Last week, I dropped $30 on a vinyl record, which was probably the most I have ever paid for an album, without adjusting for inflation. Usually, my vinyl records come from garage sales or thrift stores, and much of my collection came from my Dad and friends. I’m not an avid record store guy like John Cusack’s customers in High Fidelity. In fact, I can probably count all the records I got “new” on one hand. So why did I buy this particular album for $30?
I was attending a concert in Sonoma county, and the $30 record was for sale in a merchandise booth. When I first heard the price, I hesitated. But then I thought about it: this was a compilation album, featuring songs from twelve reggae bands that had recently performed at the 2017 California Roots Music and Arts Festival at the Monterrey County Fairgrounds, the same location as the famous Monterrey International Pop Music Festival in 1967.
According to the back cover, all profits from the album sales will be donated to the “Guitars Not Guns Music Program. Using music as a catalyst GNG encourages children and teens to use their creativity to foster personal development and to help divert them from the destructive influences of drugs, alcohol, and gang-related violence”. When I read that, the $30 price tag didn’t seem too steep; I considered it a donation to a good cause.
I also consider the album a souvenir, that will forever hold memories of that concert. The bands I saw at the concert were not on the album, but there is still a connection, between the live music I heard, the people I hung out with, and this vinyl record. If I didn’t buy it that night, would I get another chance? Would I have purchased the album if it were on CD or Spotify? Probably not. Why not? Of course, I could argue that the sound quality of a CD or digital track is not the same as the warmth of an analog record, which is true; but I will leave that blog post for the audiophiles.
I listen to records when I am relaxing at home, which is also the only place I can listen to them. When I have friends over (which is basically never, but let’s pretend I have friends for the sake of this blog post), I encourage them to pick out some albums to listen to while we catch up on life (and talk about other imaginary friends.) I sometimes hunt for a particular record in my collection, but more often, I randomly grab a few and put them on. And I usually listen to the entire album, or at least one side, all the way through. I respect the time the artist put into recording the album, and the order of the songs.
Most Millennials don’t get the concept of an album. They like their music to be on-demand, as they grew up with the ability to listen to any song with a click or two. They never had to rewind or fast forward a cassette tape, or heaven forbid, wait for an 8-track to repeat. To give them some credit, they certainly understand the value of a good playlist, but they don’t understand how Generation Xers spent hours making the perfect mix tape; how some DJ’s would sort their records by BPM (beats per minute) in preparation for a club set; or how alternative rock Compact Discs would often have a “hidden track” that would start 20 or 30 seconds after the last official track. I remember Ministry’s “Psalm 69” CD had a song hidden on track 69; I remember watching the track number go up each second, in silence, until the final track finally played! You think Spotify would allow a band to have 50 or 60 blank tracks, each one second long, before the final hidden track? Imagine what that playlist would look like on a phone!
My point here is that when you listen to music, the media matters. When I say media, I don’t mean the news or social media networks, I mean the plural of medium, whether it be a vinyl record, cassette tape, compact disc, MP3, satellite, or regular radio. How you listen to your music will affect what music you listen to. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean, using my own music collection, and how I listen to it:
When I listen to my LP’s, I typically listen classic rock, jazz, big band, show tunes, and classical music. I have a few exceptions like EDM records I landed at the Winter Music Conferences in Miami, and a handful of new albums I have been given as gifts from friends. But most of the time, the records I put on are from the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s.
When I listen to my cassettes, and I have a lot of them, it tends to be mostly 80’s music. Many of these I purchased at full price when I was younger. Some were from BMG memberships, some were hand-me-downs from older siblings, and some are live “bootlegs” of jam bands. I also have a lot of greatest hits compilations, and a lot of those Time Life compilations on cassette. Contemporary Country, anyone? I got the Time Life tapes free from a neighbor who put them on the curb when I lived in Fairfax, CA. Many of the tape series are “brand new”, and still in the original packaging. Score!
