Paul D. Wilke
My motives were selfish. My son Jake and I were visiting Arles in October 2020, a quick getaway between Paris's suffocating COVID lockdowns. Arles had two very different things that made the eight-hour drive from Paris worth it. First, it had some of the best preserved Roman ruins in France, if not the entire Mediterranean. Those did not disappoint. Our Airbnb was in a two-hundred-year-old house across the street from the two-thousand-year-old Arles Amphitheater.
Arles was also where Vincent Van Gogh painted some of his best works and where his sanity sadly began slipping away. I wasn't surprised that the picturesque beauty of the region inspired one of my favorite artists. That didn't disappoint either.
As an added bonus to these already sufficient reasons to visit, we stumbled upon the Arles flea market while exploring the city on our second day. Oh yeah, I thought, a flea market, and a big one too! Jake died a little inside, knowing that an hour of dad-fueled boredom was on the way. My excitement faded as I realized what a buzzkill it would be browsing with someone who hated every minute of it. This was supposed to be an enjoyable week for both of us, so maybe just a quick walkthrough and then we'd move on.
But then inspiration struck. We'd recently opened a Spotify account on which Jake had discovered the many treasures of the classic rock era. I'd also been to enough French flea markets to know this much: Most had at least one vinyl record dealer. In this case, we were lucky. Arles had three. I suggested he check them out while I went my own way to explore at my leisure. We'd meet back up in an hour.
An hour later, he was still going through the records. I suggested he also get a couple, that maybe we'd get him a record player for Christmas. He ended up buying two that day: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.
And, just like that, a hobby was born, and not just for him either. I got into it too.
He got that record player for Christmas two months later. After that, every month or so on Sunday afternoons we'd hit a few record stores in Paris. Our favorites were Music Please, a small shop in the 10th Arrondissement with an excellent classic rock and pop selection, and Etoile Disques in the 17th was nice too and had the added benefit of not being far from home.
The best of all was the Marché Dauphine at the Paris Flea Market. The MD had almost an entire floor dedicated to over a dozen vinyl record dealers catering to every taste. Even better, the MD had bookstores too! Here was the flea market sweet spot for both of us! We killed many afternoons there.
The best part of this new hobby was that it was finally something we could do together. We both play video games but have radically different tastes. He likes first-person shooters. I hate them. I like slower-paced games like World of Warships. He hates them.
Moreover, my own bibliomania wasn't something Jake shared. Not. One. Bit. Our home is blissfully overflowing with books, yet reading isn't something he's ever done unless forced to in school. Unfortunately, reading became associated with drudgery and work; reading boring books is the quickest way to exterminate a teenage boy's desire to read, though no doubt the experience made him a more socially conscious young man. So there's that cinder of consolation. In the end, reading just wasn't fun, and why would anyone do anything that wasn't fun unless they had to?
But listening to music and collecting records was different. Here was fun for both of us. This was the magic ticket to that elusive father-son bonding. Jake's tastes tended toward 60s and early 70s rock, stuff like Pink Floyd, The Mamas and the Papas, The Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, and especially his favorite, the Moody Blues, just to name a few. He's become a bit of a classic rock scholar, full of trivia and facts about the bands and albums he's into.
On the other hand, I gravitated toward the nostalgia of the 70s and 80s pop music of my childhood, which was great since those records tended to be in the bargain bins. Five bucks for A Flock of Seagulls album? Same thing for Toto? A dollar for Dan Hill and Janis Ian? Are you kidding? Sold! I'll take 'em!
Our Parisian field trips went something like this: I'd dig through the clearance bins and leave with seven or eight records, usually spending no more than thirty or forty euros. Jake usually only bought one or two, but he'd spend a little more to get something collectible or in mint condition.
Now that we're back in the US, not much has changed. The CD Cellar, one of the largest record stores in Northern Virginia, is three blocks from our house. Wherever we go, we check to see if there are any record stores. We're rarely disappointed. A recent day trip to visit the Gettysburg Battlefield was interrupted for 45 minutes when we drove by a local record store, Sweet Repeat Records. We had to stop. Obviously.
