I recently spent a Sunday afternoon attending a seminar on the “Chemistry of Wine for Professionals”. I’m not a wine professional, nor did I much like chemistry in school, and it turned out to be a very technical afternoon indeed. I found myself wondering what I was doing there. But some of the subjects, like how and why we perceive a wine to taste “mineral” seemed very interesting. The gentleman sitting next to me, who was very much a wine professional, at one point asked me why I had come? I told him I like knowing how things I like are made, what’s in the sausage so to speak. And often when I think about sound and music reproduction, I resort to metaphors and analogies that feel appropriate, usually ones that touch on things I like a lot, like wine and food. Both can be restorative, nourishing, transporting, and often deeply moving, which is really what I’m after when it comes to reproducing sound and music. And let’s not forget, without sound there is no music. I’ll come back to that.
It turned out that the fellow sitting next to me was the publisher and editor in chief of one of the world’s biggest and most important magazines devoted to wine and spirits. By the end of the day we were chatting about our experience and he inquired as to my background, being one of the few amateurs in attendance. When I explained what I do, he pointed out the similarities between our respective worlds, and of course the subject of turntables and vinyl came out of the closet, literally, because his turntable and records had been relegated there for some years, the victim of a broken belt on his Dual turntable and the malaise that 3 decades of digital has brought us. He had several thousand records, many from his father, basically the equivalent of having a very serious wine cellar filled with wonderful bottles to drink. While much good wine will improve with age, and some will last a very long time, properly cared for vinyl records will last virtually forever. And unlike opening a bottle of wine, you can play records over and over again, as long as you keep them clean, with no degradation.
After I made some suggestions as to how to get his analog vinyl setup running again, imagine my surprise when the wine editor asked me the best way to digitize the records as he played them, so he could play them in the future digitally? This really caught me off guard- why would you want to do that, I thought? Is everything now about the convenience of instantaneous consumption via your phone or device? Besides the fact that the record will never sound nearly as good played back through a digital system, whatever happened to the ritual that listening to a record involves, even demands?
Some people buy wine as an investment, with no intention of ever drinking it (and some people buy records like that too), but most of us buy bottles like we buy records- with a very strong intention of consuming it at some point in the future. We are led by the promise of the pleasure we expect in its consumption, be it music or wine. Here is where it gets kind of interesting (and weird)- consumption isn’t what it used to be. I’ve talked a lot about the digital and analog divide in this blog over some years, but there are aspects to this which don’t correspond with any of the usual technical issues. There is a much more basic problem- the digital universe we all now live in has so warped reality that we can no longer take for granted what anything is or is for.
For example- there is a wine app I use to help me remember what wines I’ve consumed, it takes a picture of the label, identifies it and puts it in my library, allows me to rate and share it, etc- all the usual stuff. The app is supposed to help you enjoy wine more (I hope!) but imagine if the app itself became the really important thing? That you just drank the wine so you could record that in the app- Been There Done That- and to show other people what you’ve been drinking? The appearance on the app becomes more important than the wine and the pleasure involved in its consumption. Appearance usurps reality.
When I’m in Dumbo, Brooklyn where our showroom is located and time permits, I like taking a walk down the new waterfront park that stretches from my neighborhood under the two bridges (Brooklyn and Manhattan) and runs along the East River opposite Wall Street, with views of Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty. This park has become a huge tourist draw. Thousands and thousands of people are out everyday in all but the coldest weather, and it seems like every single one of them, almost without exception, is busy taking selfies. It’s so bizarre it feels a bit like being in a SciFi or zombie movie, the cumulative effect of seeing so many people being in a place but not being present in any meaningful way. They are there just to take pictures, presumably to share with other people who they may or may not know, but they are not actually “there.” Are they taking those pictures so that someday in the future they can “relive” the experience? Or to show other people that they are in a special or desirable place? Problem is, you can’t relive something you never really lived at all.
Memory is a deep thing. People must have had much better memories before. Now they have limitless stored digital appearances that stand in for memory. Before, activity created memories. Now activities are instigated to create appearances, images to be stored and circulated for a myriad of new reasons, none of which have anything to do with the original activity.
Playing a record only once so you can digitize it, store and manage the files, is part of this same new digital world where the actual experience is subsumed into something else. The “ritual” of playing a record and listening with attention, allowing the music to communicate itself to you, is replaced by the appearance of doing so. Because you only get that experience when you do the ritual (which is one reason why rituals exist in the first place). Rituals come from a religious origin, what used to be our spiritual connection to life. Most of that is totally gone now, but in a world rapidly being hollowed out by a digi-verse that no one really understands the implications of, actually playing an analog record is a way to reconnect with what music always was- sound with a source in physical reality.
I deal with a lot of record industry people, doing demonstrations at OMA. I’ve talked with or visited most of the major labels, and many independents. Not a single record label (nor Apple Music) has a proper turntable and speakers setup in their offices or headquarters. Not a single one- it’s truly incredible. Imagine walking into Universal Pictures, or Paramount, or Fox in Hollywood, and asking to watch a film in the screening room, only to be handed a cell phone with the explanation that no one watches anything anymore on a real screen? Digital has literally sucked the sound right out of music, reducing not just the quality of sound but the expectations of what listening to music can be- to virtually nothing.