There are things in today’s media-soaked pop culture that are fads of years gone by which are slowly but surely making comebacks and are as popular now as they were back then, if not more so. This goes for 60’s hairstyles, 70’s bell bottom jeans, 80’s fashion and 90’s grungey “I act like I don’t care, but I do care” attitude. The one thing that defines pop culture and all the singular elements within it (and subsequent sub-cultures, whether they be goth, hip-hop, hipster etc.) is music.
Music in Pop Culture
Music is probably the most important and most influential element of pop culture, not just today, but in every decade in the 20th century. The Beatles, Elvis and rock & roll defined the 50’s. The folk singers and acoustic guitarists defined the hippie-movement of the 60’s. Disco influenced the bell bottoms and flashy shirts of the 70’s. 80’s were Bon Jovi-type hair and the influential hair-metal. Cobain and his peers’ anger was fuelled by their loud guitars and their loud guitars were fuelled by their anger of the early 90’s. The late 90’s were defined by another genre of angry music…hip-hop, which resulted in millions of teens around the world wearing baggy pants, making “West-Side” hand gestures and forming the resulting hip-hop culture.
Pop culture without music is like a guitar without strings or a mic without an MC and as with hairstyles, fashion and attitude, music… or at least the format in which we consume it… is also making a comeback… and it’s a big one. This comeback in particular refers to the slow, steady and now very obvious return of the vinyl record to the masses and is one that is particularly intriguing when one looks at the trend of music consumption over the years.
In the Very Beginning There Was Vinyl
The format through which we consume our music has drastically changed over the decades and is still changing as I type and you read this. Let’s get in the Delorean and travel back in time to 1948 when the vinyl record was created (or rather developed to its final form) and kids all over England and America would start buying the hit-single records that all the groovy bands were releasing at the time. The singles were followed by full-length LP (Long Play) records and bands over the next 40 years would release millions of albums to music-lovers all over the world on vinyl and with the large album covers and inner sleeves, were able to give their fans a look into the lives of the band, recording or on tour. The album sleeves had rare photos of the bands and lyrics printed on the inside for anyone to sing along to. Lets not forget there was no internet back then and music magazines were still in their infancy.
New Kids on the Block
In 1963, when The Beatles had two hit-singles on the UK charts (number 1 and number 2 with “She Loves You” and “From Me To You”, respectively), the compact cassette was invented and as vinyl had revolutionised the consumption of popular music, the compact cassette would reinvent the way people listen to AND record their music. The compact cassette was first of all just that… compact… and it allowed music fans to be more mobile with their music. Carrying a tape deck and your cassettes to and from a barbecue or party was a lot easier than dragging along your record player, amplifier, speakers and not to mention your cumbersome record collection. The cassette also allowed people to not only make copies of albums for their friends or themselves (whether by recording from vinyl or making copies of cassettes, but it also allowed people, musicians more specifically, to record themselves making their own music.
Rise of the CD
We then had 8-tracks, Betamax tapes and laser discs before the creation of the Compact Disc in 1982 which yet again revolutionised how we would listen to our favourite songs or albums. The CD was much smaller, much lighter, more durable, more compact yet was still able to provide the listener with lyrics, liner notes, photos and information about the band in the package.
Death to Analog Music
Eleven years later, in 1993, the music world as we know it changed forever with the introduction of a digital format of music know simply as MP3. This format was unlike anything we had experienced before. It existed, yet could not be touched. It took up space, but none that you could hold in your hands. It was not a physically-present thing, you could not wipe dust off it so it wouldn’t skip. You could not insert a pencil in a wheel to “repair” the distorted sound. It was a format so small that no matter how big your music collection, you could always take it with you. And with the development of various MP3 players, the most popular of all being the iPod, you could fit all your music in your pocket and take it with you wherever you went, literally.
This seemed great, right? 1000+ songs in the palm of your hand; creating a road-trip playlist in a matter of minutes; shuffling all of the songs so you never knew which song would play next and thus almost pretend like you’re listening to a radio station that is playing all of YOUR favourite songs, one after the other in a random order. Sure, there are no more photos, liner notes or lyrics to look at and read as you lay back and listen to your latest album purchase, but with the internet it’s all there for you anyway, ready to be Google-searched at any time of day or night. The MP3 has become the “perfect” music format for today’s fast-paced and media-saturated world of ours. Want the new Metallica album or want to surprise your dad with a remastered version of a Zeppelin classic or eager to share the new Jay-Z with your mum’s iPad? Click “Buy” in iTunes and in a matter of minutes (or less, depending on your internet speed) everyone is jamming to their new favourite tunes while vacuuming, driving, jogging or walking the dog.
Cassettes have been discarded in old shoe boxes in the attic (I personally have a couple of shoeboxes and an old clothes-iron box filled with old tapes in the garage). 8-tracks have long-since been forgotten and our vast CD collections are forming a fine layer of dust particles on their jewel cases. It seems the MP3 is the be-all and end-all of music formats and one cannot dispute its popularity and dominance in its “field”. Yet, having said all this about the MP3, one cannot and should not ignore the ever-increasing adoration of the once ever so popular vinyl record.
