45 Minutes in 45 Years: How The Experience of Vinyl Records Translates Over To A Digital Age

Image: Alexandra Watts

By Alexandra Watts

The year is 1971.

Mary has just bought Carole King’s Tapestry. She is excited to take it home and listen to it for the first time. As she holds the record in her hands, she is excited for the almost 45 minute (give or take time to flip the record over from side A to B) time period she will spend with “It’s Too Late” and “I Feel The Earth Move.”

The year is 2016.

Megan has found the same album and is planning to stream it for the first time on Spotify, a digital platform that allows people to listen to music without having to buy individual albums. She is just as excited to listen to the album, and does not have to wait until she gets home to listen to it — she can instantly stream the album from her mobile device.

Even though there is a 45 year difference between the first and second scenarios, there are similarities to be found in both of the ways that the ladies listen to this album.

In a 2014 piece for Gizmodo, Mario Aguilar writes about the appeal of vinyl records. While the piece is an examination of the positive aspects of vinyl, he sums up the appeal of records.

“Vinyl isn’t just music,” Aguilar writes. “It’s an experience.”

What Aguilar said can be applied to all music experiences.

Those listening to music on other mediums still get to have the music listening experience that has enchanted many a record listener.

The big experience is made up of little things — like liner notes.

One of the appeals of a physical record is the liner notes. These notes range from a musician’s thoughts, information about the album or lyrics to the songs, as is the case for Tapestry.

In 1971, Mary would listen to the album and follow along to the lyrics.

“So far away, doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” King would croon as Mary would listen to each of the tracks.

In 2016, Megan would queue up the album on her Spotify. She would not be able to hold physical liner notes, but she would still have access to lyrics with a plugin called Musixmatch. The app shows the lyrics in real time to the music.

However, some argue that liner notes serve a bigger purpose than just lyrics. In a 2013 piece on liner notes, James C. McKinley Jr. notes that “the experience of streaming songs on a service like Spotify or Rhapsody can be dismaying,” in part to the omission of liner notes that give credit everyone who worked on the album.

Liner notes are extensions of the listening experience. Some of the digital liner notes are more like biographies of the musicians and basic facts as opposed to credits galore. However, this still allows the listener to go beyond simply listening to the record.

Thinking about the record in another way — whether it be who wrote the songs, who produced the songs or who sings the songs — is moving a listener one step beyond just listening to the record, and thus, making it an experience.

Liner notes bring up the problem with comparing two different mediums when listening to music. Comparison in listening to a record via vinyl or streaming is unfair — they are both different.

Both of the experiences are different, and certain factors may make one more enjoyable than the other depending on the situation.

In 1971, Mary wants to invite her friends over to listen to Tapestry. They all can sit around and listen to King’s melodic voice on Mary’s new record player.

In 2016, Megan also wants to invite her friends over to listen to Tapestry. They can all sit around and listen to King’s melodic voice on Megan’s new Macbook. Or on Megan’s phone. Or in somebody’s car. Or on an iPod at school.

This isn’t to diminish one listening experience over another. Some might enjoy listening to an album on vinyl, where the experience seems more special. Some might enjoy listening to the album on the go, where the experience seems more laid back.

However pieces on vinyl records seem to hold listening to records as a better experience. If this criticism is of digital because of the perceived changes that diminish the quality of music, there is little cause for worry.

For one, vinyl records are still popular. April 16 is Record Store Day, a celebration of record stores, vinyl, and ultimately, the experience of music. Even though music is getting more and more accessible (and digital), the popularity of vinyl has been on the rise. Popular artists from Taylor Swift to Kendrick Lamar have released their latest albums on vinyl.

Vinyl records are just another experience for music. It’s not the best or the worst, but a pastime meant to connect people to music.

Whether the liner notes are digital or not, reading them is another way for a generation to connect through music with words.

Whether it’s listened to solo on a record player or in a car with friends, listening to an album is another way to connect with each other.

Whether it’s 1971 or 2016, music is around to enhance our lives — no matter what the experience.