And so nowadays we occasionally stop by the CD Cellar, me looking for forgotten and obscure 80s gems like Re-Flex and The J. Geils Band, while Jake's hoping to round out his more classy music library with collectible versions of his ever-evolving favorites.
II. The Demise and Rebirth of Vinyl
But what's the point of spending all this money and time collecting something that should be obsolete? Technology has given us so many choices - really too many choices - and nowhere is this more apparent than with music. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music offer millions of songs at your fingertips for ten bucks a month. It doesn't make sense to buy one record with only seven or eight songs that can only be played on a large record player.
Until two years ago, I hadn't thought about vinyl records (also called LPs - Long Play records), much less owned one, since probably 1980. In fact, I remember the last album I owned: the Village People's Macho Man. I was only eight, so the entire gay subtext was completely lost on me, though I often wonder what my devoutly Christian parents thought about me listening to Macho Man over, and over, and over again.
After this brief but intense Macho Man phase ended, I happily followed the trends of the next four decades, seamlessly transitioning from records to cassettes in the 80s like everyone else, then from cassettes to CDs in the 90s like everyone else, and finally to downloadable and streaming content in more recent years, again, just like everyone else.
Every step along the way felt like an improvement on what had come before, and I willingly embraced it. Music became more portable, the music-playing devices became less fragile, and the amount you had access to on any device increased dramatically in the early 2000s. This was progress and I was just fine with it. More music was better, more choice was better, and the music industry helped this transition by honorable and dubious means.
For example, I remember being one of the suckers who signed up for Columbia House's twelve cassettes for a penny scam back in the early 80s. Like everyone else at this time, I had a brand new Walkman and needed to start a music library to use it. Columbia House understood this, and they understood human psychology too. In fact, its entire business model was based on it.
So I got those twelve cassettes, though all these years later I only remember a few titles: Billy Squire's Emotions in Motion, Aldo Nova's self-title album, Toto IV by Toto, and my favorite, Styx's Kilroy was Here with the timeless classic, Mr. Roboto. With those twelve cassettes came the instant gratification and music library my ten-year-old self craved. But then came the fine print I never bothered to read until it was too late. I was obligated to buy six more over the next two years at full price plus shipping and handling. Well, that didn't sound too hard.
At the end of the day, some life lessons were learned.
If you didn't respond in time to the company's album of the month offer, they'd automatically send it and then bill you for it. Here's where Columbia House's cleverness came into play. You see, you had to actually mail back a form declining the album of the month. If you didn't do this by a specific date, they shipped it to your address and charged you the full price, plus shipping and handling.
Columbia House's cynical bet was that most Americans were either too lazy or too distracted to accomplish these simple tasks. That was certainly true for me. Even worse, the album of the month inevitably sucked. Through my own negligence (but I was ten!), I piled up a bunch of tapes that I didn't order and was frankly embarrassed to show my friends, like Wham, Culture Club, and Cindi Lauper. Clearly, I'd moved on from the Village People to more manly performers, though I don't know how you could be more manly than the VP.
But sketchy mail-order business models aside, audio cassettes revolutionized how we listened to music. Big, clunky, turntable-dependent records couldn't compete with the Walkman. This trend continued in the 90s as CDs replaced cassettes as the dominant way to enjoy music. They were more durable than their predecessors and held more music. Unfortunately, they were also easy to copy and upload onto computers. This helped create the pirated music crisis of the early 2000s when companies like Napster allowed users to download songs for free.
Still, portability ruled the market. The industry recovered somewhat by clamping down on illegal downloads and creating an alternative where consumers could legally download music for a price. Digital music downloads and the advent of the iPod in 2004 represented the next advance in the more-for-less trend in music.
Then it became possible to carry thousands of songs on one device. Now CDs became the dinosaurs that couldn't compete, and so began a steep decline that continues to this day. Finally, in the 2010s, subscription-based digital streaming services came online, offering consumers vast music catalogs with millions of songs for the low monthly price of what a single album used to cost.
