Vinyl vs. iTunes: The future of musical integrity

Last year, as the decline of CD sales began to pull out of a nosedive and iTunes raked in roughly $6 billion in profits, an unlikely dark horse saw a 37 percent increase in sales: vinyl LPs.

Vinyl, it seems, is cool again. Megastores like Amazon and Best Buy have joined independent record stores in offering a retro selection of records to consumers. Hell, even Urban Outfitters now sells turntables and LPs from The Shins to John Coltrane.

Urban Outfitters Vinyl

Buy George Harrison’s music. And a $50 scarf.

But there is a reason for buying vinyl that is more primal than hipster street cred or more robust audio. Listening to a record represents an event in a way that digital music never will.

There was a time when music was enjoyed in a manner we now associate with movies or television shows. Friends gathered in someone’s living room (or basement), put on the latest release, and sat in silence to enjoy the album in its entirety. Listening to the music itself was something to do. Often, today, music serves as little more than background noise for a more primary event–drinking, studying, screwing, etc.

I recently sat down with a friend in my living room and listened to “The Wall” in its entirety. We didn’t speak. We didn’t check our phones. We didn’t make other plans. We just listened to the music.

Digital audio has given rise to musical ADD. With the click of a button we create playlists that shuffle through dozens of unrelated songs by unrelated artists. Albums–whose tracking was deliberately and carefully selected by artists–are chopped up and rearranged by anyone with access to iTunes (not to mention the degradation of quality on a compressed digital audio file). Furthermore, digital music sales allow consumers to purchase individual tracks, diminishing the need for artists to even generate a full album worth of material (would anyone really listen to ten more tracks by Carly Rae Jepsen?) We can then arrange those tracks however we see fit. Who among us doesn’t have a series of playlists for different occasions: “Party Mix,” “Workout Tunes,” “Summer Jams,” or whatever clever titles we choose to make ourselves feel creative when mashing together a series of other people’s works?

But while modern producers are churning out tracks catered to the iTunes model of music consumption, decades-old songs are being absorbed into the same system by a new generation of music listeners who will likely never even own a CD. Songs like “Another Brick in the Wall” can be downloaded and shoved onto a playlist somewhere between Pink and Pitbull. The context for the song and its role as a cog on a concept album are lost (will anyone even know what a concept album is in twenty years?)

Vinyl, however, strips us of the power to selectively organize our own mixes. It requires music to be heard as the artist intended. Equally important, a turntable requires a little bit of effort. Instead of flipping open a MacBook and pressing play we’ve got to set up the turntable, unsheathe a record, delicately place the needle and manually adjust the RPMs for the right sound. Listening to a vinyl LP requires a dedication to one artist and one album. It’s musical fidelity.

Vinyl is to music what the theaters are to a movie aficionado or what paper and ink are to a book lover. Music isn’t background noise–it’s art. And vinyl represents the medium’s truest canvas.