The Art Of Vinyl & Music's Tangibility - Crafting Love Letters To The World
Streaming and physical music can, and do, co-exist.
It’s hard not to sound like an old fogey as soon as you start talking about the benefits of buying CDs or vinyl over listening to music online. Regardless of your arguments – better sound quality or the physical touch of the product – a lot of people will write you off as a hipster or dinosaur, someone who reminisces about home phones and Nirvana, and complains about people using their iPhones at gigs.
The problem is that this isn’t a debate we need to have. Is streaming a passing fad? Are physical releases a thing of the past? These questions have circled around for a couple of decades now, and finally it looks like we have an answer: People want both. Since 2013, streaming of music has increase by 500% and shows no signs of slowing down. And in 2016, vinyl sales jumped 53% on 2015 figures to the highest level since Nevermind was atop the charts.
Who would have thought this long drawn out battle would come to what seems like such a harmonious conclusion? The saving grace has been that the pros and cons of physical and digital are in reverse, and so the more a person listens in one way, the more they crave the other. The more people stream music from Spotify and Bandcamp and YouTube through temporary playlists and in poor sound quality, the more they want something real, something that is high quality and permanent.
In the age of high-speed technology, fake news and the slippery truths of social media, people yearn for authenticity and a way to define their identities. Back in the day, people listened to maybe one or two CDs in a week. Now we listen to multiple albums every day, switching back and forth on our streaming services, saving and erasing songs to our playlists. Sure it’s convenient and easy, but what do we do when we come across an album that really stands out? One that hits straight for the heart and makes us want to cry or scream in our office cubicle or on the packed bus home from work? We want to see them live. We want to buy their record, or their t-shirt or their CD. We want to say in some way to the world that this artist means something more to us than the millions of others that are stored in our iPhones. We want our friends to see the album on our shelf or the band name on our t-shirt and ask, “Who is that?” or “I love that album too!”
Music is a multisensory experience, an intimate connection like all art. The importance of this is evident in trends across all mediums. Art galleries continue to thrive in spite of the glut of art pages on Instagram and Tumblr. Zines have resurged in response to blogging culture. Writers still strive to be published in print. The difference now is that these physical products no longer serve a practical purpose, but a more important one: one that is symbolic and emotional. If the tangible is no longer the default, it carries a new value. It means something extra. The contemporary record store, like the modern bookstore, is more like a gallery than a marketplace. It is an experience, a centre of culture rather than commerce.
What this means for artists is that their branding is much more important than it has ever been. The texture and imagery of the record cover, the colour and pressing of the vinyl, these are the ways in which artists can say to their fans, “Look, I’m real and I’m human. This is my gift to you.” Designs need to be an extension of the music, the artist. They need to showcase what they’re about and open a dialogue. Luckily, the ways to do this are increasing wide – artists have released heat sensitive record covers, used silicon packaging, and embedded their USB’s in Gummi candy skulls. The options are endlessly flexible, but the importance is set in stone.
When you write a letter to those you love, you don’t type it out on a computer. You write it by hand so your expression and style are on show for the reader. What paper do you use? How do you dot your I’s? And as we write less and less by pen, so a letter in ink becomes all the more special. The same goes for music. Albums are love letters to the world, and artists should make sure their biggest fans get ones that are handwritten.