One of the first vinyl records I bought before I even owned a record player was the voodoo jazz thump-a-dump of Dr. John the Night Tripper‘s Gris-Gris –— a lucky ten dollars at the markets. The cover was a visceral nightmare: a hot red light burning away any of Dr. John‘s distinguishable facial features, a double exposure of his profile backlit by white, unfurling smoke that made the whole thing look like the birth of a UFO alien in a science fiction movie. It was second hand, so some edges were scuffed white by the hands of its previous owners, and the delirious, boogaloo ramblings of Dr. John himself on the record’s back made me excited to listen. And soon after, when I was finally in possession of a turntable, slipping the clean black vinyl out of the sleeve, resting the needle on the edge of it, and hearing the crackle before the saxophone’s crooning introduction in ‘Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya’ felt more than satisfying, to say the least.
Even the CDs I grew up with, which have less of the physical wow factor and more of the compact affordability, are fragile and sentimental in nature. They have weight, not just literal, but metaphorical, and my collection of them, albeit small, is precious.
Nowadays, I listen to 99% of my music via streaming services. I didn’t get much time to savour the full experience of vinyl/CD collecting, as the internet, music downloading, and eventually music streaming came crashing quickly into my world. I’ve become accustomed to familiar faces like YouTube and Spotify, and infatuated with modern music technology’s ability to scale convenience and quality. It’s easier, of course, to listen to anything and everything, but I find myself going back to the cosy, poster-clad record store walls, sifting through the crumbling plastic crates and running my hands over the tattered edges of hand-me-down vinyl or the glinting facsimile jewel cases. And it isn’t about the music quality either.
The process, especially, is important. Addictions often fester in the form of habits and routine, and streaming gives you none. What excitement is there in the click of a play button, this robotic one-step ritual? Record playing reduces grown adults into starry-eyed children at Christmas time: rip off the plastic, examine every grain of the album cover’s kaleidoscopic colours, undress the jacket from the vinyl and fumble with the disc so as to not leave fingerprints on the grooves, lay it down on its turntable bed and drop the needle with a quivering, delicate hand (or the punch of a few buttons). Do that ten more times, or twenty, or more, and you’ll find yourself falling deeper in love with music when it has an action to match — think of it as a ceremony, the spin of a record its own self-celebratory dance. The process attached to streaming is barely a celebration: click the application open, search for your album of choice, squint at the album art, press the emotionless ‘play’ triangle, and watch your pixellated pointer icon hover in the margins of the flashing computer screen.
Let’s not forget that owning music also strengthens the bond between fan and musician. For most musicians, there is careful consideration in the construction of a musical artefact. The visual choices on the sleeve, the liner notes, the occasional behind-the-scenes pictures, and the thank you notes are usually handpicked by the artists themselves, and an album ends up feeling more like a carefully crafted gift or a personal manifesto rather than a simple piece of merchandise. Take, for example, Dr. John’s nonsensical, chanting descriptions on the back of Gris-Gris, saying he has “dug up the old Danse Kalinda to remind you we have not chopped out the old chants and the new croaker courtbullion to serve battiste style of phyco-delphia” (whatever that means). It’s a glimpse into the chaotic and exotic travels of Dr. John’s feverish mentality. Another vinyl in my possession demonstrates the same: Funkadelic‘s iconic Maggot Brain. The art in itself is something to be admired, with the woman’s scream halfway between horror and joy available up close, each blinding white tooth in full view, but the real gem is inside, a quote from the infamous Process Church of the Final Judgement about fear and how it is “at the root of man’s destruction… lurks like monster: dark and intangible”. These words that crawl across the cardboard directly reflect the music, Maggot Brain revolving around the idea of fear, death, and transcending both, and the pair make sense in companionship, each its own poetic homage to the other. It’s a far cry from the stark, austere uniformity of albums on streaming applications which provide just the bare bones of what a musical experience with the physical feels like. The personal and intimate are all sucked away; who is the musician but a name on a screen?
On the other hand, some may argue that records and CDs deteriorate over the years — vinyl records warp, covers fade, liner notes rip, jewel cases crack, CDs scratch — and technology, sleek and perfect, can immortalise music for generations to come. Once again, the argument of convenience seems to overtake the concept of passion, and fans forget that sometimes, it’s nice to treat music like an old friend. Records fade, but they do so with memory and care. With each tear in the paper or scratch on the disc, there’s often a memory associated: Remember when you played that life-changing album on the turntable for the first time? Remember when you blasted that CD through your car speakers with the cadmium yellow sunlight beating down on your face? Remember when you loaned that already-tattered record to your significant other because you wanted them to leave their mark on it too? Records are made to grow old and weary, but they age with grace.
Without sounding like an ageing hipster, let’s forget, for a second, about the efficiency or the easiness of streaming services: the fact of the matter is that I feel closer to the music when sitting on a pile of discarded plastic casings and shiny holographic CDs; like a “true music fan”. Yes, streaming is easy as pie, but records foster a passion beyond sonic satisfaction.