It was 1996 and I lived in Bloomington with 3 of my closest friends. It was our last year of college. We were all fans of Big Star, myself especially. I realize not everyone reading this is a music nerd so here's their Wikipedia page. Big Star was a rock band from the early 1970s that influenced almost every "Alternative/Indie" band that came after them- REM, The Replacements, Teenage Fan Club, etc. They put out three albums, going from pristine power pop to heartbreaking sketches held together by threads. When I first heard Big Star's "Big Black Car" in 1991 it felt like I'd made land. It gave me a new vocabulary, a new world to explore. I was in love.
So me and my friends decided to go on a pilgrimage to Big Star's home town of Memphis. We piled into a 70s Econoline van with no seats in the back. We decided to turn it into a living room on wheels, pulling in every blanket, pillow and bean bag we could find along with our guitars. We didn't have a plan as much as a map. But I knew what success looked like for me. I wanted to find some original Big Star albums, on vinyl, the real stuff.
I hadn't really started collecting records before then. I switched to CDs around 1984, an early adopter I guess. CDs sounded so amazing back then. No background noise, just bright, crisp and consistent sound. They seemed so much better than records. Now I know that in reality I probably just needed a new needle for my turntable- in fact, I think this was a big driver of the CD revolution, people had gotten lazy and their records all sounded noisy and dull thanks to old needles.
By the mid-90s I'd started listening to records again and was liking how they sounded, how they felt more "real" than CDs. But finding rare records back then was a real challenge- no internet, no eBay. Original Big Star records were, and still are, pretty rare things, selling for $50+ when you can find them. You almost never see them in the "wild", i.e. record stores. But I figured if any place would have a Big Star record it would be their hometown of Memphis.
After digging through a number of Memphis record stores and coming up empty I was beginning to give up hope. Then I got lucky at the last store we visited. I asked the guy behind the counter if he knew how I could track down some Big Star records. He completely shocked me when he said "actually I was just at a garage sale for an old Ardent Records employee (Ardent was Big Star's original label in Memphis) and they had the first two records but without the jackets, I guess they were promos or something. Not sure if you still want them but I can do $8 each". He then went behind the counter and pulled them out. Sure, I would have loved to have the original jackets but I was thrilled to get them for so cheap. That's one of the records (#1 Record, to be specific, what a great title for a first album!) in the picture above. I listened to it while writing this post. I have a much "better" copy now I still like to listen to this one. Maybe it's my imagination, but it seems to carry some of my personal history in its grooves.
So here's where I going with all this, I believe that physical objects can attach themselves to our memory in a deeper way than digital objects. Think of your phone, almost no-one saves their old phones. It's the content on that phone that matters, not the vessel that carries it. For most people, losing a phone is simply an inconvenience (buy new phone, hit restore), not an emotional event. We don't feel like we have lost any of ourselves in losing that device. I did a little research on this topic and came across some studies that show we remember content better when reading on paper vs screen.
I think some of this stems from the fact that reading on paper engages more of our senses. The more senses we engage, the richer the memory. I believe the same goes with records. We have a deeper connection with the sound we are hearing when we know it is coming from a physical object- one with artwork and grooves, something we can physically engage with, one that can travel with us through time and build its own life alongside ours. It is no longer just sound we are hearing, it is our sound, it is our object, we own it and it becomes part of us. When we lose it, we lose part of ourselves. When we give it away we share part of ourselves with others. I love giving people records for this reason, it feels like I am connecting with them on a deeper level.
Over time I have come to see my record collection as my memory bank. Every record tells a story. In the past few years I have started hiding little ephemera in-between the records. Little drawings my kids have done, tickets from shows, cards from my wife, letters from my parents. These things matter more and more to me as so much of my life becomes digitized.
I'm not a hater of digital things, they are awesome in their own way, but our digital experiences often feel thinner than their analog counterparts- like going from whole milk to skim. Digital experiences don't engages us as deeply, they don't travel with us through life, they become "outta sight, outta mind" far too often. I expect to see more of us going back to analog objects and experiences as we find digital experiences more and more unfulfilling. I think the opportunity here is to bridge the analog and digital worlds, finding ways to create meaningful experiences that jump between the two. I look at our friends over at BrainTwins as pioneers in this new handicraft digital world. I love how they move seamlessly between analog and digital experiences.
So I hope we can find the right balance, embracing analog and digital experiences while pursuing the magic that happens when they come together. Oh, and Long Live Vinyl!