Monday, June 29, 2015

COLUMN: Record Store Day

There are certain times in life when I am convinced that I'm an abject failure as a human being. Thank goodness I've got my music collection to fall back on.

Even in my darkest moments of self-doubt, I find redemption in knowing that I am very, very good at listening to music. I might not know how to cook a meal, but I can make you a mean mixtape. I can't keep my shoes tied for more than thirty minutes at a time, but I can school you at music trivia. I might forget my wallet on a near-daily basis, but I never forget my iPod. It's more than a hobby, it's a lifestyle.

Ever since I bought my first album with my own allowance money ("Ronco Presents: Hit Explosion '78!"), I discovered that it's hard to find a problem in your life that doesn't get at least a SMIDGEN easier with the right soundtrack. Over the years, my music collection has gone from decent to big to "you may want to see someone about your hoarding problem, Shane."

I'm okay with this -- "music geek" is a label I wear with pride. But based on what I've seen this past week, I'm starting to wonder if I'm even a failure at being a geek.

Last Saturday was Record Store Day, the annual high holy day for audiophiles everywhere. In addition to deep discounts and epic sales, it's also the day when artists release limited-edition must-haves that make collectors drool and empty our wallets in unison. There were live bands and long lines at both Co-Op Records in Moline and Ragged Records in Davenport. I spent the majority of the day inside both stores, digging through crates of records with my fellow music nerds, with just one thought in my mind:

What's so special about vinyl anyways?

I say this at full risk of losing ALL my audiophile cool points. There's probably a posse of Captain Beefheart fans mounting up to ransack my house and take away my music nerd membership badge, but I can't help but say it: I'm just not a vinyl guy.

Every year on Record Store Day, limited edition collectibles flood the market -- but 98% of them are vinyl records, and I just don't get the appeal. One of the big draws this year was the release of Bruce Springsteen's back catalog remastered on vinyl for the first time ever. That's pretty cool, I guess -- but I already own the entire remastered Springsteen catalog on CD. What do I need the record for?

Looking at the phenomenon from a strictly scientific point of view, vinyl is an outdated and flawed format. Records are cumbersome, take up shelf space, weigh a ton, and are vulnerable to a host of assorted damages from mishandling. If you leave a vinyl album on its side or in the heat too long, it'll warp. If you don't treat it with kid gloves, it'll get scratched. Good record players need to be weighted and balanced. Cartridges and needles have to be constantly maintained and replaced. It's a fragile commodity in a harsh world.

Technology evolves for a reason, and I'm a firm believer in newer=better. Cumbersome records gave way to portable cassettes. Fragile cassettes gave way to durable CDs. Each technology is an improvement upon the last. (Except, of course, for 8-track tapes. No one understands 8-track tapes. They're the bastard stepchild of the music industry, and I can't explain their temporary popularity. I blame the Seventies.)

I could understand the appeal if records sounded better than a CD, but by and large they don't. I've got a Japanese vinyl import of Led Zeppelin's "Physical Graffiti" that sounds miles better than any CD, but to know it, you need a high-end record player that's going to take full advantage of the format. But most kids these days just have some cheap plastic close-and-play turntable with all the high fidelity of a cheap boombox.

I'll admit, sometimes crystalline sound quality backfires. One of the first records I owned as a kid was the Dave Clark Five's "Glad All Over." I bought it for a quarter at a yard sale and the thing was beat to heck. You put the needle on the record and your ears were greeted by a din of scratches and pops. But then, over the top of that static fuzz came those drums. BAM! BAM! BAM BAM BAM! Primitive, tribal, unholy banging that heralded a wall of sound straight into your soul, scratches and all. It was the sound of raw danger incarnate, which is exactly what rock and roll should be. If you listen to the CD remaster of "Glad All Over," it sounds positively neutered in comparison.

In all honesty, there's one big reason why vinyl collecting has come back in style, and it goes back to evolving technology. Remember how I said newer=better? Well, I kinda lied. Just as vinyl gave way to CD's, CD's in turn gave way to mp3's -- and other than their handy portability, mp3's suck. Compressed digital audio files don't sound anywhere as good as their previous incarnation. Plus, where's the thrill in going to iTunes? There are no crates to dig through, no daytrips to find that elusive gem you're hunting down, no plastic to unwrap. Heck, there's not even an album cover to stare at. There's just a button to click, and buttons aren't fun unless they're the kind that say "Sex Pistols" and come pinned to your denim jacket.

And now it's worse. Even online mp3 sales aren't what they used to be. Nowadays, all you have to do is pay a monthly fee to Spotify and suddenly you've got access to the same collection it's taken me thousands of dollars and decades of searching to amass. No fair. That makes you a music consumer, not a music fan. You can visit all the "clouds" and rent all the music you want. I prefer having a collection that's actually fun to collect, thanks much.

Still, if someone gives me the choice, I'll opt for a CD over a record almost every time. That said, I couldn't help but fall into the trap a little bit during Record Store Day. Of Montreal released a live album that's ONLY available on vinyl, so that was a must-own. I love the band Ride and they put out their greatest hits on limited RED vinyl? Ooh, I had to own that. And what's this? The Happy Mondays' "Pills n Thrills n Bellyaches" remastered on vinyl for the first time ever? I sort of felt obligated to pick that up. Before I knew it, I was heading home with one healthy stack of records.

I'm still a CD guy at heart, and I don't see that changing. My confession beter not take away my street cred as a top-notch music geek. Hopefully I'm still in the club. Geeking out is the one thing I'm always really, really good at.

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