In this exponentially-expanding menu of options, we've apparently reached peak choice. Indeed by all the rules of technological progression, the vinyl record should have gone the way of the typewriter. Extinction was the likely outcome. By the early 2000s, vinyl was on life-support as demand cratered and the law of supply and demand did its pitiless culling of obsolescence. As demand tanked, vinyl record manufacturing infrastructure around the world was dismantled. Vinyl presses were either mothballed or trashed, and thousands of record stores closed or switched to CDs and MP3 players to survive.
But then something interesting happened. You see, vinyl never totally died, even in those valley-of-the-shadow years of the early 2000s. A small but dedicated cadre of enthusiasts kept it alive. These vinyl audiophiles resisted the inevitable flow of technological progress, insisting that LPs represented a purer musical experience. They were on to something.
In 2007, things began turning around. What had been declared dead and buried became retro-cool again. If 2006 was the nadir for vinyl, with only 900,000 units sold (compared to a 341.3 million peak in 1978), then 2007 was a rebirth of sorts. At this time, a few small companies were still issuing LP versions of licensed titles obtained from the major record labels. They noticed sales start going up, slowly at first, but then gaining momentum in the coming years. The few record stores remaining after the vinyl/CD Gotterdammerung of the early 2000s experienced the same thing. Sales began to rise. Demand did too. These trends have continued to the present, with 2021 seeing over a billion dollars in sales and over 41 million vinyl LPs sold. 2022 is on track to do even better.
No, vinyl will never replace digital streaming as the primary music source for most people. It no longer has to. LPs have carved out a complementary space within the music industry, now representing about 7% of album sales. That's not much, but it was enough to get the industry's attention.
This is not merely a resurgence fueled by the vinyl generation's nostalgia for a bygone era. You know, middle-aged dudes like me, though it is that too. We have the younger millennial and zoomer generations to thank. They embraced downloadable and streaming digital music like everyone else, me included. Still, they also wanted a physical object they could hold onto, look at, and put on a shelf as part of a collection they could take pride in.
Many of today's hottest recording artists, like Harry Styles and Taylor Swift, issue vinyl editions of their albums which sell hundreds of thousands of copies apiece. Their fans, primarily teenagers and twenty-somethings, eagerly buy them up as fast as they are printed. Keep in mind that these demographics never lived through the golden age of LPs in the 60s and 70s. Not even close. That's what is so promising about this trend. LPs don't need to compete with other modes of music consumption. It's no longer either/or, eat or be eaten in the market jungle.
Young and old alike are enthusiastic collectors now. This may not just be a fad that will die out with the older generation. The most dedicated fans and audiophiles are willing to spend money to own a physical manifestation of the music they love. Artists and record labels see it as a great way to generate revenues, something that's been a challenge for them in the streaming era. Fans are more than willing to pay $20-40 for limited edition LPs of their favorite artists.
While most of my personal collection is composed of original, so-so condition releases from the 70s and 80s - nothing too pricey - I've been willing to shell out some extra cash on occasion to get albums from my favorite modern artists like Tool, DJ Shadow, Nick Cave, and Porcupine Tree.
As someone who has collected physical books for years despite constantly hearing about the practical advantages of e-books, I understand this appeal. Yeah, yeah, e-books have their place and are here to stay, but there's a tactile joy about having something to hold onto and look at. Each LP is one of a kind, with unique cover art that makes it more than just a piece of media to hear music on. It's a distinct work of art that's both visual and audio.
There's also a certain cultural cachet to collecting vinyl. In other words, it's cool. A record collection signals something about the person and their specific tastes in music, much like books on a shelf tell me what that person's interests are. It's a way to signal something about who we are without saying so outright. And anyway, retro is cool for young people looking to stand out from the crowd.
The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, and many others are often the gateway bands for beginner collectors. Then they branch out into ever more niche tastes in music. That has certainly been the case for my son. He started with the usual classic rock icons and has burrowed ever deeper into different sub-genres, from prog rock to synth rock to folk rock and everything in between. He's only just begun.
