Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Everyone is missing the point in the argument about why physical media matters to music

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In case anyone needs a reference point for what a Dad Stereo is, here you go. - UNSPLASH / GABRIEL
  • UnSplash / Gabriel
  • In case anyone needs a reference point for what a Dad Stereo is, here you go.
Over the past three decades, the way we listen to music, and the way we interact with it in our lives, has dramatically changed.

In the ’80s and ’90s, nearly every living room had a stereo in it. They generally consisted of two tower speakers and a stack of components — a receiver, a tape deck, a CD player, and if your dad was cool enough (or if the stereo was antiquated enough), a turntable. Nowadays I lovingly call them “Dad Stereos.” Dad Stereos were about as common as TVs. They were generally a point of pride for an ’80s or ’90s Dad. Hi-Fi was a big deal. But sometime during the late ’90s and early 2000s, the Dad Stereos started dying off. With the proliferation of exciting new technology such as Napster and the iPod, the way people started experiencing music changed drastically.

Modern music listeners have a strange relationship with physical media. It's no longer “necessary” in a utilitarian way. And because of this, I’ve been kicking the ideas in this essay around in my head for quite a while. The impetus for finally putting them into words came when I re-read the MetalSucks essay “Why I’ve Stopped Buying Vinyl.” The piece, by MetalSucks co-founder Vince Neilstein, is from 2015 but has recently made the rounds again, likely due to the vinyl manufacturing crisis currently plaguing the music industry. Neilstein spends much of his article deriding physical media as “worthless,” and reduces the idea of physical media to “souvenirs,” which, honestly, triggers the shit out of me. And since we just emerged from the other side of the Holy Season of Frivolity, many people will have received gift cards, cheap all-in-one Crosley turntables and Stranger Things licensed cassette players under their Christianity Trees.

Before the big technology switch of the late '90s and early 2000s, when everyone had a Dad Stereo in the house, listening to music was frequently an active experience. Like, you sat down and spent time listening to music for the purpose of listening to music. People filled their houses with music. They’d listen to entire albums, which is an exceedingly rare experience in the modern household. People would put on an album, and as an active listener, absorb a fully realized work of art through their earholes. I can remember many times as a child having our home filled with the sounds of Dark Side of the Moon, or Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or Aladdin Sane, or whatever else my ex-hippie parents would listen to. Those records became snapshots of cherished moments in my formative years.

As a teen, I inherited my own cobbled-together, hand-me-down Dad Stereo. It was my altar. I’d sit in my bedroom, listening to Master of Puppets, or Earth AD, or Seasons in the Abyss and just worship. There was a sense of reverence. As the active music listener, you are allowing the art to permeate your space, to envelop your imagination and consciousness — and you are taken on a journey.

The physical media is important to this sort of reverential musical experience. This isn’t a souvenir. This is the body of Christ. The physical media is the illuminated manuscript, and the sound is The Word. Sitting, as an active listener, absorbing the artwork, reading the lyrics and liner notes, is an integral part of the aesthetic experience of active music listening. For the sake of convenience, we have thrown out our home altars and traded them for televangelists.

OK, let’s take a step back. Thus far, we have only talked about the active listening experience. But this is clearly not the only way people experience music. People enjoy music passively also, and this experience is also extremely important and valid. Listening to music in the car while driving, while working out, in the background at a bar — passive music experiences are critical. This is where utilities including the radio, Spotify and the like have undeniable validity. But with the demise of the Dad Stereo and the proliferation of the iPods in 2001, our musical lives became imbalanced.

It was an exciting time in technology back then. Music was worthless, and we chopped up our favorite records and threw them on shuffle in our iPods and iTunes playlists. We ripped CDs and delegated them to the closet. We downloaded low-quality mp3s and filled our hard drives with inferior sounding music. We dropped off our Dad Stereos at Goodwill or sold them off in garage sales. Our way of listening to music started fundamentally changing. No longer an altar in our homes, we stopped listening to The Word. We just get the Cliff Notes version. We averted our ears.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a practical person. I use Spotify and Bandcamp and understand their utility. While I work at my desk, I’m not going to be flipping records every 20 minutes or juggling jewel cases between albums. I will have a tidy little Chrome tab with Bandcamp or whatever going on in the background for hours at a time. It’s part of my daily routine. I still have an iTunes music library. I — shockingly — still use Soulseek to find pristine digital copies of rare albums. The New Way of listening to music absolutely has its place. But what we’ve lost — and what younger generations may have never even experienced — is the act of having music as part of your life and home.

Now let’s talk about vinyl in 2021. Wal-Mart is selling it. You can grab the new Adele album at Home Depot. Target’s got limited-edition color Master of Puppets vinyl. Manufacturing is totally bottlenecked, and Indie labels are experiencing 12- to 18-month turnaround times for orders of 300 records. The industry that kept vinyl alive when it wasn’t cool is getting shafted. While this is obviously awful — and has personally impacted my life and music negatively — there is a positive here that many seem to be ignoring. People are welcoming music back into their lives and homes. You don’t listen to one song on an LP and shuffle it. Some kid will sit down with their new Taylor Swift vinyl, and for the first time in their lives, become an active music listener. They will critique the album whether they are aware or not. They will discover new sounds they hadn’t heard when listening to the YouTube version through their phone or laptop’s speaker. They will experience the album as the creators intended — the full album, in order, not shuffled. They will absorb the album art. They will read the liner notes. They will read the lyrics along with the song, thinking critically and extracting their own meaning. They may ask their parents to upgrade from their crap Crosley turntable and get something better for Christmas. My cynical side wants to say that many of these records will sit on shelves unopened, next to new-in-box Funko Pops. But if this vinyl “resurgence” or “spike” starts a trend of people bringing music back into their homes, I wholeheartedly support it. Because it has real intrinsic value and replaces what has been lost.

As I sit in my living room, typing on this laptop in front of my ignored TV playing random YouTube videos, my beloved Dad Stereo stoically sits across from me, in its place, right next to the television. Two speaker towers stand guard like sentinels at either side of my living room. The turntable sits, unplayed. The stack of 10 or so records next to it, new purchases that I haven’t dove into yet, beckon to me. It is Sunday morning, about 11 a.m. It is time for worship.

James Woodard is the guitarist and vocalist for long-running San Antonio band The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

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