If I am driving around the Bay, I tend to listen to local radio stations. I especially like Oakland’s old-school rap, hip-hop and hyphy. When I am in wine country, I hear a lot of Joni Mitchel and the Grateful Dead. If I am back in Connecticut visiting family and friends, I listen to the local radio stations there, where I can count on hearing some Rush, AC/DC, Staind, Metallica, and Ska music. The commercials on the radio are annoying, but they give me a reason to change the channel, and find another station, often with a different kind of music. I love the Sunday radio shows, not the Top 40, but the special jazz, gospel, bluegrass, and live music programs on independent radio stations.
If I am listening to my CD’s, it tends to be 90’s music, but there are plenty of other decades represented. I have done a lot of road trips, and my CD collection is a good way to pass the time while I am driving cross-country. Other times, I will hear an old song on the radio while I am driving, and when I get home, I will dig out the CD to hear the rest of the album. I also listen to my CD’s when I am cleaning.
I have a lot of MP3 files, but I only listen to them when I am working on my computer, and more often, I use Spotify to lookup newer bands. Social media gives me the ability to listen to what my online friends are listening to. I can also find new music on apps like Pandora, after I have searched for a particular band, the algorithm figures out the characteristics of music I enjoy, and gives me similar songs from artists I might like.
The downside to this feature is I don’t usually hear the entire albums; instead I hear the big radio hits, or songs that are the most popular downloads. This is very different from listening to a record, CD, or cassette tape all the way through. If you listen to satellite radio like Sirius/XM, you almost never hear the deeper cuts from the albums, new or old.
Nowadays, people can purchase one song at a time, which is kind of like buying a 45 rpm record, or a “cassingle”, which was a cassette in a cardboard sleeve, featuring one song that was on the radio; but those still had B-sides: deeper album cuts, live, or alternative versions of the songs. This was a way for the artist and/or record label to get you to listen to a song you might not hear on the radio. Sometimes, the B-side turned out to be better than the A-side. I remember buying Gun’s and Roses’ “Patience” on cassette single and first listening to the B-side “Rocket Queen”, which was never a radio hit, but it is a sick song. I’m going to put it on right now! Yes, I still have all of my Cassingles; unfortunately, most of them are pretty beat.
Which brings us back to digital music. Today’s younger generation does not have to worry about tapes breaking, or record needles wearing out. They don’t need to worry about scratching a CD, or their hard drive crashing. Their music is usually stored in the cloud, with some songs stored locally on their phone or tablet. Live concerts can be streamed on-demand on your TV using set-top boxes. Just about any song can be found with a quick search on YouTube, just watch this short video advertisement first.
Instead of buying albums, Millennials pay for monthly subscriptions that give them unlimited access to literally thousands of albums. People are happy paying money fees to listen to what they want, when they want, while avoiding the repeating commercials common on traditional terrestrial radio. Others choose to listen to streaming “stations” that are based on their favorite bands, or music genres. This gives them some access to new music, but the bands are still limited, and often chosen by big record labels.
Music is now a service, and people are lazy, so the convenience factor of streaming music is actually affecting what we listen to. If you flip through your old CDs, you will likely choose a different album than you would on Spotify or iTunes. If you listen to a record or cassette, you will likely listen to an entire side, and if you are not too busy, or lazy, you might actually flip it over and hear the B-side.
I encourage my readers to be more mindful of the media that stores their favorite music, and the devices that deliver the music to their ears. Break out your old CD collection, or flip through your parents records, and let the album covers bring back memories, and guide your choices. Listen to the entire albums, top to bottom. Buy a random CD at a truck stop, or from a local band, even if it is a risky because you don’t know most of the songs. Don’t be lame when it comes to music media. Take some risks!
In closing, I would like to get back to that California Roots, Volume 1 record that I purchased last week. When I took it out of the sleeve for the first time, I realized another reason they were charging 30 dollars for it: the vinyl is thick, and decorated with a psychedelic pattern that makes it unique, and memorable, just like the concert I attended. A digital download or YouTube video would never hold those memories like this physical record does. The tracks are great, and the bass from the analog media sounds awesome in my living room. $30 well spent.