It’s a dreary day in Austin, Texas, when my friend Hannah and I roll into town with no particular plan. The first parking spot I come across is in a frequented shopping district, so I swing in. I look up at the shop names and immediately spy a record store. Aha! a plan! Hannah sighs heavily. “We’re going in there, aren’t we?” I answer by getting out of the car and walking in without waiting for her. I hear her shuffle up behind me as I wander up the first aisle of vinyl.
“I really don’t get why you like this stuff. Like, you have Spotify.” I roll my eyes and laugh. “Spotify doesn’t smell like old paper and years of incense burned, or include 40-year-old liner notes.” Ah, liner notes.
I practically hear her roll her eyes, but I’ve spotted a rare, vinyl-only album I’ve been looking for, for years. “Lil. Lily. LIL! Stoppit! You’re in public.” I’m happy dancing, holding the record above my head. “THIS is why I love ‘this stuff!’ You can’t even find this on Spotify, or iTunes, or even on CD. This is it.” It’s a record frozen in time. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent so much time digging through record store bins looking for it. Maybe I’ve been subconsciously looking for a piece of 1973, too – a year I wasn’t alive for, but a year in a decade I would have liked to have seen from the perspective of an audiophile. I take it to the counter like it’s a trophy and place it gently in front of the clerk – an older man with white hair and reading glasses. He looks down at the record, then over the top of his glasses at me. “I just put this out this morning. It always goes as quickly as I get one in.” I look over my shoulder at Hannah, feeling validated. “It’s your group, too. You young kids. Never thought I’d see the day.” He laughs incredulously and shakes his head. “Your generation is keeping me in business.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. According to Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), vinyl sales were up 32% last year, grossing $416 million – their highest level since 1988. Additionally, millennial’s are 60% more likely to buy LPs than any other member of the population, and the majority of those records aren’t newly released records; 68% of them are classic rock albums. Why? Why has there been a rebirth of interest among a generation who has spent so much time growing up with music a touchscreen’s download away? And why classic rock?
Vinyl records are physical. You have to go out to buy them. I love wandering through those old Mom and Pop shops that smell like aged paper and fresh coffee. I like to bump elbows with the person next to me, who wears that similar expression of concentration when they’re looking for something particular – brow furrowed as they flip through a letter of the alphabet – and that rush you feel when you find something you’ve been searching for. I love when the shop owners act surprised by your purchase, a little arrogant when it’s the music of their generation, and somehow grateful, too, like you’ve presented them with a long forgotten memory by placing that album in front of them again.
Mostly, I love that in a world that throws perfection at us constantly – the pressure to have, or at least present the image of, the perfect job, perfect relationship, perfect bodies and wardrobes and skin – in a world where perfection is seemingly so important, vinyl reminds us it’s not so important. Old records have flaws. Flaws give them that human element. It’s those imperfections, from the scars on the tape to the emotions that are evident in the artists’ voices, that appeal to us.
Listening to vinyl records is physical. It’s not like pulling up a playlist and hitting “shuffle.” You take the time to choose a record. You take your own mood into consideration. You go through everything on your shelf before you take one down. You remove it from the sleeve, you place it on the record player, and you drop the needle. You read the liner notes (again). There’s something ritualistic about it – about the fact that you’re about to hear an intended story from beginning to end. There’s something to be learned. Some lesson. What is it this person needs to tell me?
Classic rock is honest, and we know we’re getting something genuine, and a little raw. It’s knee- slapping hilarious to think of anyone even suggesting the use of auto-tuning to Janis Joplin, or Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, or Stevie Nicks – songwriters who knew/know the best take is often the one where they hit something just right emotionally, not technically. That’s what people connect to. That’s why so many young girls are buying those particular records by the armful. Songwriters of that generation opened a little window to teach us something – about the world, about themselves, about ourselves. At the end of a long, bad day, it’s their melodies and lyrics that wrap themselves around us and tell us we’re going to be okay, ease our tired minds and spirits. It’s their wisdom that guides us – “Not that way, baby; I’ve been there, and it’s no good” – and tells us to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I’m not necessarily a music elitist, but I am proud. I’m proud that my relationship with music is something I can pull down from shelves and out of record crates and show people. It’s tangible, and it makes me feel as if I’m doing my part to help preserve the legacies of these artists who have created something that means so much to me, and others like me. Collecting vinyl is not something we do because it’s trendy; it’s something we do because it’s important to us. It’s something we do because for all the things streaming services can do for us, they can’t give us that indescribable feeling of elation that comes from finally finding that one record by that one band who we feel gave us everything.
That’s real. That’s human. That’s vinyl.