Record Albums, Artwork, and Physical Immediacy

At the corner of 7th Avenue and Flatbush in Brooklyn, a sidewalk entrepreneur has set up a vinyl LP sale. This has gone on for a few weeks now (and possibly longer). There’s a pretty wide selection on display, ranging from Johnny Mathis to Lil Wayne. I’ve never bothered to inquire about prices; I don’t own a record player any more; I’m always in a rush; and honestly, not that much in that catalog is of interest to this self of mine. But the stacked jackets and the artwork still serve to remind me of what we’ve lost in the transition from vinyl to the alphabet soup of MP3, AAC, OGG or whatever.

By this I don’t mean the standard audiophilic complaint of a loss of quality in the recorded sound and the resultant poorer listening experience. Rather, I mean the absence of a very particular kind of physical contact with the composite artefact consisting of vinyl long play record and its jacket with artwork. Part of the pleasure of purchasing an album–I purchased my last one back in mid-1980s–was the perusal, in the record shop, of a dazzling array of covers. I might only have purchased one–indeed, back in those days, I would have had to saved diligently to afford even that–but in getting to that point, I’d spent considerable time enjoying a great deal of eye-candy. (As a pre-pubescent lad, I remember staring goggle-eyed at Uriah Heep’s Fallen Angel! But do check out the ‘worst album covers of all time‘ too.) As Bill Walsh from albumcovers.net notes,

For a while, there was a true ‘marriage’ of two very distinct and different media — art and music. In their heyday, LP covers were an outlet for experimentation, art, fun, social comment, and the power of the visual image to sell you the music that was contained therein….The ‘cover’ of a CD is about 14% of the size of a record album; the artwork on the cassette box is just 7% as big. That’s barely enough space to put the name of the artist, much less some breathtaking or unusual artwork.

Now, of course, we don’t have CD’s either. (Or do we? I haven’t been to a record store in years so I have no idea whether these things are still out there or not.)

More to the point, the album was something I lovingly brought home, and then, following my father’s carefully drilled-technique (you would not believe the pristine state of his record collection back then!), removed the record from its sleeve, not touching its grooved surface, before gingerly setting the diamond-tipped stylus needle  on it. Something about that kind of physical contact with the music ensured a relationship with the music I struggle to find now, as I stare at the gigantic playlists on Grooveshark or at my list of Pandora stations. The convenience of playlists, queues, on-demand access and the like are not being disparaged here; not one bit. I’m merely noting the loss of a very particular kind of entanglement with the music that made it less remote, less ephemeral. Physical object fetishization at its worst, perhaps, but there you have it.

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