There’s a meme, or rather a cartoon, that’s been doing the rounds recently that has two characters looking over a HiFi system with the caption “The two things that really drew me to vinyl were the expense and inconvenience.” If you spend any time on social media, and particularly audiophile groups then I’m sure you will have seen it. And so, if we take this cartoon to be anything like the truth of the matter, this begs the question “Why would anyone bother with such an outmoded and problematic format of music playback?”

There’s even a saying -” you sound like a broken record”

Let’s face it, playing records, their upkeep, and maintenance is a full-time occupation in itself. How dedicated vinylistas manage to hold down a proper job, not to mention a “life” outside of their music room and beyond their record collection, is somewhat beyond me.

First of all there’s actually procuring the black stuff, and this procurement is becoming increasingly problematic. It’s like some kind of epic quest of Tolkienesque proportions to ensure you get the right press, the right label, and, not least, the right quality. I saw a picture on one of the Facebook groups the other day that was of a recently purchased record that was described on one of the better known online marketplaces as being “Excellent” – it wasn’t, and looked like someone, or something, had attacked it with either a power tool, sharp claws, or had been using a plane as a cartridge. Needless to say, the buyer got a refund, but it is a hassle you can well do without in these already hectic times and given that you don’t have much spare time to deal with this kind of thing because you already have a 24/7 career looking after your records. And the research you have to do! Does it have this colour label? What is scribbled on the run-out groove? I don’t know how people cope with it all, I really don’t. Long story short, the question has to be asked “Is all this effort really worth it?” And as per the meme, second-hand vinyl isn’t cheap if you get the primo/good stuff – and neither is the postage, even in pre-Brexit days. And when your precious parcel does arrive, clearly emblazoned with the instruction “DO NOT BEND!”, invariably the postie will try to stuff it in the post box. Now we are lucky in that respect and our post box does (just) accommodate a 12” package (not everybody is so lucky) and that’s all well and good in the colder months of the year unless it’s wazzing it down with rain (we have a leaky postbox), but in the summer, and especially if we are away visiting shows or whatever and the record sits in the ‘hot box’ for any time, well, that’s a bit of a disaster, isn’t it. Seemingly vinyl isn’t all that partial to extreme heat and just gives up the ghost and melts, rendering it unplayable. Yeh, I know I shouldn’t order stuff when I may be away, but I’m weak! And new vinyl isn’t always that much better from a quality control point of view – bad pressings, warped records, records that stick in a particular place, scratched records…the list goes on. I sometimes really do wonder why people bother at all with the old liquorice pizzas!

We are very fortunate in that we live in a relatively large house and we can accommodate loads of shelf units (yes, the ubiquitous IKEA ones) to house the ever-growing collection of records, but not everyone is so lucky. I remember back in the early/mid-nineties when I was dJing and record companies would send me loads of promotional copies of the latest house and techno tunes. I had thousands and thousands of the things, and the spare room in our rented house was given over purely to the record collection. They were everywhere, and obviously not in any kind of order that would have made the rare remix of Tune X easy to find – no, that would have been far too easy and wholly against the unwritten Vynilistas’ Code Of Conduct. Ah, the inconvenience.

And how exactly do you go about organising your collection? Many of you will have seen the film High Fidelity, or read the book by Nick Hornby on which the film is based. In the film, John Cuzack’s character is setting out his collection when his work colleagues pay him a visit and ask him if he’s sorting the collection by alphabetical or chronological order. “Neither” he responds, “I’m organising them ‘autobiographically’” (I’m paraphrasing as it’s a good few years since I saw the film). In effect, he is cataloguing his collection according to different life events –

“Yep, I can tell you how I got from Deep Purple to Howie Wolf in just 25 moves”

“oh man”

“And…if I want to find the song Landslide by Fleetwood Mac I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 pile but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.”

