Arts and Culture Music

Just For The Record: The Importance of Physical Media in the Digital Age

Located on the first floor of Balfour-Hood, tucked in between Pappas Fitness Center and the Lyon’s Den, lies The Vlad, the on-air radio studio for the Wheaton College Communications Station (WCCS).

As a WCCS Executive Member and self-appointed custodian of The Vlad, I’m in charge of training new radio hosts on how to use the equipment inside to host their very own WCCS radio shows, as well as general upkeep concerning the impressive collection of CDs and Vinyl records housed within the small studio. For the past four years, I’ve admired the collection of physical media from afar, always wanting to sort through and organize them but never finding the time to engage in the lengthy process. 

But then, through a series of circumstances that I choose to blame both on the Semester In The City program and my foolish desire to take classes like Italian 101 and Sociology, I found myself on campus for the month of January. I don’t know how many of you have been on campus in January, but there’s not exactly a lot going on. I decided this would be the perfect time to lock myself in The Vlad and finally go through all the records, and was left speechless by what I found. 

WCCS boasts a genuinely impressive collection of Vinyl, including more than a dozen albums by the great Bill Evans, a thick stack of both Duke Ellington and Cannonball Adderly, a dizzying pile of Chet Baker and more Ella Fitzgerald than I’ve ever seen housed within a single record store. More impressive than that, however, is our collection of Hip-Hop singles. The majority of our Vinyl collection is composed of these Hip-Hop and R&B singles, almost all of which I had never heard of before and boasted some of the most incredible names I’ve ever laid eyes on. What do you mean you don’t know the Dirk Diggler remixes of the Major Figgaz classic “What U Know Bout Ballin’?” How about Yo Yo’s “Home Girl Don’t Play Dat,” or even “Waltz of Reality” by Professor Griff: The X Minista? I mean, don’t even bother talking to me if you don’t know “Um” or “Pussy (Instrumental Version)” by Strings or “Get Krunk (The Album)” by an artist(s) unknown. 

Most, if not all of these singles, were completely unknown to me, and being a fan of the medium of vinyl myself, I had a lot of fun sorting through these records by artists that had, for better or for worse, been lost to time. But as the days went on, and I got deeper into the pile of records and more exhausted with the entire process, I began to doubt myself. Why the hell was I doing this? What was the point of having vinyl in a time when I had every song in the world at my fingertips, when I could play an album more effortlessly and conveniently than the creators of vinyl or the CD could ever even have imagined? What is the point of physical media in the digital age? 

My questions brought me to Joerg Blumtritt, Wheaton’s newest Professor of Digital Media and Communications. Professor Blumtritt explained that “As long as I have been able to think, I have been interested in the media. Media-technology, in particular,” and I knew I had come to the right person. Blumtritt and I spoke in detail about physical vs digital media over the course of half-an-hour, and I found his observations compelling. 

One drawback of the vinyl record that Professor Blumtritt mentioned was both the artwork and information presented on the album cover. Back in the day, when you wanted to listen to some new music, you had to go to the store and physically buy an album, and even when you bought the album, you couldn’t listen to it yet. You had to wait until you got back to your house and could put it on the record player, and all you had to tide yourself over was the art on the album cover. Paul McCartney speaks about this experience when explaining why the Beatles loved to put “easter eggs” on their album covers. McCartney talks about how, as a child, he would go to the store and buy albums and study the covers and liner notes on the bus ride home. He speaks about how his excitement would build as he poured over the lyrics, analyzed the artwork, and read who had helped create the album and what they had done. It should be noted that Spotify currently has no system set up to see what session players and technicians helped create the album or song you’re listening to. While a quick Google search would answer these questions for you, the lack of acknowledgements of these people on a streaming service like Spotify reduces the importance of their contributions, either directly or indirectly. 

The Beatles have some of the most iconic album covers of all time, and this is born from their mutual love and understanding of the art form and how transformative the listening experience can be to the listener when the artist takes the time to craft it as such. The past two decades have seen some incredible and iconic album covers, sure, but it’s harder than ever to admire and study them as the artwork they are when most of us are viewing them in a small box on our phone screen. It’s amazing the tiny details you notice on physical copies of albums from the 20th century. You could pore over the artwork of Al Stewat’s Year of the Cat, Curtis Mayfield’s There’s No Place Like America Today, or Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns for hours and hours and still manage to find something new every time you look at them. You’re meant to examine these covers as you listen to the records, drawing connections between the themes presented in both the artwork and the music you’re currently hearing. If you like a particular horn line or guitar riff, you can flip the record over and see exactly what session player deserves your praise. Every piece of information you need, either artistic or factual, is contained within the physical copy of the record. 

