While many have noted the unexpected resurgence of vinyl album sales over the last couple of years, we don't collectively know what to make of this yet. Is it hipster contrarianism? 20th-century nostalgia? A doomed-to-fail effort to assert analog values in an inexorably digital world?
Or is there something deeper and maybe more interesting at work?
The vinyl record itself seems to encourage taking time to simply listen. I find that the physical act of placing a needle on a record focuses me, assures me that right now the important thing to do is listen. Watching the record spin at its famous 33 1/3-revolutions-per-minute speed is itself a vaguely hypnotic enterprise. Not that I stare at it the whole way through. But as long as it's revolving, I can't help but notice that the music is being generated in physical space, through three-dimensional means. And the large, user-friendly package further encourages the listener's physical involvement.
How different the realities that have been fostered by MP3s. While the havoc wreaked upon the economics of the music industry by the digital age has been well reported, the havoc wreaked upon our collective listening habits has been equally if not more severe.
Instead of owning a curated library of hand-selected albums, 21st-century listeners have seen their music libraries become repositories of multiple thousands of song - often downloaded or transferred in bulk, often without any particular attention being paid to what was arriving. The more that our new century's music fans were obtaining for free (typically via illegal file-sharing on peer-to-peer networks) the less they tended to pay close attention to what they were hearing. There were just too many songs to deal with. And more arriving by the day.
Music has become the aural equivalent of fast food
If listening to music was once a purposeful, attentive act, it has become over the past 10 or 15 years a random and distracted act. People often listen to whatever their iPod wants to shuffle into their earphones, and are usually doing a couple of other things at the same time. Online commenters boast about their "massive" libraries - rarely about the quality of the music they're listening to. Meanwhile, streaming services, such as Spotify, brag about the many millions of songs available, and assure us that we should be regularly sharing our hastily assembled playlists with both friends and strangers via social media. As if the constant over-feeding of our ears is now music's primary goal.
Music, basically, has become the aural equivalent of fast food: consumed quickly, in super-sized portions; we get filled up but not necessarily nourished.
This is kind of disconcerting recognition. And yet, strangely, the idea gives me a good amount of hope---and may have a lot to do with why some people are discovering or re-discovering vinyl, and why this may not be a mere fad.
Because---to continue the food analogy---while the masses still eat at McDonald's, the number of people who want something slower and more nourishing is not insignificant, and grows by the year. Restaurants preparing high-quality meals have hardly disappeared in the face of the omnipresence of fast-food establishments. And people themselves have not stopped cooking in the face of the easy availability of (typically unhealthy) prepared food. What's more, while millions may remain committed to fast-food restaurants, no one defends them. No one thinks they're good for us, no one wants to talk about them or spend time contemplating their contribution to our common humanity. Fast food won the battle for quantity of customers but has long since lost the war for quality of life.
Could this be the album's fate in the digital age? Whether in the form of MP3s or streaming or YouTube videos, digital wins the quantity battle, hands down. While the vinyl record is unlikely to re-establish itself as a mainstream object, there is the developing possibility that the album will become the music equivalent of an attentively prepared and consumed meal. And as such will not only not go away but develop a slowly growing audience as a collective backlash to the "fast-food" music we have been culturally binging on since the turn of the century.
Classic Album Sundays
In addition to the increase in vinyl album sales, the emergence of album listening clubs is another recent trend that bolsters the idea that some 21st-century listeners are interested in more musical nourishment than the endless hoarding of MP3s or sharing of playlists. People meet up with the express intent of listening to an album together from beginning to end, without interruption.
The most prominent example of this to date is the organization and event known as Classic Album Sundays. Over the past few years it's become pretty well-established in both the UK and the US. London-based DJ Colleen Murphy, a driving force behind Classic Album Sundays, told the New York Times last year that one of the main purposes is to "challenge the way we listen to music in the 21st century."
"Turning off your phone for an hour, that’s a big commitment today," she said. "Some people can’t turn themselves over. The ego is too big."
That's an intriguing way to frame the problem. But Murphy is right---giving yourself over to an extended musical work requires letting go of the need to have everything your way. We live in an age in which many grew up believing not only that they should always be able to choose which songs to listen to and in what order, all the time, but that they should in some cases be able to dive into the music itself and remix it in any way they see fit.
For that kind of listener, sitting and listening to an album as constructed by an artist may be a difficult experience. For me, having grown up in the album-listening era, it feels like coming home.
The nutritious act of listening
I in fact have personally gotten on board the album-listening bandwagon. I've organized a group in my own neighbourhood that will meet once every couple of months to sit and listen to an album in its entirety. Cell phones are off, and conversation while the music plays is kept to a minimum. We've had one meeting so far, and while I was a little nervous about how it would feel to sit in silence with a group of people while a whole album played, the actual experience of it was very comfortable.
We did not all agree upon the merits of the record in question---I had selected Peter Gabriel's third solo album, the one with the "melting face" on the cover---but we all really enjoyed the chance to simply sit and be with a cycle of songs. To let the music do that mysterious thing with us that music does, when we let it. The point isn't necessarily to love the sound our ears are hearing second by second and minute by minute; the point is to engage with the larger-scale process of listening to music as art created by someone else's conscious awareness.
We now have a second meeting scheduled for March, and word that a couple of more people may want to join the group. We seem to be off and running...