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Vinyl renaissance vs. the mp3 single: Is laziness on the side of the record?

February 11, 2011

First, a quick note to all fans of BBC4’s way-too-ridiculous Peep Show: our mates at Hulu have just added Season 7 to their playlist, which includes EVERY BLOODY EPISODE OF THE SHOW. If you have about 20 hours to kill, there are far worse ways than firing up Super Hans’ pipe and inhaling 42 of the most absurdly-funny 23-minute-chunks of Sinister Minister you’ll ever find without the services of a credible Sherlock Holmes tour guide. Besides, Jez keeps telling me that this internet will one day be massive, so why not mosey over and take a look?

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I have grown painfully impatient with each passing year, meaning that I rarely provide a record with the attention that it likely deserves. Now, much of this is also due to the fire-hose deluge of music that ventures our way by the hour. It is a challenge to invest time in a “difficult” series of songs when the promise of more-enjoyable material awaits, especially when one does not have to throw another 15 bucks to obtain these new tracks. This – adopt your best Anthony Bourdain voice – cannot be good for the world. In 2017, when bands eschew LPs altogether for mp3ingles, or whatever becomes the Betamax of the next generation, I’ll be among the culpable for the demise of a once-great artform.

(Un)fortunately, I am not alone, as everything from iTunes sales charts to Soulseek searches reveal the dominance of the individual song over all. Yeah, but what does that mean?

One-shot music formats have always had a chunk of the recorded-music universe, even amidst the proto-portmanteau era of the Cassingle. But why has the once-derided method of musical acquisition slowly claimed me (and other music geeks) as adherents? Let’s examine the psychology behind particular musical preferences:

While Americans have been characterized as a Christian nation, or a Rhythm Nation, or the Blank Generation, or the Pepsi Generation, or Addicted to Love (Patrick Bateman would prefer “Simply Irresistable”), or Addicted to Opiate-based Painkillers, or whatever, the reality is that no religion, drug or caffeinated sugar/HFCS-water has anywhere near the gravitational pull on our culture as the Big C: Convenience.

While we are not a collectively lazy culture, when faced with the choice between Effort and…um…whatever the antonym of “effort” might be (I’m not really feeling up to breaking out a thesaurus), we will choose – in the aggregate – that aforementioned antonym every damn time. It is far easier to make an mp3 playlist of one’s favorites, and play them into submission, than to devote hour after hour to “getting” a confounding record. So how does this relate to our music preferences?

In the 1970s, which may be the glory days of album supremacy, we were not radically different in our desire for convenience. However, our chief method of listening to recorded music did not easily allow the skipping of songs. For those of you of an age appropriate to join me in retorting James Murphy with non-borrowed nostalgia for a remembered Eighties, I hear you: a vinyl record allows a much-faster method of skipping tracks than a tape, either 8-track or cassette. But it is not technically easier, as the process requires a particular finesse that begs for your full attention; whereas track-jumping on a tape involves a few sequences where you press FF then Play, followed by the cursory RW, which can be done with whatever hand you’re not using to roll a Chesterfield, crush a Quaalude, or flash an outdated gang sign (do gangs ever re-brand themselves, like an oil company or a private military contracting firm?). Plus, you have to push your way past all of the passed-out couch-surfers to get to the turntable, making sure not to step on any broken glass or lit cigarettes. This means that the 1970s, aided by our Favorite Drug – convenience – more than likely coupled with our other favorite drug – Drugs – led most music consumers to sit through entire sides of records, thus offering an attentive audience for more ambitious purveyors of concept albums, like Pink Floyd, Rush, Yes, Jethro Tull, and the Carpenters. Thus, a rare case when our love of convenience actually served to increase our ability to countenance a more challenging culture.

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