Some people believe it’s ‘old and in the way’ but vinyl continues to influence artists and music buyers across the globe. Paul Rigby begins the first in a three part series looking at vinyl’s unique take on the music industry, the retail industry and why it currently occupies an iconic place in the hearts of many music fans
Before I start, during this piece I will mention CD and digital as separate entities. I realise that CD is a digital carrier but it’s also a physical format and I want to differentiate the two in this extended piece.
Now this is a feature under the Musical Ramblings banner so let me ramble up to the point on this one, slowly. There’s a way to go. It’s only Part 1. So put your slippers on. Grab a coffee or tea and take it easy for a moment here. There’s no rush. We’re amongst friends.
I have found myself developing a growing soft spot for CD. There. I said it. Not the best start to a Vinyl-centric article, I know but I’m circling in.
Maybe it’s because the format is now veering towards underdog status which brings out my paternal side. And it’s facing improved quality too, in both packaging and sound terms. Not a concept it has previously been familiar with.
I remember chatting with an Abbey Road mastering engineer a few years back and complementing him on the sound quality of one of the company’s then recent CD releases.
Like the modest trouper he is, he didn’t say, “Oh well yea, that’s down to the sort of talents and super powers you tend to only find in Abbey Road and within the cast of a new Marvel movie.”
Oh no. What he said was something like, “Eh, yea. That’s the new analogue-to-digital convertors we’ve just installed.”
Bless ‘im. My point here is that CD sound development is ongoing. Still. During its supposed death struggle.
But there’s more. I find that recently released CD players on the market – and there’s a few out there – are rather good. The growing preponderance of CD transports is also a massive and very welcome push towards sonic nirvana.
I do love my Audiolab 6000CDT, I have to say. I prefer the sound of it, hooked up to an external DAC to the noise a streamer makes at two, three, four times the price.
There’s also growing talk about manufacturing methods and how Philips got CD manufacturing right, back in the day.
Back then, they used to punch out the centre holes on CD discs, as opposed to physically cutting them out. This is because the punch action reportedly produced a more exacting circle. That lessened the influence of jitter which is, so I hear, almost baked on current discs because of these lesser ‘cutting’-based, manufacturing methods.
Wherefore art thou, Philips?
But maybe boutique pressing plants might yet step in, when CD becomes a niche market and (thank goodness) drops from its strained, profit-dependant, mass market position.
The growing move away from the jewel case and into the vinyl-like digipak sleeve plus similar packaging territory has also aided its aesthetic issues while its oft inclusion as a bundled format into vinyl packaging is also welcome. There’s life in the old format yet and I’m going to keep a close eye on it during the future. And it does have a future.
What I’m getting at here is that I think CD is learning. Learning from vinyl or rather from the valuable experience offered from the vinyl industry. Why reinvent the wheel? When CD first appeared, that seemed to be its aim. I felt, back then, the entire CD industry acted like bratty teenagers. You know the, “You? You fuddy duddies? Huh, I know best. I know what’s right and what’s wrong. Sure, I’ve been going for all of five minutes but don’t you tell me what to do.”
The feeling I often had of the CD industry, back when it first appeared and especially during its hey dey, was of the pig-headed, self-centred, know-it-all teenager talking to a wise and experienced older man and giving him nothing but disrespect.
That has changed. CD doesn’t do that anymore. Digital does that. Streaming in all its forms is the current shiny brat. It hangs around street corners with a big mouth while surreptitiously applying a blob of Clearasil to its pimples when it thinks no-one is looking.
In terms of promotion and marketing and even packaging, CD has become less rigid, more open to ideas, more democratic in its approach and I like those changes. The result is that I’m warming to CD. Took a while, eh?
Even so, that’s not what I really want to talk about in this column although CDs are core to the following subject. CDs are great. I love ’em. But vinyl is better. No, really.
I remember writing a piece for a monthly called DJ Magazine. This is going back many years. At that time, around the year 2000 or so, apart from the odd, desultory 7” in places like Mojo magazine, I was the only UK journalist actually reviewing vinyl in national UK music mags (I kid you not. The only one. Really.) Especially vinyl albums. I was desperately trying to promote the format in the face of the download fad that was raging at the time.
