The Anachronistic Appeal of Vinyl Records

Digital files are convenient, sure, but there's something special about collecting records. Here's why they're worthwhile.

Here at Bespoke Post, we spend a lot of time thinking about enjoyment as a component of a life well lived. What makes something fun vs. meaningful, and how can we spend more time at the intersection of the two?

Philosophers we are not, but our big discovery (after countless hours in Bespoke’s state-of-the-art Manhattan research facility, a.k.a. the new office wet bar) is an ironclad shortcut to that intersection: community. And to extend a bad metaphor to its limit: If time spent with others is the shortcut, time spent with others under a blanket of music is the super highway. And if there’s a good drink to be had, too, you’re on that super highway in an Aston Martin helmed by a French Formula 1 driver.

We digress, but Mark Whelan does not. He's a Dublin-based record collector and music aficionado who's woven the trinity of music, booze, and community into a regular meet up for analog appreciators, and he calls it Vinyl & Wine. We call it the best thing since Jack Black’s Beta Band scene in High Fidelity.

As Mark sees it, Vinyl & Wine is "on a mission to change the way people experience music in the digital age."

Each event features a different classic album, played start-to-finish on specialized audio gear, followed by the premiere of a new artist's track that used the classic record as an influence. As for the wine part, Mark works with experts to pair different bottles with the listening experience. That communal, relaxed vibe is complemented by discussion panels and podcast recordings to talk about the significance of each album, both then and now. They primarily operate in Dublin for the time being but are working to expand into new cities.

That's all great if you're already a record die-hard, but vinyl can be intimidating and tough to justify in the age of Spotify. We hear you. The good news is that Mark is both one of the nicest humans you’ll encounter and a walking Wikipedia when it comes to appreciating records, and we had him take us through the basics. Here's the low down, in his own words.

Why Vinyl Is Worthwhile

Some of the greatest albums of all time are now being heard in the form of ultra-compressed files on tinny laptop speakers, in fragments chosen by streaming service algorithms. That's not how Brian Wilson, Roger Waters, or Joni Mitchell intended for their best work to be heard.

The legends agonized over everything from artwork to track running order. The longest single session The Beatles ever had in Abbey Road wasn't to record any music, but to choose the running order of the White Album. These things mattered so much to artists of the pre-iTunes era, and I think that listeners are missing out if they don’t listen to classic albums on vinyl, just as the artist intended at the time of creation. It’s a bit like seeing a poster of Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory versus the real thing.

For a master track to be turned into a bite-sized file that can be streamed or downloaded in seconds, material must literally be stripped out of it. Vinyl is a “lossless” format, meaning nothing has been taken away. Now, I’m all for the handiness of streaming services in our fast-paced lives, but not at the complete expense of experience.

And then there’s the physical aspect. There’s something special about grasping What’s Going On in your hands, examining the look on Marvin Gaye’s face, reading the running order on the back, and the moment of anticipation when you place the needle on the record for the first time and let it take you away.

The ritual is a wonderful way to interact with – and get the most out of – a culturally and socially significant piece of art.

Where to Shop

Both online shopping and in-store shopping have their benefits. For someone just starting out, I recommend getting a few staples across a few genres on their shelf. No collection is really complete without a Beatles classic like Abbey Road, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and, just to show that you’re not living too much in the past, a more recent classic like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Shopping online is a good way to quickly get these staples in, plus any other favorites you may have. Then the fun can really start; finding your local record store, going to record fairs and traveling across the country through the night just because you heard a rumour that a store there has an original 1969 pressing of Led Zeppelin’s debut.

The joy and excitement of uncovering a hidden gem means that the in-store experience will always be a key part of building a collection, but the online world is great for getting started and for finding specific, hard-to-get copies of classics.

Buying Vintage

The first thing to do when considering buying used records is to know your own standards and expectations. Some people just love to have a certain record in their collection, regardless of condition, particularly if there’s a great story attached to the specific copy, while others care obsessively about the sound quality and will want to make sure it can still make the hairs on your neck stand up.

One good piece of advice is to check the popular tracks on a second-hand record you’re thinking of buying to make sure they don’t have a faded white color, which means they’ve been overplayed. And of course, you need to look out for scratches and play the record where the scratches lie to see if it’s still a good listening experience.

One of the major advantages of buying second-hand, though, is that it makes you a part of the vinyl community that spans continents and decades. There’s something nice about owning a record with a story behind it and being able to pass it on yourself some day. In addition to that, being open to buying second-hand records can add real variety and character to a collection. It’s great to have a few pristine re-mastered classics sitting side-by-side with some scruffy original pressings that have changed hands hundred of times in the path to your shelf.

How to Keep Them in Good Shape

Do you remember the scene in High Fidelity when Rob is arranging his record collection in autobiographical order? And how Dick is in awe, but still feels the need to warn him against the dangers of stacking the records vertically? These are the people that come to our Vinyl and Wine events, and they're very opinionated.

A lot of people have different views on how vinyl should be stored, and I like the idea of a collection being a uniquely personal thing, displayed, organized, and managed in a personal way. But of course, there are two ground rules.

  • Never, ever let the records get above room temperature – this will create some unpleasant warping. That’s what Rob was risking when he stacked his records vertically.

  • Always put the records back (ideally in their correct cover) after playing, and resist the temptation to leave one sitting in your player. Records need their rest and protection from potential scratches, and their favorite place to do it is in the safety of a record sleeve. There are few things as heartbreaking as a discovering a fresh scratch.

Other than that, store your records in whatever order, location and style you want. Mix up your ordering rules every few months – it’s a really nice way to re-discover old albums and to care for your collection.

Why Vinyl Is Here to Stay

The vinyl industry isn’t’ just changing, it has changed. And I think we’ve reached a point where we can stop talking about a “vinyl revolution” and accept that the change has now been solidified. Vinyl is here to stay – the only question now related to how long the growth will continue.

The music industry is an anomaly in the sense that the quality provided to consumers has actually decreased as a result of technological innovation. The man who brought compressed digital files to the masses in 2003, Steve Jobs, didn’t listen to an iPod when he got home in the evenings. He listened to vinyl. The entire center of the consumer side of the music industry has collapsed, leaving the two extremes of streaming services and vinyl as opposing options. I think we’re moving towards a place where people will use Spotify, Tidal and/or Apple Music for convenience but with the understanding that it is a vastly inferior listening experience than that which is offered by physical records. That, in turn, will continue to drive vinyl growth.

I'd also say that it’s important to end the notion that vinyl is purchased by bleary-eyed, nostalgic old dudes who don’t understand the modern world. Sufjan Stevens, Jamie xx, and Adele were all in the top 20 best-selling vinyl albums of last year.

I fundamentally believe that consumers desire higher quality where it’s available, and there's an ever-growing understanding that compressed digital files are not the way to be experiencing music.

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