Makes absolutely no sense to me, but, as per the meme, I am drawn to the inconvenience of such a system! Personally, I list all mine in alphabetical order, which is surely the most sensible of systems – only there’s a twist. Yes, they are all in correct alphabetical order, but within that order I have a section under J for Jazz records (which are then in alphabetical order themselves in that subgrouping). It’s similar for compilation albums, and punk, and classical, and folk…The difficulty of this system is when a record falls into one or more subgroups – Folk-Punk anyone? And then there’s the Saturday night when you have had a glass of wine or two and you REALLY want to find a specific tune to listen to, and because of your ultra-organised system you can go straight to said record – only life isn’t like that, and try as you might you just can’t lay your hands on it and spend hours poring over the shelves to no avail and so give in and stream it from Qobuz, or give in and go to find more booze!

Organisation is the key!

And then there’s the maintenance of the records. Automatic record cleaning machines are obviously the most convenient and quickest way of ensuring your vinyl is at its best and not going to screw up your stylus, but even they take a good amount of your time. Let’s say that you have 2000 records and each record takes five minutes to clean – they don’t, they take longer – that means that to clean every record in your collection will take you ten thousand minutes or 166.67 hours. That’s nearly seven days solid of your life given over to washing your records. And the expense is not insignificant! Not only do you have to buy the machine itself, but you have to buy/make the cleaning solution and you have to buy specialist inner sleeves to protect your newly cleaned slab of vinyl. Now to the cleaning solution – should you choose to make it yourself, it’s going to take a good deal of your time from the outset. You will go online and ask what is the most effective mix for a vinyl solution…and because it’s the internet and everyone has an opinion you will get a gazillion different answers you will have to sift through to get a definitive answer. And then and only then you will have to go online and search for your IPA and wetting solution, though you should be able to get the distilled water at your local supermarket. And then you’ll have to make it up, bottle it and label it so that you don’t inadvertently drink it on a Saturday night when all the wine has gone and you are feeling particularly frustrated and in need of a drink because you can’t find that Chumbawamba English Rebel Songs (1381 – 1984) because you didn’t remember whether you had put it under punk, folk, C for Chumbawamba, or if the last time you played it you were so drunk you just put it randomly back on the shelf. I love the inconvenience of vinyl!

And record players themselves. They’re not easy (in the main) to set up and you can become a bit obsessive about whether the VTA is just so, whether the overhang is micrometre perfect and whether the weight on the stylus end of things is accurate to the nanogram. All this takes time, a degree of patience, and not to mention a modicum of skill. And you have to clean your stylus after and before each record. And you have to clean the record with a brush to get the dust off. But which stylus cleaner and which record cleaning brush – oh I know, I’ll go ask the internets and get myself another million and one opinions to sift through. Needless to say a half-decent record player, arm and cartridge isn’t cheap either. Ah, the expense AND the inconvenience. You’ve got to love vinyl.

Now, if you have managed to read through to here you may be under the impression that I’m somewhat disillusioned by the whole vinyl experience, but really I’m absolutely in love with the format – well, love is a bit strong, but I do rather like the vinyl. There’s the physicality of the medium, there’s the ritual of putting a record on, and by buying, sorting, and looking after your collection. You become somewhat attached to it all – much in the same way you might become attached to a cat that scratches your furniture, wakes you up in the middle of the night and upchucks fur balls in the most inconvenient of places (usually your newly hoovered carpet instead of the much more cleanable laminate flooring). I remember when I sold my collection of rock records about 25 years ago and as soon as the buyer walked out the door I regretted it. I had an emotional connection to the records I’d just sold. They held memories of teenage angst…and more. In short, they had become a part of my life and I was getting rid of them for something as inconsequential as getting money to pay the bills. What was I thinking?

Yes, records have pops and they have crackles, but as the late, great John Peel is credited with saying  “Listen, mate, life has surface noise.”

I love my vinyl collection, but to a degree the cartoon I mentioned at the start of this piece is pretty spot-on in its analysis. Vinyl is a right royal PITA, but it’s also hugely rewarding, perhaps in no small part because of the expense and inconvenience involved.






Stuart Smith


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