I remember the day I purchased my first vinyl record: it was a Sunday in mid-March of 2015 at the Melrose Trading Post. After having my hand stamped— granting me access to the labyrinth of thrifted goods— I made my way through the crowd of alternative characters and wannabes alike, with no specific item of purchase in mind. Hours passed, and as our scavenger hunt came to an end, I walked towards the exit empty handed… that was until out of the corner of my eye I saw a paper box entitled “Frank Sinatra”. Allured by the funky fonts and graphic illustrations, my immediate attraction was to everything but the actual contents sheltered behind the album sleeve. I began selecting and mentally organizing the albums into a grid that would eventually embellish the ocean blue walls of my bedroom. I continued shuffling through the box and making small talk with the vendor, and he eventually revealed that there was an original record in the stack from the sixties that had been specifically pressed for radio play, but was previously unopened…ah ha I found it! “Sinatra’s Sinatra.” I recognized a few songs including “Young At Heart” and “All The Way,” but was yet to be charmed by the remainder of the album. In due time my initial attitude of simply purchasing albums as a piece of art, and owning them as an artifact to display, was quickly transcended and replaced with a deep adoration for the stories forever inscribed in the grooves of every vinyl record.
Soon after my initial flea market finds I hastily purchased a turntable. At the time Urban Outfitters had been marketing briefcase styled record players manufactured by Crosley; reasonably priced, aesthetically pleasing, and conveniently portable I purchased the Crosley Cruiser turntable— failing to recognize that social media hype nurtured by millennials did not warrant high quality. Restricted to a low volume, extremely sensitive to vibration, and constructed with a flimsy tone arm and cartridge, the turntable failed to meet the superior sound of vinyl records. Disappointed, I returned to the boundless world wide web for answers: beginning with “How to Troubleshoot a Crosley Turntable” and eventually arriving at “Reviews on the Audio-Technica Stereo Turntable.” My initial excitement had eclipsed rational, but after researching to great lengths I decided to return the Crosley Cruiser and heavily invest in the Audio-Technica AT-LP120. Fun fact: having the speaker enclosed in the same housing— as with the Crosley— sends vibrations to the record, ultimately damaging the grooves, and distorting the sound. Built in speakers do not do the concept of phonographic records justice; there is an appreciable sonic difference to turntables connected to separate powered speakers.
Since then I have developed quite the collection (if I do say so myself). From Amoeba— a retail beacon of hope in an industry drowned by digital downloads and music streaming services— to the Record Collector— a dusty hole-in-the-wall where Frank Sinatra was an avid customer during his time in the recording studio— the 16” by 16” sitting in my bedroom has transformed into the Pandora’s box of music-lovers.
My appreciation for this medium is not a mere anecdotal trend; each thrifted and newly purchased vinyl has a story— those directly associated with my life and those of strangers whose lives are entrapped in every crackle and pop of the used albums. Shopping for vinyl records heightens the listening experience; attentively flipping through stacks of albums and intimately interacting with the music before it is even heard outshines the digital version of any song or album. The tactile sensation embeds the experience in our souls.
Despite the eye rolling and condemning remarks, records do indeed sound different: they are warmer and richer. Unlike digital music that is compressed in order to be uploaded and heard on portable devices or broadcast radio, when a record is pressed it sounds as the producer and musician intended. Quality is not sacrificed and details are not lost.
Nevertheless, vinyls are not invincible; they are enchantingly imperfect. Their fragility warrants easy warping and scratches. Their lack of portability bounds the listening experience to a specific time and place. Furthermore, you can neither shuffle or skip songs: you are at the musicians will to listen to the album as he or she intended it to be heard. You are forced to key into every sequence and manifest meaning from each instrument, lyric, and storyline. Within the realm of digital music you are an independent consumer, but in the case of vinyl records you give your heart, soul, and ears to the musician. You are obliged to listen to the musician’s truth— their whole truth.
There is an allure to the interactive quality of vinyls: the ritual of carefully removing the record from its sleeve, placing it on the turntable, meticulously lowering the needle, watching it spin, hearing the first few notes of a song, and eventually flipping the record over to the next side. It is a hypnotic spectacle that avoids the immediacy of digital technology. You are forced to slow down and pay attention to every step of the process and every detail being amplified through the speakers.
The exhilaration of playing records from some of my favorite musicians is a highlight of the enriching listening experience. The moment the needle touches the vinyl’s surface I am back at the Troubadour— West Hollywood’s infamous rock club where some of the biggest names, including Elton John and Sam Smith, have made their Los Angeles debut, where future band members, like those of the Eagles’, met at the front bar, and most importantly where I developed a life-long friendship with a high school classmate. The Troubadour is my safe heaven away from the white noise of the outside world, and the Audio-Technica is means of hosting my own private concert within the four walls of my bedroom. I close my eyes and I am there: the neon Troubadour sign illuminating the stage, the band throwing every ounce of their energy into the performance, the bass electrifying my body, and my best friend by my side— despite the 2,455 miles currently between us.
My turntable’s ability to transport me to the heart racing, blood pumping nights at the Troubadour is a testament to music’s responsibility as the soundtrack to our lives. With every vinyl record a kaleidoscope of memories populates my mind. With Donna Summer’s “On The Radio” record I am back to the early summer mornings, from age seven to eleven, in my mom’s mini-van as she drove my sister and I to camp; with Bing Crosby’s “Merry Christmas” record I am seated in front of a toasty fire with the smell of wood encapsulating my family’s cabin in Mammoth during our winter ski trips; with Taylor Swift’s “Red” record I am reminiscing over the madness at the Staples Center as my twelve year old self stood in a crowd of thousands mesmerized by the musical theatrics; with Bank’s “The Alter” record I am on stage in my high school auditorium performing my final dance solo; and with Bon Iver’s “Bon Iver” I am cozily hidden under the sheets of my bed, a tub of ice cream in hand, and my best friend consoling me over heartbreak.
Vinyl. There is nothing like it: the context, texture, and depth extends musical experiences far beyond a mere song or album. Every listen is yet another “first” as the sound never identically matches the previous play. Just as we humans are not timeless, neither is material music: it physically ages alongside us. Though a new record may begin unscathed each scratch, skip, and sizzle is a testament to the grooves of history. Vinyl collections are archives of personal memories, and with every play we are both remembering and contributing; simultaneously reading and writing.
What matters most to me about my personal vinyl collection is that the records are passed down from generation to generation long after I am gone. Just as my father gifted me his vinyls from college, I hope the myriad of records housed within the shelves of my home are reflective of the life I lived; the people, places, experiences, and emotions I was fortunate enough to be exposed to. Whether the vinyls are heard alone or in a sociable group setting, I hope they are deeply listened to; I hope individual and collective imaginatives draw great meaning from the sounds pulsating through their ears and into their hearts; I hope the rips and tears of the album cover and the notes scribbled on the album sleeve contribute to a more profound mode of listening. Material matters: without physical formats my stories, and those preceding them, could never be permanently inscribed into the soundtrack of our lives.