Record players — or turntables or LP players, or just pain vinyl, depending on your nomenclature preference — are absolutely remarkable — beautiful, even! — pieces of mechanical engineering, an appreciation I failed to grasp as a child, but something I absolutely lust over now that I understand how they work. Not only that, but they are arguably one of the more important (cultural) inventions of the past 150 years: the ability to bring music — effectively, the sound of culture — into the household, without the need to lug around things like people and instruments, was an immensely profound accomplishment.
This is the story of why I decided to buy a record player, and why all entrepreneurs should buy one too. And no, it’s not why you think.
Why I decided to buy a record player; it’s not why you think
That, and just listen to them! Vinyl sounds warm, soft, deep, rich; the occasionalRice Krispies elves’ chorus of “snap, crackle, and pop” just adds to their nostalgic charm. And those large, beautiful album covers are the musical analogue — literally as well as figuratively — to beautifully published hardback books we value so dearly on our bookshelves.
I didn’t buy a record player just for its nostalgia or audio quality. I bought it for something else entirely. I bought it because it enabled me to disconnect. From everything. And to just listen to music and do nothing else at all.
Except that none of those reasons were why, after a year or so of searching, researching, and learning as much as I could about record players and vinyl generally, that several months ago I finally tapped the “Buy Now” button in the Amazon app on my iPhone 6, for an Audio-Technica AT-LP120USB Direct-Drive record player (save yourself the research trouble — at $250 shipped (with Amazon Prime), this is the best record player for your money, especially if you have anything less than a several-thousand dollar audio system, and even then, it’s still great).
No. I didn’t buy a record player just for its nostalgia or audio quality.While arguably important and legitimate reasons, without more, they were important, necessary even, but not sufficient. I bought it for something else entirely. I bought it because it enabled me to disconnect. From everything. And to just listen to music and do nothing else at all.
The reason I finally caved in and bought one was because a record player performs one function, and one function only: it lets — no, it requires — that you sit and listen to music only, while expressly disallowing you from doing anything else at all. And in today’s absurdly multi-tasked whirlwind life, especially for those of you, like me, running your own companies, this is a beautiful, welcome thing indeed.
What’s driving vinyl’s staggering 260% resurgence?
Vinyl has seen a marked resurgence in recent years — up 260% since 2009, and 53% in the first quarter of the past year. This growth is absolutely staggering, and there are at least two powerful factors driving its growth.
Nostalgia. People like holding the physical records with their beautiful artwork, and the rustic “snap, crackle, pop” sounds (which, it should be noted, are all but eliminated on well-cared for records) undeniably imbue the music with an immensely emotional, rustic warmth. Fire up a wood-burning fireplace on a cold winter night, snuggle up with your honey (the person, not the food) and a cup of hot chocolate, and you know what I’m on about.
Audio quality. Comparing the sound of a record is like comparing film to digital video or photography: yes the digital versions undeniably look brighter and pop with more vivid colors and detail — iPhone photos especially look like a saturation boost filter is automatically applied — but contrary to popular belief, more isn’t always necessarily better. Yes, for certain things like sporting events and sci-fi movies, you want HD digital video, and now, even 4K; but can you imagineGone with the Wind or Casablanca if they were shot on digital video? It would just completely kill the feel and emotion of the pictures. Remember how terrible Star Wars Episodes II and III looked (because our mind’s eye kept comparing them to the softer film look of the original trilogy)? As another analogy, look how “fake” the recent Hobbit films looked when shot at 48 frames per second, rather than the age-old industry standard of 24 frames per second. In film, and music, it would seem, there can be such a thing as “too perfect.”
So while the nostalgia factor is certainly valid, it is by no means a compelling reason to return to a record player; or we might as well make the same argument in favor of a return to horses and buggies, typewriters*, and leeches.
The audio quality factor, however, is a very valid point, though admittedly, only if you fancy yourself an audiophile. Truth be told, to the average listener, “more is indeed better” — or rather, louder, brighter, sharper is better — when it comes to most music, and, the audio output of vinyl does tend to be less “bright” than modern digital media. That said, vinyl sounds more “real,” rather more like what you’d hear in real life, at an actual concert. No digital trickery and audio boosting nonsense, then.
The difference in audio quality between records and digital audio is indeed immensely subtle, but if you can recognize and appreciate it, it is also immensely profound.
(A quick aside for why records arguably sound better, warmer, richer, than their digital counterparts: records are typically — not always; generally, try to avoid digitally mastered records when possible — recorded from an analog source instead of digital, and of course the finished product is also analog: physical grooves on a vinyl platter instead of the binary language of 1s and 0s on a CD or streaming via Pandora, Spotify, or iTunes. This means that, unlike digital recordings which crop the audio frequencies right around the threshold of hearing, analog records capture audio even beyond what you can hear. Interestingly, and not at all intuitively, the result ends up being a fuller audio spectrum which does indeed produce a subtle but profound positive impact on the audio quality. Here’s a fascinating 7-minute video of this phenomenon; well worth the watch:
An analogy is comparing an analog photo to a digital photo: as you zoom closer and closer into the former, you get grainier and grainier; but the digital photo just ends up becoming blocks of pixels, and at a lower zoom factor. Records are like the analog photo; digital audio is like the pixelated digital photos. Make no mistake: the difference is indeed immensely subtle, but if you can recognize and appreciate it, it is also immensely profound.)