The beginning of the so-called “vinyl revival” began in about 2006 and in the next six years vinyl sales grew from 0.9 million units to 4.6 million units in 2012 in the US alone. This is just a statistic, but an important one nonetheless. Real-world examples of the growing vinyl market are much more effective and I, for one, have experienced this first-hand and over the years have become fascinated by how and why the vinyl record format has grown so much and is becoming something that both young and old music lovers are falling in love with all over again.
The Compact Disc and I
I was a fan of both the cassette and later the compact disc and I embraced both with equal enthusiasm. Vinyl was a little before my time and where I grew up (in the African country of Botswana) cassettes and then CD’s were the only formats I knew of. The Dire Straits, Creedence, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Nirvana and Metallica tapes were stuffed into boxes as I focused on starting (and subsequently expanding) my CD collection. As a teen I had built up a decent CD collection of nearly 200 albums. I enjoyed reading the CD booklets from cover to cover, looking at the band photos and singing along to the lyrics, as I lay on my bed, my walls covered with band posters and listening to the new CD I bought at the local music store during our weekly family shopping trips.
Addicted to MP3
My CD racks were frequented more and more often by spiders and their webs, as I moved on to MP3’s. I ripped, burned, copied and stacked MP3 CD’s like no one’s business. I had to have as much music as possible and expand my MP3 collection even if I didn’t listen to most of the music I had acquired. Quantity meant more to me than quality at the time and while I did appreciate being able to load all my Iron Maiden tracks on my new iPod Mini when I took a trip to Holland the year after I graduated from university, I felt that I was slowly starting to lose touch with the actual music I was listening to. I had a lot of albums and various mixes and I would listen to a few albums and then quickly replace them with a new batch, then listen to a whole playlist of various songs before transferring another batch of albums to my iPod. I was diluting my music experience without even realising it and eventually reached a point where I was never content with the album or band I was listening to. I’d shuffle through tracks rapidly and change CD’s after every two or three songs and would often think to myself how I didn’t have any good music to listen to!
All these feelings were unknown to me at the time but as the years went by I slowly came to this realisation and it was my unexpected and even accidental introduction to vinyl that would lead me on a path of musical redemption, if you will.
A Song of Freedom
During my college days at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, I had formed a very liberal and almost hippie-like attitude towards the world around me and this was exemplified through my consumption and experience of music at the time. I was a radio DJ, hung out with like-minded people, played guitar and become obsessed with the whole counter-culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s and the music that defined the times. I was deep into my Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I was humming Crosby, Stills & Nash and air-riffing to Hendrix. I dug Santana and Deep Purple and as a result started appreciating both the song writing and music composition of these bands and artists. They appealed to my hippie-side and I wanted to experience this music as much as I possibly could at the time. One Saturday morning I went to a local car boot sale and came across an elderly gentleman who was selling an old, beat up and modified Blaupunkt record player. It had no amplifier but it had a needle and a modified cable that would allow me to connect it to my mini stereo system. I was intrigued by this contraption. I knew what it was but had never actually seen one in the real world before. The gentleman also had a crate filled with old records and with a desire to see, or rather, hear what music from a record sounded like, I bought the record player and a “Rolling Stones – Greatest Hits” double-LP for the equivalent of a brand new CD at the time.
Back in my dorm room I hooked up the record player to my stereo, slipped out one LP, placed the needle at the start, put up the volume and sat back to see what would happen. From the word “play” and the first bits of crackling that came through the speakers I was enchanted. The actual connection between record player and stereo didn’t result in the best quality, but to me at the time it all sounded amazing and, dare I say it, revolutionary. This was the beginning of my love-affair with vinyl and the start of my musical redemption (which, I admit was slow and at times infuriating). Shortly afterwards, I found a small record store not too far from campus, that sold hundreds of old vinyls for dirt-cheap prices. This was where I bought my first Zeppelin, Floyd and Purple LP’s as well as the soundtrack to my favourite movie at the time, Apocalypse Now. I’d frequent the store whenever I had some extra cash and slowly, but surely my record collection began to grow.
The Obsession Begins
Aside from that record store, I began looking for antique stores and frequented flea markets all over town in order to find any old LP’s that I could. I got a Santana album, then a Creedence album, followed by a Hendrix album and then an AC/DC album. I was experiencing all this music again, but this time round it sounded different. It sounded better. It sounded authentic and pure. I did mention earlier the iPod I bought after I graduated, so I was still indulging my MP3 obsession and my craving for quantity over quality, but little did I know that this newly-founded interest in old school vinyl was, for me at least, something that would become almost like a lifestyle and would be something that would change the way I would listen to and experience music in the years to come.
in 2006 I came to Serbia to live and work and was lucky to find a few more shops and street stalls that sold old vinyl. And there was a lot more of what I was into. I started completing my band collections by searching for all the Zeppelin albums out there and all the AC/DC albums and Pink Floyd ones as well. Here I could find a lot more of what I was looking for and so my record collection began to expand even more. I left the old Blaupunkt back in Botswana and bought a small Kenwood turntable that could also be hooked up directly to any small stereo system for one to enjoy their records on. A fellow vinyl-fan recommended I look online for vinyls, where I could probably find more specific bands or albums that I was looking for. So I looked and I found. There were guys selling old rock and metal albums for low prices and you could even get them delivered to your front door.
