Nota Bene: Stephin Merritt


Nota Bene is a new feature collecting noteworthy quotes from some of my favorite artists, scientists, writers, creators, and thinkers.

“I feel like Psychocandy is the last significant event in pop music production. It’s the last album that sounded shockingly new, to me anyway.”

– Stephin Merritt, in conversation with the New York Times, January 2008

The Fallacy of Vinyl Fetishization


In the last five to ten years, with the increased omnipresence of digital audio – mp3s, streaming services like SoundCloud and Spotify, and even the extant (but fading) Compact Disc – there has been a counter-movement growing. Music aficionados have increasingly taken to listening to and collecting music on vinyl, for various reasons, all of which seem to be about elevating the experience of listening to music to something extraordinary. Vinyl record culture has existed as long as the format itself, but with the digital atomization of society in general, many new converts are convinced that the physical format of vinyl and the rituals surrounding it are essential to experiencing good music.

This is a misguided premise. People who fetishize vinyl records and the experience of hearing music on vinyl want something more than good music. They want an experience that is romantic, almost sacred. For them, it is not “all about the music.”

There seem to be three main issues vinyl connoisseurs/fetishists care about:

  1. The Aura of the Physical Artifact – The vinyl record itself, as well as its (small-scale) fine art-like packaging, is a physical artifact that possesses a glorified aura, even in spite of the fact that it’s a reproduction. The vinyl record is an artifact that feels like a thing to treasure and keep. It’s a foot tall, and has a heft to it. Its physical presence in your home imposes itself on your existence. Soundwaves themselves suddenly maintain a physical presence on your shelf, even while remaining silent and dormant, encoded on a platter. Imperfections that arise from overplay are not errors, but charming characteristics of a well-worn pal.

  3. Sonic Fidelity/Warmth – Because the reproduction format is analog, regardless of any digital steps in the creation (recording, mixing, or mastering), a feeling of “warmth” is generally perceived when listening to vinyl. There are lots of debates about this, but I would agree that it does sound different – warmer and less crisp (or “brittle”, as vinyl aficionados say; they jump at the chance to add value judgments to descriptors of digital audio). In terms of fidelity, especially for more experimental and ambient music with complex textures, aficionados claim the frequencies and tonal nuances are reproduced much more successfully on vinyl.

  5. The Purity of the Experience – Listening to a record demands your attention/presence, primarily because you need to physically change the record when you want to hear a new one, or need to flip it to the other side. This means you need to be there, listening. Because the record and speakers are separate from your computer, it’s also less likely you’ll have your computer there diverting your attention with almighty Internet. It’s also more likely you’ll be doing something physical, like cooking, or hanging out with friends, playing a game, etc. In short, it not only demands more of your attention, it’s much more likely to be a social experience. It somehow feels like a more pure, human experience than listening to an mp3.

I’m sure there are more things that vinyl aficionados care about that delude them into thinking music should only be heard on vinyl, e.g. generally being Luddites, or holding onto some constructed concept of “respect” for the artist (by the way this is misdirected etiquette: most artists, like most people in general, don’t care about vinyl in that way). That being said, I think the reasons I listed are probably the main three.

Notice that none of these things have anything to do with how good the music on the record is. You could be a vinyl aficionado with a very poor, underdeveloped taste in music. It’s unlikely, because people who are so into music that they have become obsessed with vinyl tend to listen to a lot of music, and therefore acquire a better taste (i.e. a higher standard for what qualifies as good music). However, nowhere in the Church of Vinyl is it actually a requirement to care about how great a song’s melodies, arrangements, chord progressions, lyrics, or vocals are. You know, the things that actually make good music.

That’s my problem with vinyl fetishization: its passion is directed towards the sonic and experiential byproducts of the artifact, not the music itself. It’s no longer just about how great the music is, it’s about loving a format, and how sacred the ceremony surrounding it is. (Where’s the love for MiniDiscs??)

I own a phonograph and a good number of records, so clearly I enjoy listening to music on vinyl. However, for me the quality of the music trumps all. A good song played on a CD is a good song. A good song played on a 128 kbps mp3 is a good song. If it’s a good song, the quality will show through.

Great music doesn’t need a church in your living room devoted to it. Listen on an iPod and if it’s not catching your ear, listening to it on 200g audiophile virgin vinyl through a tube preamp and speakers with a perfect response curve isn’t going to help.

I only buy vinyl copies of albums I have already listened to obsessively on mp3 or CD. The quality of the songs have to prove themselves to me before they’re admitted to vinyl acquisition status. Aside from saving space and being kind to your bank account, this policy also gives you a look into the very enjoyable world of vinyl listening while reminding you to focus on the quality of the music. A good song is a good song, whatever the format.