Physical Media – Is There Any Substance to the Retro Resurgence?

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A couple of years back, I was walking back to my flat with my then girlfriend. She was telling me how her mother still had a bunch of old vinyl records. I was distraught at this concept – as I protested, there were no logical upsides to vinyl over digital music. Vinyl records break, warp, they lose their quality over time – I mean, you literally damage the thing each time you play it. But my ex argued back that there was something besides logic to it all. Something special, magical even. We agreed to disagree.

Three years later and I have a record player with a decent collection of vinyls, and hell, I’ve even begun to collect cassette tapes as of late. But why? To be honest, my initial argument is still as true today as it was then – there are, indeed, no logical reasons. Physical media sucks. It isn’t everywhere I go, it isn’t always in my pocket, and the quality is all over the place. But maybe, somewhere, therein lies the truth – in a post-digital, post-spotify world, the impracticality of the physical becomes its appeal.

There are two moments – the before and after. Before the first and last tracks play, physical media does its best to remind you of it’s imperfections. The hiss of the tape, the snap and pop of the vinyl. No silence emanates, so long as the media plays. You try to stop the tape but it loses its place slightly, you drop the needle and miss the song opening. You wonder off and do your thing, let the record play, maybe missing some tracks as you do other things. The music exists and is present with you in the room.

My girlfriend lent me a couple of records a few weeks back, and I’ll listen to them and know that those grooves, that exact piece of polyvinyl chloride has been with her, in her hands, puncturing the air of her room. She’ll send me names of albums she likes and yeah, I’ve got them on my phone in a second, but these records, she had to physically put in my hand, I had to carry them home and look after them; their artwork calls to me across the room. There is something, some other entity more than the sum of its parts. If this all sounds like wishy washy bollocks, that’s probably because it is, but hey.

Then there are tapes! Oh boy, tapes are terrible! A couple years back my parents got me a Walkman for Christmas and gave me a crate of their – mostly shit – old cassettes. I loved the novelty but the Walkman was problematic, chewing tapes and losing playback sync, so the Walkman sat on my side for a while, but a month or so back I finally picked up a working player and dived head on into ‘cassette culture’, as some have dubbed it. Although, Urban Outfitters sell tapes now, so maybe it isn’t hipster enough anymore?

I suppose a big part of the appeal is the ‘revival’ aspect to both – as I’m sure we all know by now vinyl has had a comeback over the last few years, and the excitement of picking up new releases on the format was novel and interesting. Royal Blood, Kacey Musgraves, whoever. It was new and exciting, and boy did it teach me to worry about scratching or damaging those records. Learning how the player worked, vinyl care, all that jazz, it was a new way of experiencing and appreciating music. But vinyl is back now, stable. I assume new releases will be on the format, I see new records in chain stores.

Tapes current comeback dwells in the low-fi, the underground, the independent. I have tapes of punk bands from the north and experimental rock from New York, collaborations of unsigned artists, random pieces from Redditors, charity tapes, and cheap classics from eBay. But the shitty quality, somehow, adds to the appeal. A bunch of the old ‘blank’ tapes my dad gave me broke literally the first time I played them, for reference. They’re just a terrible format.

There’s a lot of pretension around vinyl that I hate. A bunch of people who listen to them are obsessed with their superiority to digital; to be honest, just enjoy the music. I love my records and I love my player, but don’t pretend you’re the editor of Rolling Stone because you listen to the Beatles on a flat disc that pops and snaps despite sitting up cleaning it for hours each night.

I don’t really have a point here, or a conclusion. Listen to music however you like. And yeah, if one of your mates is suddenly listening to cassette tapes he’s probably a bit of a wanker. But aren’t we all wankers, really? Think about it, stick a record on. Try to ignore that pop right in the middle of your favourite track on that brand new record you just paid £30 for.

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