The Virtues of Vinyl: On Things We Can Hold
My dad is a great musical mind. Each night, once us kids were in bed, he’d sit at the piano and play. Chopin’s tender waltzes, Rachmaninoff’s tricky concertos, Ernesto Lecuona’s fiery Malaguena. These melodies softened the blow of having to relinquish our outdoor selves to an eight o-clock bedtime. They carried the warmth of summer nights into our dreams, as we drifted off to sleep watching the fireflies light up jars on our nightstands.
U2, Joshua Tree was the first album I remember owning. It was on vinyl, and I’d brought it home, along with my grandparents’ old record player, from a two-week summer vacation at their house. As a teenager in the early 2000s, music was making its way from cassette tapes to discmans, and there I was, fifteen years old, listening to my grandparents’ records in the basement.
Sure, I had bought CDs before Joshua Tree came my way, but I don’t remember any of them. I attribute that, in part to what a good album Joshua Tree is, but also to the physical attention that vinyl demands if it is to be listened to: I had to open the suitcase-sized record player, plug the speakers in, poise the needle over the shiny gap before the track I wanted to listen to, carefully lower it. Vinyl is a mode that demands touch, demands attention.
Over the next few years, I inherited, piece by piece, my parents’ record collection, and with it, their taste in music. Chicago, Bud & Travis, Bread, The Sound of Music. Like all good collections, vinyls have lineage. They are meant to be hunted out and acquired in the presence of friends, meant to be passed around. Each album has a story behind how the owner got it, and those stories are meant to be shared. And when the time comes, vinyls are also meant to be passed down, the physical embodiment of the music taste inherited with them. I love that the albums I listened to, the ones that shaped my musical consciousness, are the same ones that shaped my father’s. The same sound waves pulsing through my head and heart pulsed through his too.
These melodies my dad gave me are woven so deep into my consciousness of the world, it’s as if they’re part of my DNA as much as the green eyes and freckles I also inherited from him. My father gave me such a rich world of color with the music he brought into our home. Music taste is an heirloom, though one we can’t touch. Vinyls are one expression of that taste that we can.
On Holding Things
We like owning things, holding things. Vinyl records are music you can hold, a physical imprint of sound. In large part, that’s an experience today’s generation has totally missed. Music today is 1s and 0s, streaming through tiny earbuds or cellphone speakers. To acquire songs, you tap a glass screen. To play songs, you tap a glass screen. To share songs, you tap a glass screen.
Remember going to the local music store and flipping through rows and rows of CDs, alphabetized by artist (so I find Norah Jones in N or J?). When an artist’s discography got big enough, they got their own section: Elton John, the Beatles. Remember asking the store clerk for help if, after three passes through the L section, you still couldn’t find the Lifehouse album you came for? So many tangible interactions with people in such a brief stop: with the clerk, with other browsing music lovers, with the physical product these hundreds of musicians and producers made.
For those a generation older (or those lucky enough to have come into a record player and vinyl collection), the physical interaction with an vinyl album in order to listen to it is even more robust: once you’d selected the album to play, you’d slide it out of its sleeve, careful to hold it by the rim only, suspended between your fingertips as you lower it onto the spindle, then lift the tonearm and gingerly lower it onto the grooves that have actual soundwaves compressed into them. And then six songs later, you have to walk over to the record player to flip the vinyl over! I don’t know how all the science of vinyl works, but I have found that all these physical interactions inherent in playing a record, all this touching and holding and flipping—there’s something caring and intentional about it. It’s an experience that leaves me feeling wonder each time, at the miracle of hearing the entire New York Philharmonic, Boston’s bright electric guitars, or Dylan Thomas reading his own poetry, right in my living room.
For all its wonderful ease, digital music robs us of the experience of operating in the three-dimensional world, interacting with three-dimensional things and multi-dimensional people. It flattens that experience to, well, interacting with a glass screen.
What a loss.
Yes, we have so much more music at our fingertips, for such a low price. We can stream music all day, anywhere we go, everywhere we go, without having to replace the batteries in our discman, without having to lug around the giant binder of CDs, without needing a bookshelf to house our vinyl collection. But what we’ve lost is having tangible experiences with the music we listen to. Listening to an album can be a feast, in the same way that preparing a thoughtful meal and intentionally sitting around a table with friends to share it is a feast.
Vinyl is more than the 1s and 0s of digital sound—it is actual grooves hitting an actual needle. It’s music you can hold. And there is value in having things you can hold. There is value in intentionally interacting with objects, giving your experience with them your whole focus. I’d argue these sorts of interactions with the physical world take away loneliness. They connect us with others, and with our deep-down selves. They keep us present in this wonderful, slow-paced three-dimensional world we live in.
The Record Player
Now, let's talk about this record player. We searched high and low to find a record player we could stand behind—one built to age well, both in design and sound quality. We were so pleased when we finally came across the Hardwood Record Player. It’s American-made, by a team of true music lovers (you can read their blog here). Design-wise, we love the straightforward cut of the player. The simple wood deck and clear platter direct focus to the experience of the music, while the low profile is elegant but unassuming. It has a built-in preamp and a top-of-the-line cartridge, so plugging into a speaker and getting the music rolling is easy.
We like gifts that invite interaction, and record players invite so much interaction: from browsing the stacks at record stores together, to letting each other reminisce about favorite musicians while you thumb through old vinyl collections, to all sitting around doing something we’ve almost forgotten how to do: intentionally listening to music.
For all the music our dads introduced us to, a record player just might be the perfect Father’s Day gift. Especially for the dad who loves his vinyl collection but hasn’t had a reason to dig into it thanks to all this *new-fangled technology*. Especially for the dad who’s always humming as he goes about his yard work. Especially for the dad who bought you your first cassette deck/boombox/discman/iPod. It’s a good moment to return the favor and get him listening to his favorites again, in a mode that invites connection.
Ask him what his favorite band was growing up. Go through his collection of albums. Ask him which he remembers buying. Ask him which have special stories attached. Ask him which shaped the man he is today. You’ll leave whistling his songs and knowing a few more of his stories.
Shop the Hardwood Record Player here.
Shop our other favorite Gifs for Fathers here.