Another part of the appeal of record collecting for many is going through the bins at the store. It's a bit of a treasure hunt, which I can relate to as a book collector. When we go to the CD Cellar up the street, the first shelves we check are the New Arrivals. The thrill of the hunt and the joy of finding something unexpected make trips to the record store a fun experience, not to mention a communal one as well.
It's also fun being around people who are just as into vinyl (if not more) than you are. Enthusiasm is infectious, and the community found in record collecting is one you can't get from streaming music. That is a solitary affair. Over the last three years, the record shops we've visited here and in Europe have been filled with all demographics: men, women, Gen Xers like me, teens like my son, and everything in between. We all have different reasons for collecting records but are brought together by a shared love for the hobby. Is there anything else where diversity works so well to unite and not divide? I can't think of one.
III. Some Kind of Turntable Time Machine
All of this backstory and context were utterly unknown to me before visiting that flea market in Arles. For me, this ended up as an unexpected way to connect with my son, though my initial thought was simply to buy some time to browse a flea market hassle-free. As I said, my motives were selfish. However, since then, this hobby has branched into the pursuit of nostalgia by rediscovering the music of my youth.
I've discovered a few things as my collection has grown. First, the impracticality of bouncing from song to song on a record player means I'm encouraged to slow down and listen to the entire album from start to finish. When I stream music, I rarely do this. I tend to cherry-pick my favorite songs and leave everything else. Judging by the listen count stats on Spotify, this is the norm.
I've learned that some artists I once considered one or two hit wonders put together some fine albums. The Fixx was so much more than One Thing Leads to Another. That song's album, Reach the Beach, is outstanding from beginning to end. The same goes for Genesis's Abacab, which I've listened to so many times I've lost count at this point. ABC's The Lexicon of Love is another masterpiece that's more than just the megahit The Look of Love. Heart's 1976 Dreamboat Annie, which I recently picked up for seven bucks in the clearance crate, is pure listening joy all the way through. I could go on and on: Talk Talk, Asia, Midnight Oil, etc., etc.
That music stamped my soul with long-forgotten emotions that can now be excavated by taking the time to slow down and listen again. Collecting records represents the chance for me to do that, to immerse myself in the nostalgia of an ever-receding past.
I can't listen to my Whitesnake album today without dredging up memories of making out with my girlfriend in the backseat of my '78 Thunderbird. Those are wonderful memories from bygone times that I'll never experience again.
Metallica's Master of Puppets evokes the semester I went to school in Salzburg in the early 90s, one of the happiest times in my life. I didn't have the record by then, only the cassette, but it was enough. I'd pop Master of Puppets in my Walkman for my bike ride to the university each morning. MoP's blistering heavy metal always reminds me of that 30-minute speed ride to class, past the zoo, by the icy Salzach River, around the Festung, in the late autumn cold and pouring rain, the air filled with the smell of wet leaves and the cloud-shrouded Alps looming in the background, and me peddling as hard as I could to stay warm while constantly reminding myself how amazing, so fucking amazing, it was to be alive and living right here, right now, right in this moment, rain or no rain. All the while Metallica was pouring into my ears and into my soul, leaving an imprint I can still feel all these years later. That was my Sound of Music. These are also memories I cherish because they shine a light back into the fading past to what were in many ways better days.
Those days are gone, long gone, though the images remain, and the right song, or album, or melody, can act as a key to unlock the feelings and aches and emotions of the past, all of which seem to dull and dim and die with age and the slow, grinding death, NO!, suicide, of our spontaneous selves.
That's the point, isn't it? As the years pass, we eventually realize the time ahead of us is less than the time that's already passed. This is a somber realization, though not one to despair over. Let's find consolation where we can. The nostalgia the right music offers adds an extra dimension to our lives. We don't have to forever exist in this truncated singularity of the ever-present now. Fuck that. No, we can choose to close our eyes and let the music take us back, like some sort of turntable time machine, to bathe in the sunshine of better days.
Try it sometime. Slip into the past with a relic from the past. Take the time to slow down, close your eyes, and experience a record. Listen to the crackles as the needle hits the record and then slowly, effortlessly, dreamfully, drift back in time to remember (or misremember) just how good it all was. Let the music paint the past for you.
You'll be better for it.