I’m thinking of getting a record player.
Yeah, like the kind a lot of us had back when we were kids.
Heck, I remember the old family stereo that still had an eight-track slot in it. And our cars, the later ones, had tape decks. Not my dad’s old pickup, it had holes rusted straight through the floor where you could watch the pavement go by, and that was excitement enough for one vehicle.
Yes, I know I can get music anywhere, any time, from a wider variety of artists, genres, and eras than ever before in history. Streaming music services are everywhere.
But I miss owning things.
Do you ever think about what it was like before recorded music existed? It wasn’t that long ago, historically speaking, but it’s now beyond living memory. Our oldest seniors grew up with radio and phonographs.
Go back to the 1880s or so, and music was something people made, it was handcrafted each time. It was church choirs and fiddle players at barn dances, work songs and marching bands and arias.
And then we caught lightning, bottled it. We put sound into wax cylinders and the punched paper rolls of player pianos, into polyvinyl chloride and magnetic strips that hissed into the silence before the notes.
Music became detached from time. The ability to record sound was a change almost as profound as the invention of the written word.
You could hear a song and next week you could hear it exactly the same way, not just close, not just the same performers, note for note the same. And you could share that experience with people you’d never met, hundreds of miles away, listening in different cities. Yet when you met, if you mentioned that song, people knew exactly what you were talking about.
For the first time, you could own a singular piece of music. Not just sheet music, but a specific performance, one you could play whenever you wanted. In the last decade, though, we’ve moved a little bit back towards the ephemeral.
This isn’t a function of technology, but of commerce. We went from selling analog records and cassette tapes, to the physical digital medium of CDs, to the purely digital medium of mp3 files.
And from there, the companies wondered why they had to sell us anything at all.
Streaming media means listening to anything (as long as it’s licenced to the streamer) but never owning it. It’s part of the broader movement like “software as a service”and streaming TV and movies that aims to switch us from buyers to renters. After all, you can only buy your favourite album so many times. If you need a streaming service to hear it, you can pay every month for the rest of your life.
That’s why I’m thinking of getting a record player. You can argue all you want about the advantages and disadvantages of analog versus compressed digital files – I just want the ability to own some music that I can hold in my hands again.
The ritual of sliding the record out of the sleeve, placing it on the player, and dropping the needle, the soundless hiss that fills the room – and then there’s the song, the same one as always, notes caught and pressed into vinyl like magic.