Its not just about listening

I bought a record last week. Its the first time I’ve bought an album on vinyl since the early 90s.

I have a turntable on top of my stereo where it has lurked, dusty and neglected, for the last (nearly) 10 years. It’s fate was revived recently when my kids asked if they could watch/listen to music being played on a record. Once I’d finally got it working again, watching a record start to play turned into a whole-family event. Then, last week, I went to see Beth Jeans Houghton & the Hooves of Destiny playing at Gateshead Old Town Hall. They were selling their new album on CD and vinyl (with free CD copy inside). The guy selling merchandise (also the band’s drummer) assured me that the record was made of quality vinyl. Indeed the label on the sleeve told me that it was a “180gm deluxe vinyl version”. So… we the next day we put the record on…

(Now before I continue I want to clarify a couple of points to myself: (1) I love my i-pod. When it temporarily broke down I was bereft and I have kept hold of the older mp3 players that it replaced as they have all taken a central role in my daily living. (2) I still buy all my music on CD because I am old-fashioned enough to want a hard-copy and to not trust ‘the cloud’. (3) I cannot hear the difference between music from a new record and music from a new CD. I’m not about to get all geeky about analogue recording.)

What really struck me about the experience of buying an album on vinyl (and why I’m bothering writing about it) is because of how different the experience of buying and playing a record is to buying and playing a CD.

Some years ago, long after I had stopped buying records (and stopped going to record fairs to hunt down elusive 12” singles) I sat on a train and watched a younger man inspect the records he had bought from a fair somewhere. He silently and carefully took the record out of the sleeve and, holding the record in two hands, held the record at just that angle so that the light glanced off the record’s surface such that he could inspect if for scratches. He turned the record round and then flipped it over to repeat the procedure for the other side. It was an intensely familiar and long forgotten gesture.

In a slightly more academic turn, it could be said that the object, the material it was made from and the technological system it was a part of all had forms of agency that shaped the human practices which were woven into their consumption. Or some such.

This is not to decry the practices that have evolved around CDs. I have similarly sat on a bus watching an older man inspecting the King Crimson CD he had just bought. The CD was not handled (why would he?) but the generous sleeve notes / booklet was carefully slid out of the jewel case and read with the attention one would give to any canonical text. Its just that the practices are different and records are (perhaps because of their fragility) more of a perceptual performance than CDs.

So, there I was, with my record. It has a very generously produced gatefold sleeve, the inner surfaces decorated with a collage of photo-shopped images, the surface having that satin (?) feel. The inner sleeve, which carries the record, has further images and lyrics. The record does indeed have a solid, quality feel to it. I’d forgotten (and quickly remembered) how differently you hold a record. The kids watched as I carefully extracted the record, placed it on the turntable then manually turned the record as I brushed it down with my record-cleaning brush, carefully wiping the dust off the brush. The turntable is automatic so I pressed the button to inaugurate a series quiet clicks as the player mechanically checked the size of the record (7” or 12” – 10” singles would really mess up the needle). The arm swung over and the stylus was gently dropped down to play ‘side a’. This 2-sided bit was a revelation to the kids.

I quite like small rituals. I like the fuss of making an espresso. I like the careful handling of, and tending to, records. I like the feel and the size of a record and the way I have to handle it. I’m going to carry on buying CDs but I will dig some more records out of the loft.

I came across a chapter in a book recently that talked people working in a kitchen in some living history site / open-air museum in America and how the performative/perceptual element of preparing food became a learning experience for the staff as they learnt new things through the practices. It was a form of experimental archaeology. Playing a record again feels like a form of experimental archaeology.

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About Bruce Davenport

Museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in object handling, Perception. Bookmark the permalink.

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