“I want something I can hold”

Looking back through some hastily-scrawled notes from November’s The Wire salon, Raiders of the lost archive: crate diggers, record collectors and audio archaeologists, which focused on practices of collecting and reissuing music, I was struck by the continuing attraction that physical records still exert over collectors and music lovers.

While the panel – four collectors-turned record label owners and Wire journalist Tony Herrington – acknowledged the benefits of digital technology for producing, researching and promoting their music, selling or consuming, music digitally (that is, selling music via legal downloads, listening to music on portable digital players) was a whole different matter.

The need for a physical object was central to this. As record label owners, having an actual record to sell was essential. The physical album, with artwork, sleeve notes and the like, engendered a sense of pride and satisfaction.

As listeners too, physical trumped digital every time. Not only does vinyl have the best sound quality, but the act of listening to the record was pretty essential too. It’s an almost ritualistic practice, including examining the sleeve, taking the record out and putting it onto the turntable and taking the time to listen to it – both sides –  in its entirety.

Quite. But I can’t help feeling that this is only part of the story.

I don’t run a record label and so I can’t comment on whether creating a physical record is more satisfying than creating a digital file – although I love the care and attention that labels such as Trunk, Finders Keepers and others lavish on their reissues.

As someone who is constantly juggling the demands of work, childcare and the usual domestic duties of a homeowner and parent, the time I get to spend on the type of listening favoured by the panel is sadly limited.

Yet I’m listening to more music than ever before, thanks to my portable MP3 player which holds most of my record collection, digitised and held in my computer’s hard drive – not to mention the astonishing variety of mixtapes, taster MP3 tracks and mixes I can download free and legally every day.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that my MP3 player has changed my life in the 10 or so years I’ve had it, transforming the dead time of the commute into a voyage of discovery and making packing for trips and holidays a lot less arduous now that I don’t have to stuff my bags with CDs (not to mention the limitations of not being able to take the vinyl on holiday).

I’m sure that vinyl will continue to exert a hold over collectors. But for me, digital – invisible and intangible, with often crummy sound quality – still has the upper hand. For the time being, anyway.


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