This experience is lost completely in the age of streaming. As I’ve mentioned, it’s easier than ever to find an album and listen to it. This is framed as a major benefit and convenience for the listening experience, and it is, to a certain extent, but it also has its drawbacks. There’s often very little thought put into what you’re going to listen to before you listen to it. You don’t have to sort through a physical library of media, choose a record, walk it over to your record player, dust it off, lift the needle, place it down, and finally get to hear the music you’d been imagining since you bought the record in a store. Nowadays, this is a lengthy and annoying process, sure, but it assigns a level of respect and importance to these albums, these artistic pieces, that I feel they deserve. To pick a Vinyl record out and listen to it means that you are sure you want to listen to at least a full side of that record, and that you feel that artistic piece deserves your time and attention. In the age of streaming, you never really have to engage that critically with the listening choices you’re making. If you want to hear a song, all you have to do is search for it, and the second you don’t want to listen to it anymore, you can get rid of it and replace it with something else. As Professor Blumtritt describes, “It’s definitely much more of a conscious decision to listen to a record than to go to Spotify and just click on a song. You have to really decide what you want to hear as opposed to Spotify deciding for you a lot of the time what you want to hear.” 

It’s not only the reductive capability that streaming services give the listener that alters the art form, but their predictive capabilities as well. As Professor Blumtritt puts it, “One thing that I find most disturbing with using streaming services like Spotify is that after I’ve heard what I wanted to hear, it continues…And with a record, that will never happen. The record is just over after 25 minutes. And then you have to turn it on to the new one. So this is a totally different experience of time.” I think Professor Blumtritt is touching on something really quite fascinating here. It’s very easy to play music from a streaming service, as perhaps its most alluring and convenient aspect is that there are quite literally millions of songs right at your fingertips. You can create a queue that jumps from genre to genre, decade to decade, depending on what you want to hear at that exact moment. This is a magical experience that is not to be understated. You can hear decades of musical innovation and artistic experimentation in the mere seconds it takes to switch from a Billie Holiday song to one by Beyonce, but what’s lost in that moment of magic is the cultural and artistic context of those two songs. 

Albums were created as pieces of “closed work,” as Professor Blumtritt puts it. Artists work for weeks, months, or even years to create an album, an artistic piece that was, for decades, set in stone. These were physical manifestations of music that were unable to be altered or changed by the individual because they were not meant to be. They’re art, created by artists, meant to be listened to in their entirety and given to the public with the expectation that they will do so. That expectation is met increasingly less and less, on both sides of the listening experience. It’s less important than ever what song the album starts or ends with, which song follows another, or what the overall batch of songs says as a complete artistic piece. 

Going back to the Beatles, let’s examine Abbey Road. When listening to the album on Spotify, it goes right from “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” to “Here Comes The Sun.”While both are great songs, the dramatic and almost evil abrupt ending of “I Want You” is about as far away, tonally, from the cheery opening guitar chords of “Here Comes The Sun” as night is from day. Listening to these two songs back-to-back, as Spotify displays them, it’s hard not to get sonic whiplash, but that’s because these songs are not meant to be played in rapid succession. You see, “I Want You” falls on the end of Side A of Abbey Road, and “Here Comes The Sun” falls on Side B of the record, and to get from one song to the next, you would’ve had to walk to your record player, move the needle, flip the record over, and put the needle back on. This process, which really wouldn’t have taken more than a few seconds, is imperative to the listening process. You’re meant to sit with the heavy dramatic tone set by the ending of “I Want You” in the silence created by one side of the record ending so that when the warm mood of “Here Comes The Sun” starts, it’s much more surprising and inviting. The removal of that break, that intermission of silence, reduces the impact of the song and fundamentally changes the artistic intention. 

This might seem like an overreaction and I don’t mean to make it seem more dramatic than it is. It’s an interesting difference between how we consume art now versus how it was intended to be consumed. The art form of music has changed. It’s easier than ever to both create and listen to music, which is a wonderful innovation of the digital age. I’m as reliant upon streaming services for my music as the next person, and would go “joker” if I ever lost my Spotify playlists. It’s worth examining how the experience has changed and how differently we engage with both art and artists in the digital age. In an age where anyone can make music, it’s more important than ever who we engage with and how we engage with them. The process of streaming is much more convenient than listening to physical media, but its impact is the same. So, as always, I encourage each and every one of you to be mindful of what and who you choose to listen to. And, if you’ve never done so or haven’t in a while, listen to a vinyl record. Read the liner notes and study the art and engage in the deliberate and physical process of putting the record on and flipping it over. In an age where everything is increasingly digitized, the tangibility of a Vinyl record or a book has never been more important or impactful. And, just for the record, I did listen to all of the Hip-Hop singles I mentioned earlier and the only one worth writing home about was Yo Yo’s “Home Girl Don’t Play Dat.” Now THAT’S what I call music.