But neither the nostalgia nor even the audio quality was quite enough to tip me over the edge to drop $250 on a record player, never mind the ongoing cost of slowly building up a record library (Mom and Dad had long since donated their astonishing record collection to a dear family friend back in the 1990s).
Record players once again make music an active pursuit
No. What finally tipped me over the edge was this startling revelation:
In order to listen to a record player, you can’t be driving; you can’t be jogging; you can’t be doing anything at all. Indeed, you need to be at home; you need to be in your living room; you need to just sit there and listen to music.
Digital audio has relegated music to little more than a passive pursuit; record players once again make music an active pursuit.
The point is this: whereas digital audio has relegated music to little more than a passive pursuit, to produce ambient, background music while driving, jogging, whatever, record players once again make music an active pursuit, the sole thing warranting your attention.
For the first time since I was a little kid, I actually just sit and listen to music now; and it’s incredible.
And there’s more. Listening to a record requires patience. It requires you to stop everything you’re doing — except, perhaps, read a book — and just sit and listen. You can’t fast-forward through tracks; you can’t skip tracks. You can’t even stop the music unless you actually get up, walk to the record player, and physically stop it.
For 45 minutes at a time, record players require you to just sit, focus, and concentrate on the music, and that is all. Nothing else.
So why does any of this matter to an entrepreneur?
Precisely because record players slow you down; because they offer an almost impossibly rare chance in today’s world at actively slowing your entire life down:for 45 minutes at a time, record players require you to just sit, focus, and concentrate on the music, and that is all. Nothing else.
So in this regard, records are rather like physical books versus iPad books; or cooking rather than takeout.
Cooking arguably takes more time out of the day; but it’s a welcome respite from the non-stop chaos of the workday. I first got into cooking during law school of all things, when I had less free time than any other point in my life. (And yes, I still passed the California bar exam on my first go.) And I’m not the only lawyer I know who did this.
I still make a point to redundantly purchase hardback copies for the most special books, both to showcase on a bookshelf in our home, and to enjoy the tangible touch of its beautiful hardback construction.
And while I have slowly but surely been growing my iPad iBooks collection with purchases from the iBookstore (ok this is starting to sound iRidiculous) if only for the undeniable convenience, I still make a point to redundantly purchase hardback copies for the most special books, both to showcase on a bookshelf in our home — the first thing you see when you walk into someone’s home that tells you a lot about them is what’s on their bookshelf — and to enjoy the tangible touch of its beautiful hardback construction.
Even more compelling, however, is the very real advantage physical books offer over books read on an electronic screen: no, not so much the eyestrain argument — which doesn’t really bother me anyway — but rather the distraction argument. There is nothing more maddening while reading a book on iPad than to receive a text message or Facebook notification, let alone an email; and no, setting the device to “Do not disturb” mode doesn’t help much either, as the entire internet is just one Home button and Safari app tap away; never mind the time suck that is Facebook.
The point is, when you sit and read a physical hardback book, the only thing you can do is read that book. You can’t get text messages on it; you can’t get Facebook notifications; and you can’t browse the freaking internet. And best of all, you can’t get emails.
Listening to music on a record player requires you to disconnect from everything else in your life, to slow down, and just relax, something we entrepreneurs are notoriously, woefully inept at doing.
And it’s the same thing with listening to music on a record player: by once again upgrading music to an active pastime demanding your full focus and concentration, it explicitly eliminates all other potential distractions, and requires you to disconnect from everything else in your life, to slow down, and just relax, something we entrepreneurs are notoriously, woefully inept at doing. I sort of touched on the importance of work-life balance in Parts 2 and 3 of my Be an Entrepreneur series I wrote back in May, and the quality of life improvement offered by a record player, I think, is an immensely profound — if subtle — ingredient in finding that balance, even if it is just for 45 minutes at a time.
So do yourself a favor. Go buy that Audio-Technica record player I mentioned earlier, and let me know in the comments how great it feels the first time you delicately clean and place your first vinyl on the turntable, and you hear those first tell-tale snap-crackle-pops as the needle starts to work its beautiful, warm, nostalgic magic.
And just listen to your music. And do nothing else for 45 minutes. Don’t you feel better already?
* Actually, I could make an argument in favor for a (very limited) modern day value of typewriters. The other day I received a thank you card from a local retailer. Pulling the note out of its envelope, I was immediately struck at both the very fine paper stock, as well as the font: not because it was old fashioned “Courier” typewriter font, but because, upon closer inspection, I was fairly certain an actual typeweriter had been used to write the note. And that really struck me, as anyone over the age of about 30-35 probably had the chance at least to play with a typewriter as a child, and probably remembers just how tedious and finicky they were, and just how utterly useless the modern typewriters’ “whiteout-label backspace” function really was. Point is, just like taking the time to write a hand-written note, one could argue in favor for the occasional type-written note, if only to demonstrate an extraordinary effort and personal touch. Indeed, I would almost argue that writing by typewriter is more challenging than writing by hand, so great is the risk for ugly typos. But no, I will not be pulling out my parents’ old typewriter from storage for any other purpose expert perhaps as a charming memento, and I will not be writing an article about why every entrepreneur should code on typewriters. Because that would be utterly absurd.