Making Music Matter Again - part one
One of my more obnoxious qualities circa 1985 (and there were many) was, upon hearing a song on the radio, reciting the song title, artist, album, year, album side and song number. So, when a particular song crackled on WQFM, I might say something like, “Goodbye Stranger, Supertramp, Breakfast in America, 1979, side one, third song.”
It goes without saying that I didn’t date much circa 1985.
At that time in my life, records weren’t just purchased; they were digested. After all, an LP at K-Mart cost the equivalent of two hours of dishwashing at Seigo’s Japanese Steakhouse – I needed to make the most of my record-buying binges by not only listening to the record, but studying the album’s cover, lyrics and liner-notes. (One of the biggest disappointments was purchasing a record that came in a blank white sleeve; it diminished the whole listening experience). Even albums that fell flat initially called for repeated listens, as I forced myself to justify a poor purchase until something redeeming was revealed, and with the exception of Gregg Rollie’s solo LP, I always found something positive to take away from a record purchase.
Today, music can be accessed, purchased, copied and shared with one click, often a song at a time, so the idea of reciting an album side and song number has become an anachronism (and has probably allowed music geeks to land a few more dates). More importantly, the access to free music has resulted in its devaluation. Music has become disposable, no more valuable than a paper plate. Unless you’re talking about sunsets, love and air, that which is free generally has little to no worth.
Recently, I’ve made strides to making music matter again in my life. There are a number of steps a music lover can take to become more actively engaged in music listening. Number one: listen to vinyl.
I am not a vinyl snob. I never got into expensive stereo equipment. I haven't refrained from purchasing CDs. I love listening to music on the go. And the lower quality of compressed music on-line has never been a big deal to me. I don’t listen to vinyl for the so-called superior sound quality. I listen to vinyl because I can only do it when I’m in my basement where there’s nothing else to do except listen to the music, and because there’s something magical about placing a needle into the groove of a record – it’s one of those mundane acts that transcends the act itself, forming a link to generations, artists, and eras gone by.
I asked Chris Ellensohn, co-owner of Cheap Kiss Records in Schaumburg, Illinois, to explain why vinyl matters. He said it was summed up best by an intern his company hired a few years ago: “I feel like you should have to work a little bit for your music so that it is not taken for granted.”
A good summary, but Chris elaborates more eloquently than I ever could. “Retrieving the record, carefully removing it from the jacket, cleaning it if necessary, gingerly dropping the needle into the groove, perusing the liner notes as the first strains of that particular band’s attempt at a first impression greet you, are all moments of connection to the artist. Compare it to a painting by your favorite artist hanging on your wall vs. having a picture of it on your phone. Having something tangible can make a big difference.
“The fact that we can hit play on iTunes and shuffle our way to hours of uninterrupted background noise just makes us more removed from the point of musical inception, that moment in time when a fleeting thought fleshed itself out into a melody, harmony and rhythm intended to worm its way into your brain and not let go.”
The idea that we’ve become “more removed from the point of musical inception” resonates in other areas of our lives: the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the furniture we sit on. Listening to vinyl is akin to growing your own vegetables, building your own bookshelf, or knitting your own sweater. There’s something pure, perhaps even noble, about listening to music like it truly matters.
Give it a try sometime. And if you’re in the western ‘burbs of Chicago, come and join Chris and Cheap Kiss Records tonight (March 18) from 6-8PM at Cornerstone Used Books in Villa Park. They’ll be talking – and spinning – records. Tonight’s theme: 70s AM Radio Hits.