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'Digital' Vinyl: An Ideal Marriage of the Past and the Future

1 February 2006

Besides the music itself, there’s something else notable about Merge Records’ release of the new ROBERT POLLARD album From a Compound Eye, following the precedent of Merge’s release last October of THE CLIENTELE’s Strange Geometry. Saddle Creek’s new TWO GALLANTS album is newsworthy for the same reason. In all three cases, if you purchase the vinyl LP, you receive with it a coupon for a free download of a digital version of the album, available at the label’s web site. To me this is a brilliant development, one I hope will spread far and wide across the music industry.

Some hundred-plus years after its invention, the phonograph is still a magical creation. Records still carry with them that magic; there’s something truly special about them. On the other hand, there’s nothing special about a compact disc, especially in the digital era we live in today. When an album can be transmitted computer-to-computer as a file, and a CD can be burned of it almost instantaneously, the CD as a format itself seems disposable.

The rewards a record provides simply can’t be duplicated by a CD, just as they weren’t by a cassette, or an 8-track. The main drawback of an LP is its lack of portability. That’s where the iPod and other MP3 players serve as the perfect complement. With this digital vinyl set-up, you have at home the perfect means for listening to music – on record – but then you still have the ability to carry the music with you elsewhere, to play it on the subway or burn it on a CD for the kitchen, the car, or work.

This new development is a glimpse of an ideal future as far as I’m concerned, one where music-buyers get the best of both worlds (quality and convenience, magic and practicality). The sad truth, though, is that it’s likely to appeal only to record collectors who also are into digital formats, which I’m afraid might be a small portion of the album-buying audience.

But maybe I’ll be proven wrong, and this will go well enough to become common practice, sparking an increase in the purchase of vinyl, leading all the labels that don’t issue vinyl to change their minds, and convincing all the labels that already do that this download option can only help them.

It’s never too late to buy a record player, never to late to hear the real difference in sound between a record and a CD, never too late to discover the joys of searching through decade upon decade of music at a used record shop. The genius of this ‘digital vinyl’ idea is that it combats the idea that record-lovers are old fogies clinging to a dying format. It’s possible to embrace the past and the future, to enjoy the benefits of new technology without rejecting the best aspects of the old ways.