An Earthling’s Examination of the Record Revival
It’s a bit satirical that the summary of David Bowie’s musical career was deliberately pressed onto triple discs, endowed with reflective cover art, shrinkwrapped in plastic and titled “Nothing Has Changed”. For someone who was born at the the tail-end of the gramophone era and rode the waves of radio, digital recording, the boombox and everything in between (likely playing Assistant Pioneer to some of those evolutions), this is a tad bit mystifying.
Though it’s hard to imagine LPs becoming the main fuel of music profits in the digital age, their revival is a valid study of the modern listener. As over analytical Earthlings, we can’t resist the draw to such an enquiry.
Vinyl records enjoyed $416 million in sales in 2016, a 35% jump from the previous year and the highest total since 1988 (debut year for Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, lest you forget). Record sales even overtook digital music in December 2016, proving the nostalgic pull to music as a shared experience.
As whimsical as it all sounds, it’s worth a critical eye.
Are single 20-somethings just trying to woo their potential lovers with a coffee table full of records to sift through as they frantically sweep their micro studios for embarrassing debris? Or, could it be, they’re actually listening? I’ve personally fallen victim to the typical Millennial attention span within the context of iPods, Spotify, and Soundcloud, wherein I skip to 0:20 to even begin a song and someone could cash in millions if they bet against my completion rate.
There’s a more positive way to pull the Millennial card, too, which is noting how meaningful it is that the generation making 20% less than their Boomer predecessors and shouldering thousands of dollars in student debt are willing to pay $20+ for a vinyl. Not to mention it’s a risky purchase. Who knows if record players will still be manufactured in 50 years…if you can even keep your records in good condition until then.
The questions to pose are: Even if your poor LP gets disenfranchised as wall art for your avant garde grandchildren (pardon the visual of the next mutation of hipsters), does intent matter when the net effect is a well-supported artist? Likewise, does format matter when the record still gets a listen, even if once, but at least in full?
Let’s consult our friend Bowie once more. Lying on his deathbed, he likely anticipated a recognition boost following his departure to the stars. In sure-fire fashion, five of his albums posthumously ranked in the 30 best-selling vinyls. Similar cases with the late Prince and George Michael – unless they found a way to funnel revenue to the afterlife – prove the value of “life after death” as a non-financial form of artist support. Still, I offer a friendly reminder that a good chunk of his listeners are living paycheck-to-paycheck.
I contend it doesn’t, but if intent truly matters then I’m wholly convinced that today’s listener fully respects, and supports, their beloved artists.
If intent matters, then buying the LP format of an album reeks of arrogance, right? Let’s consult your parents this round. I challenge you to ask them: My dearest Nuclear Family Unit, did you really listen to the hundreds of CDs you let rack up into a spatial state of disarray? Their answer is predictably “no”, but it’s not our place to judge our Gen X counterparts for seeking novelty to the same extent we Millennials are seeking hipsterdom. The goalposts haven’t moved. Format is irrelevant.
I’d like to consider myself a decent Earthling. Despite my digital hellscape of 20,000 mistitled illegal downloads, I make a purchases on Bandcamp every so often and hover over the merch table after shows. I also have walls lined with vinyl recordss I’ve never listened to. I don’t even own a record player. I might be the harrowing preview of your nu wave grandchildren, but I also claim responsibility for the revealing statistics of our holistic musical renaissance. Throw your caution to the wind and join us in shameless, all-accepting bliss.