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By Austin Tyner
It’s 9 a.m. in the summer of ‘04, and golden sunlight streams through the bay windows of my house. I stand on my tiptoes, nose pressed to the cool glass, fogging up the window with my breath. My mom stands beside me, laughing and holding my little sister up to wave to Dad as he walks out the door. We watch him check that the ladders are tied tight to the roof of the truck, before he gets in his work van and drives slowly up the road. Three sets of sockless feet race to the window on the other side of the living room to catch the last glimpses of his taillights disappearing through the trees at the end of the road. We’re silent for a moment.
Then, my mom quirks an eyebrow, a mischievous look coming onto her face. “It’s time.” she sing-songs. I help my sister climb up, and we take our places on top of the coffee table, hairbrushes poised at the ready. A speaker taller than me crackles to life, and my mom plucks a disc from the precarious pile sitting atop it, inserting it into a chunky old six-disc CD player. The opening chords of “She’ll Leave You with a Smile” by George Strait vibrate through the room, and we begin to sing along into our makeshift microphones.
This is my first memory of listening to a CD, and it may sound like an archaic tale to many, because the way we listen to music is changing. From the 1920’s through the late 70’s in America, vinyl records were the most popular, and usually the only way, to buy music. The release of the Sony Walkman radio in 1979 was the catalyst that popularized cassette tapes, because they made music portable. In 1984, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA became the first commercially released CD available in the USA. However, the compact disc didn’t gain popularity until the end of the decade due to cost. In 2001, Apple’s first iPod came out, driving interest in digitally downloaded music. Today, streaming websites like Spotify and Pandora are the most popular platforms that Americans use to listen to their tunes.
Online streaming websites do have their perks. Most platforms have free versions due to ads run by the site, and they bring accessibility to the music, since they can be accessed from virtually any device. Streaming services, however, are also problematic due to how little they pay artists. A report done in 2015 by The Verge found that each stream of a song on Spotify generates about .008¢ in revenue. That eight thousandths of a cent is then distributed to labels and rights holders, before the artists even receive a cut. While this may not pose a problem for multi-millionaires who have already made money off of tours and merchandise, newer artists may struggle to support themselves off the small dividends paid by services like these.
So if you are looking to support your favorite bands, streaming is not the way to go. Physical copies provide a much better alternative. CD’s are cheap to produce, costing only a dollar or two per unit, and artists receive bigger cuts per sale. They also are easy to use, since most cars and trucks still have CD players, and they’re easier to distribute for exposure. However, CD sales are still in decline. This leaves us with the phenomenon of vinyl records’ revival.
Vinyl records are more expensive to produce. Pressed in bulk, a band can get 500 records pressed, and it will cost them around $2800. Each record sells for around $25, so the cuts the artists get are more substantial, much like CD sales. This is a worthy investment for artists who are guaranteed that the records will sell out, but would be risky for a lesser known band if they don’t get their money back. On the side of the buyer, records are generally more expensive than CD’s and require record players and replacement needles to play. They also are prone to certain pops and crackles, which are not present in today’s streaming.
Collegiate’s Director of Performing Arts (and former professional musician) Mike Boyd commented on this, saying, “Music that is electronically produced in the modern era can sound best when played from a CD or digital file… Music that was recorded for the intent of being played on vinyl may sound best to my ear, since I have experienced that growing up, and more specifically, the drums and bass have a thickness that is just not delivered digitally.” Yet records are making a noticeable comeback. It is hard to understand why, when the technology we have is perpetually advancing.
I think many are beginning to reject the belief that records are outdated technology, or just relics of previous generations. Those who have always bought records continue to do so, but a whole new crowd of youth are buying them also. On any given day, you can find adults and teens alike rummaging through the vinyl in local music stores like Plan 9 Records and BK Music. In addition, I think many people prefer having physical copies they can hold and display to the intangible songs found on the web. Collegiate parent and self-proclaimed audiophile Ward Tyner says about the popularity reboot of records: “I think a lot of it is the romanticism … the excitement… People like to open up the casing because you never know what you’ll find. They used to come with posters, they could be clear or colored, with cool art inside. It was always a surprise, kind of like a cracker jack box.”
Personally, I buy records for the fun of it and for the sound. To me, there is nothing better than the novelty of unwrapping a new record and playing it for the first time. The most interesting record I’ve bought to date is a translucent purple copy of St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ Sea of Noise. I think that in addition to the novelty of the records, sometimes there are records that just sound better on vinyl. The crackles and static can add to the experience of listening to certain albums, and the sound tends to be very crisp and clear, compared to that of the tinny speaker on my phone. It also feels good to me to know that the records I purchase will help support not only my favorite bands and artists, but the local businesses that sell their work.
Featured image: a painting of the dog Nipper, by Francis Barraud (1856-1924), which became the advertising icon for RCA Records. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.