"Somewhere, in a burst of glory, sound becomes a song." -Paul Simon
How do you experience music? For many of us, it is done in transience. Devices that store digital music allow us to play a bounty of tunes anywhere and at anytime. Acquiring them is as simple as a push of a button. Automated song dispensers are embedded as apps on our computers and mobile gadgets. The stream of ones and zeros can be set up on playlists that seem to flow forever.
While digital innovation opens doors to mobility and perpetuation, some find that experiencing music in an exclusively digital realm is one-dimensional. A transformation in their understanding of the recorded music experience is taking place. It is not innovation but rather a retro-revolution that is turning the tables on the music industry.
"It's about the sound," says Bobby Copeland, owner of the Terrapin Station music store in Murray. "It's hard to understand how you can take a saxophone, drums, a guitar, other instruments, and a human voice, vibrate a recording needle, cut a master, press it, then vibrate a needle and bring it back through speakers. But I do know it's all about a real, physical touch from the time it goes in until the time it comes out."
If you are of a certain age, you instantly recognize what Bobby is describing. Many simply know them as records, music albums pressed as a series of grooves onto a flat piece of plastic. For the majority of recorded music history, grooves in plastic dominated as the major means of public consumption. Vinyl was just about the only way to enjoy music at home.
Other formats eventually came and went such as 8-tracks and cassettes, but nothing seemed to eclipse the long run popularity of vinyl until the digital revolution. "We were sold a bill of goods on CDs, really," says Bobby. "They jacked up the price 50% over vinyl, and we were told they were virtually indestructible. Some of the CDs, depending on how they were made, are actually starting to deteriorate and lose their data. We're seeing more and more of that after 30 years of discs.
"And their sound was supposed to be perfect. But something is missing in digital music." The problem, according to Bobby is re-creation rather than duplication. "You're taking the performance of music, turning it into a code, reading the code back, and trying to re-create a physical sound. It's easy to sit someone down, play a CD, then play the same music on vinyl, and watch them hear the difference. A young woman who worked here about seven years ago when vinyl was starting to make a comeback said that she didn't think she could tell a difference. So I sat her down, played a vinyl album, and she said, 'Wow! It sounds like real music!' Sound can do that. With the analog sound of vinyl, it is so close to the sound of the original performance. Some describe it at warmth. Some describe it terms of colors. But you can hear things in there that digital doesn't bring back."
The technology goes back to 1877 when Edison introduced the phonograph. The recorder etched sound grooves into a rotating cylinder. By the 1890s, the cylinders gave way to flat discs, but the science behind the sound remained exactly the same. Sound waves, the physical vibrations of air, are duplicated in the grooves of the vinyl. While the grooves appear to be nearly perfect, concentric circles, macro photography reveals that they are highly varied and duplicate the shape of the sound waves perfectly.
Proponents of digital music point to convenience, however, when it comes to choosing a format. Vinyl albums take up space, and care must be taken to avoid scratches and keep the albums dust free. Album sides typically average a little over twenty minutes in length, so the listener has to take the time to flip the record to the other side. While these qualities may seem inconvenient, some find them endearing.
"The act of putting on a record, dropping the needle, and the whole ritual of it kind of makes me pay attention to the fact that there is an actual album playing as opposed to one song," says Chris Black, vinyl enthusiast and musician. "You'd listen to a CD back in day and skip, skip, skip, skip, oh there's the hit. Sure, you can move the needle on these, but generally I drop it and play it the whole way through. I can take it in the way the artist intended."
In 2014, Chris released two of his own songs on 7" vinyl. "I sold them quick and sold out!" he says. "It felt awesome to have a record." Chris, like many other artists, are turning to vinyl as a means of distribution. It is more than a nostalgic nod. It is becoming a part of tangible, music history. Digital music is ethereal and abstract. Vinyl exists in the physical realm granting to it a value that cannot be duplicated.
And that tangibility is catching on. In 1993, 300,000 vinyl albums were sold in the United States. By 2014, that number grew to 9.2 million albums with most new major album releases being offered on vinyl. The largest record producer in the country, Nashville's United Record Pressing, has been in business since 1962. The plant is so busy with new albums (up to 40,000 pressings a day) that employees are working around the clock, and new orders are often rejected until a second plant opens later in the year.
And record companies pressing to vinyl are well-aware of consumer habits and offer options for consumption. Most new albums come with a digital download code so that vinyl owners can keep a digital copy of their purchased music on devices. Now, they can listen to their music on the go and enjoy the vinyl at home.
"It just comes down to the whole experience," says Bobby Copeland. "There's the artwork of the album, extras such as postcards and posters, the act of browsing through albums in the store, and the sound of the music. You can lay your hands on it and hear those grooves. There is communal participation as well. People often play their albums with others and share the listening of music.
"That is just a more human experience all the way around."
Terrapin Station in Murray, who celebrates their 30th anniversary this year, is located at 920 South 12th Street in Murray. In Paducah, Bricolage Art Collective on Market Square carries a selection of vinyl albums as does Atomic City Artifacts on the 2nd floor of the Paducah Antique Mall.