Old School Meets New School
These online searches for classic rock albums soon revealed to me that I could, on the rare occasion, find a new album from a newer band or artist which at the time came as a surprise. Sure, I could find more and more old albums from old bands, but it was rare to find anything new on vinyl. Over time this slowly started changing and online searches revealed more and more current artists and bands releasing new albums on vinyl. Even a couple of the record stores that I used to frequent started getting a few brand new releases every few weeks. So, since I pretty much had all the classic-rock albums I wanted, I slowly started looking for and buying new/newer albums on vinyl. I remember being ecstatic when I came across the new “Black Ice” album by AC/DC on vinyl or the new Wolfmother record. More and more bands and artists were releasing their work on vinyl and people were buying. And this wasn’t just a “rock thing”. There were albums available from Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry, Beastie Boys and more. Internationally, vinyl availability became more profound, with online shopping sites such as e-bay and Amazon offering more and more albums on vinyl to their customers.
On a recent trip back to South Africa, I walked past a popular music store (the same music store where years ago, as a student I asked if they sold vinyl and got a weird look back from the young sales guy) and out of the corner of my eye saw a shelf with actual LP records on display. I quickly veered into the store and low and behold there was a whole (albeit small) shelf with a decent collection of brand new vinyls for sale. There were a couple of remastered Pink Floyd albums, a reissued, 2-LP, live Iron Maiden album, the brand new Black Sabbath (which I had been searching for), the first Evanescence record and a variety of other old and new school releases. Next to the vinyl shelf was a small display cabinet with funky and retro-looking portable record players that looked cool, were compact, relatively portable and were being bought by hipster dudes, goth chicks, nostalgia-lovers and a concoction of other music and (newly formed) vinyl fans.
What’s got all these music fans to start buying vinyl again? The music industry is publishing on vinyl more and more because more and more music consumers want to buy the latest release from their current favourite boy band, rap artist or rock band on vinyl. We are all human and listening to music should be an experience and not just an indescribable motion or voluntary action. Buying an LP is more of an experience than buying the same album on iTunes. It’s an interactive process, from the buying to the unpacking to the listening. The listener plays an active part in the listening experience. Opening up the record cover, looking at the album artwork, inspecting the photos printed on the inside, slipping out the record, hearing that crackling sound, flipping over to side B and following along with the lyrics also printed on the inside of the album sleeve…these are all part of the journey of listening to a brand new album for the first time. You take the time to appreciate the music and you enjoy it more. While you can place the needle at a specific point on the record, it’s not that simple to skip or shuffle songs as it was with CD’s or is with MP3’s, but that’s all part of the charm. You are encouraged to listen to every song and the entire album from start to finish and thus appreciate the story behind the album and each of its songs. You have something physical in your hands, something to look at, something to feel and something that brings you closer to the music…something the MP3’s will never be able to do.
The Battle Between Good and…Less Good
This isn’t to say that digital music is on the decline… far from it. MP3’s are still smaller, more portable, more convenient and the quality is still quite good. And record companies realise this and are using “package deals” to entice buyers to spend a little extra and buy the actual LP. I recently bought the new Black Keys album “Turn Blue” on vinyl and was pleasantly surprised to find a poster and a CD in the sleeve as well. The “Nirvana Unplugged in New York” LP I bought also had a digital download code included with which I could download the album in MP3 format if I cared to do so. The vinyl revival doesn’t pose a threat to the digital music industry (at least not yet) but it does show that people yearn to be part of the music they listen to. They don’t want to be just passive listeners but rather feel that every album they listen to is an experience in itself.
I still occasionally buy a CD (if it’s one that I really want to have in my collection) and still do have a lot of music on my computer and iPhone, but I have also learned to appreciate the music I listen to. I prefer to buy new albums on vinyl and listening to each album is something that I look forward to doing every time. My CD collection of almost 200 discs has now been replaced (for lack of a better word) by my collection of over 200 LP’s. Some things just aren’t meant to fade away, like the VW Beetle, The Rolling Stones or bad 80’s fashion. The vinyl record or LP is a musical experience unto itself and the steadier it grows, the more popular it will become. The Beetle defined a whole generation of car, family and travel lovers, the Rolling Stones defined an entire generation of rock & roll fans and musicians. And the LP will define a whole generation (and perhaps generations to follow) of music fans that don’t want to just have virtual tracks on an iPod in their pocket, but who want to also enjoy their music, be a part of what they are listening to and maybe, like me, will be able to rediscover their appreciation for the bands and artists and the music they fell in love with in the first place.