Within the past year I have really gotten into buying and listening to vinyl records. When I was a kid I remember playing vinyl records with my dad and last Christmas I received a turntable from my parents. Since then, I have been going to record stores and shopping online looking for some of my favorite albums.
In fact, and somewhat surprisingly, I am not the only one who has had this desire to go back and listen to records. Loads of people, especially young people, are going back to records. Over the past number of years the music industry has seen resurgence in its demand for vinyl records. Just last year alone the market saw an almost two million unit increase of LP/vinyl record sales. Some record labels have even been forced to open up record pressing factories just to keep up with the demand of music lovers and collectors. Even with factory openings, the labels are still finding it hard to keep up with the demand.
So the questions is: What does this musical revolution mean and why is it happening?
I do not think that this movement is wholly comprised of hipsters and audiophiles, but represents a larger desire for people who search for authenticity and ritual in a modern digital world that can, at times, seem somewhat pluralistic and superficial.
Why are records more authentic? Firstly, there is something truly authentic about the tangible and complex reality of records. A record is literally music pressed onto the surface of a round plastic disc. Unlike the convenient and rather utilitarian nature of sound-files in the digital age, holding onto a physical piece of music, rather than clicking through thousands of songs online, is a much more fulfilling experience. Now don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy the convenience of iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, etc., but their quality, both sonically and experientially, cannot and does not compare to records.
Secondly, vinyls are more authentic because they demand a certain commitment from the listener. This commitment is manifest in going to a store to purchase said album, financially investing in the entire album (which also speaks to the album as a work of art, rather than an random assortment of songs), investing in equipment to play it, and then finally going through the motions of playing the record. In the digital age, especially with rampant pirating and torrenting, listeners have little required commitment. Listening to music means clicking through endless lists of sound-files and then, possibly, buying song.
Thirdly, playing vinyl records is more authentic because of its ritualistic nature. Human beings are inherently ritualistic beings. Just think about the process of getting up in the morning. There is a certain way that human beings tend to operate. Similarly, records demand a certain ritual. When a vinyl is new, it must be taken out of the plastic wrapping. Then the disc must be slipped out of both the box and the cover inside which protect the record. Once out of the packaging, the disc must be put onto the turntable and then cleaned off with an anti-static brush so that it can be played cleanly. Finally, the needle must be set on the record and the volume level adjusted. Now you are able to listen to the music.
Ritual is an important part of human existence and is important in this instance not only because vinyl demands a certain ritual, but because that ritual is fulfilling to listeners. Despite all that is required, people enjoy going through the motions of putting on a vinyl. Clicking on sound files in the modern age is not a very unique action, whereas playing a record is quite unique. This ritual requires much more time and effort from the listener than is ever required from the online digital listener. I think the level of commitment and the ritual nature of vinyl attest and contribute to the quality of the music experience.
Now, because I believe in a deep and transcendent understanding of reality, I don’t think that the record revolution, as it is representative of a movement toward authenticity and ritual, is merely an isolated event. I think these movements, as they are intimately connected with the very nature of humanity, are at work in other parts of people’s lives. People yearn for what inherently fulfills them.
Despite the fact that in our day and age we live in a reality of relativism and personal preference, ironically, people unceasingly yearn for authenticity and ritual. Clearly many people have done this with vinyl music, so it is not a stretch that the such a fundamentally authentic human movement could result in other places.
I think that today many people, especially younger people, have and are searching for authenticity and ritual when it comes to faith. Many times when kids go off to college they can trendily loose their faith, in part, because they were not very involved in their faith prior or did not have a good knowledge of what their faith actually believed. So when they reach the relativistic and pluralistic collegiate arena, while not firmly rooted in their beliefs and understandings, they are quickly drowned in the ocean of other people’s opinions, ideas, and religious traditions.
However, eventually through one reason or another, some people find that there is something missing in their lives. They have a need for fulfillment and authenticity which many then find in the ritualistic liturgy of Catholicism. The uniqueness of Mass’s ritual nature helps it to be set apart within societal pluralism and the sometimes superficial nature of other kinds of worship. The liturgy’s use of incense, bells, candles, vestments, books, crosses, chalices, monstrances, and the like provide for a dynamic experience that engages all of the senses God gave us.
The Mass’s use of all these sacramental things, as they enable us to participate in the ritual of the Church, further enable us to be authentically drawn into the mystery of the Divine – into the life of Christ. Jesus himself used bread and wine at the Last Supper. The “bells and smells” of the Church’s ritual draw people in because of their connection with authentic worship of God, through the creation He has given us. Going to Mass, unlike any other action of prayer, is fulfilling because its use of physical creation is authentic to how humans reach for and worship the Divine. Anyone can pray, but praying the Mass is unlike any other kind of prayer experience one can find.
The Church’s liturgy is also authentic and fulfilling because, if done well, takes a certain commitment of time and effort to carry out. However, like playing records, the ritual is worth the time and effort because it is inherently fulfilling. More and more I think that people come back to the Church partly because of this deep desire for authenticity and are drawn into the ritual of the Church. Anyone can easily go off and pray on their own on a Sunday morning, but this is not fulfilling because it is not done in relation to an authentic ritual, especially one that is done in a community of believers.
Just as there is a certain authentic experience found in a person who listens to vinyl records, so too there is an authentic experience found in one who participates in the worship of the Church’s liturgical ritual. Hopefully, the vinyl resurgence not only points to good times ahead for the music industry, but for the future of the Church as young people continually yearn for what is truly authentic and fulfilling.