I was younger.  It used to be so exciting to get a new record and bring it home, slide a fingernail down the side to open the shrink-wrap, and pull out the disc which usually crackled with static electricity and had little bits of cardboard and other crap from the sleeve clinging to it.  After a good wipedown, I’d play it while studying the sleeve artwork closely. Remembering that stuff made me start to wonder if I was willing to dip my toes into the vinyl world again.

Up until this point I’ve mostly dismissed the vinyl resurgence as a hipster fetish for old (“vintage”) things. And there’s always that music snob guy everyone knows, the one who insists that vinyl sounds better than anything else and your digital music is pure filth. I used to just roll my eyes and continue downloading, downloading, downloading.  Who has the space and money for all those records?  Why settle for vinyl when you can choose from hundreds of thousands of songs at any given moment and play whatever you like, in the order you want? Pssht and pshaw! I have so much music I can’t decide what to listen to, but it’s fine! Really!

But after talking about all this with my husband, we gave in and said, “Fuck it, let’s get a turntable.”  Both of us have kept most of our oldest and most treasured records in storage for decades, hauling them from place to place when we moved (some things never change!), so we were able to pull those out and begin enjoying them again.  We buy new music almost exclusively on vinyl now, if it’s something we really want, and we’ve been filling in the gaps in our collection with new and used copies of our favorite old albums.  And yes, most of it does sound brighter and warmer than the cold, flat digital stuff.  The hipsters and audiophiles were right on that one, I have to admit. (It’s even more enjoyable when accompanied by a comfortable amount of, shall we say, special fungi. Dusty old memories bubble to the surface and you hear the music in a whole different way. But yet again, I digress…)

We try to be frugal and find the best deal, though sometimes I go a little crazy.  Did I really need that Devo box set?  Or that extremely limited edition Okami soundtrack box set with 4 clear, color-spattered discs which are absolutely gorgeous?  Probably not. But goddammit, I enjoy it!

Well… he’s not wrong.

And you know what?  When I play a record, 95% of the time I play it all the way through, both sides, and I actually listen to it.  The physical format of vinyl makes playing music a more deliberate act, which somehow makes me want to focus on it more closely.  Even if I’m just playing it while I do something in the kitchen, I’m paying attention. With music from my phone, I can flip through dozens of playlists and genres looking for something, then skip it halfway through and move to something else.  With records, unless it’s a super shitty song (and there are some that I used to like but can’t stand now) I actually want to just let it play.  Even if there are crackles and the occasional skip on the older ones, I’m fine with it.

People who grew up on nothing but digital music are starting to appreciate this, too — vinyl is becoming hugely popular with that age group, since the concept of music on a physical medium is new and novel to a lot of them. It must be similar to how people felt when music jumped from live performance to wax cylinders. From what I’ve read, anyway — I don’t hang with the younger crowd these days, and most of the music they’re into tends to make my ears weep.

Unfortunately the young ‘uns also getting into cassette tapes, which I think oughta just remain on the music format trash heap. I mean, come on — the sound is hissy, they degrade in quality with each play, and the tape itself is always getting chewed up and tangled. Am I digressing again?

The downside to vinyl, as it always is with physical media, is: it’s physical media. Because we got carried away, we now have far more records than we ever expected, and it’s heavy. Especially with the industry’s obsession with 180g vinyl and spreading a single album over 2-3 discs, which is utterly ridiculous for everyone but serious audiophiles. So if we ever have to move it all, it’s gonna be HELL.

Vinyl is the “final frontier” of music formats for me. I’ve now come full circle, and I’m done. Whatever they come up with next, whether it’s holographic storage cubes or super-duper 3D memory chips the size of your pinky nail that hold billions of albums, y’all can enjoy it because I’m out!

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