I remember requesting one album from a national PR agency at that time because I wanted to write a review for one of the music magazines I was scribbling for at the time. You know what I did? I asked them if they could supply the review copy. They said “Yes.” I asked them if they had a vinyl version. They laughed. I’ll say that again. They laughed. This was the world in the year 2000.
But anyway. Back to this DJ Magazine feature. At that time I was listing why vinyl was (and is) such a unique format and why it demanded the reader’s attention. The list offered classic ‘pros’. Well, classic to me, I was repeating them in every music magazine I could lay my hands on with a sympathetic editor. The following – there’s many more to come over the next two articles – may make an interesting contrast(s) to both CD and digital.
1: SOUND QUALITY
I tended to inwardly sigh, a while back, when people agreed with me on this but then they added, “Yes, it’s sounds so warm. I love that.” I wanted to rage in response that yes, thank you for your support and encouragement but no, that’s not what I meant, the sound is so much more than this cliched ‘warm’ thing and…But kept my mouth shut while I was ahead.
And yes, pro-CD and pro-digital fans will be feeling terribly antsy right about now and I can just see them wagging their fingers but, as a lover of all musical formats (because I love music more than hi-fi – remember that) and having tried umpteen CD players and digital systems, CD is not quite there yet. Maybe when the corporate suits finally dump CD then the enthusiasts can turn CD into the format it deserves to be and should have been when it was released in 1982. As for digital? Digital is still in its nappies right now – vinyl has been around since what, 1948 is it? So, let’s be fair, vinyl should sound pretty good. It’s had long enough. Digital will surpass it in terms of sound quality in the future, I’m sure of that but not yet. In time, yes. But it’s got a way to go.
2: THE FACT THAT YOU OWN YOUR MUSIC
Back then it was downloads but it still holds true. Streaming services allow you to rent music. You never own it. There is always a risk that streaming music will be withdrawn if the host runs into bankruptcy or a label contract goes south. There’s no guarantee that your music will still be there tomorrow. Think Netflix. How often does its content disappear over night? Owning physical product does offer that guarantee.
3: FREEDOM OF CHOICE FROM INFLUENCERS OF MY CHOICE
This is a pet peeve of mine, I will be damned if some spotty erk in some Amazon/Tidal/Apple/etc cubicle dares to curate my musical tastes. “If you like this, then you may be interested in…” Vinyl never did that to me. Streaming tries to. But no, I can find my own music, thank you very much! I don’t want to be spoon-fed the music you want me to hear, Mr Streamer because it might be financially beneficial to you to do so. Oh no. I like my freedom to choose while following my own weird, cack-handed, chaotic path selection. Cultural growth via algorithm? Not me, chum. Humph.
4: THE LP PRODUCES BEAUTIFUL LIMITATIONS IN TERMS OF TIME
For any music creator, space restrictions on an LP are such that you have to self edit, prune, double check and make sure of your art, if you want to release it on vinyl. If your album rambles on and on, it won’t physically fit onto a vinyl disc. And if you really want a second disc, then you need to put your money where your mouth is to back up your case that a second disc is actually worth it. Really worth it. Because, if the public don’t agree, you’ll be financially burned.
CD was supposed to ‘cure’ this limitation by offering musicians a massive 70 or so minutes of easily accessible, relatively cheap running time. The results were often depressingly predictable: a string of some of the most bloated, conceited, narcissistic, self-satisfied rubbish I’ve ever heard. Seventy plus minutes that needed to be pruned down to thirty? Oh yes. Often.
5: THERE’S A SATISFACTION IN PHYSICAL PRODUCT AND A PLEASANT WEIGHT IN A VINYL ALBUM
You pay your money. You pick up this heavy thing. There’s large sleeves, there’s often large-format inserts and booklets and possibly multi-folding sleeves. You immediately think. This thing has value. I’ve never thought that about downloads, streaming or – too often – even CD (that is changing with the more recent preponderance of CD-only, luxury box sets but not within single CD productions).
But there’s more! And some less than well-trodden points, that have emerged since those early days. I’ll get to those, next time.