The Turntable as Metaphor for Digital Revolution Reluctance

For the past few months, I’ve been contemplating the various ways that I’ll be able to fully digitize my music in my living room. 8/19/2013 6:24 AM Eastern

The Turntable as Metaphor for Digital Revolution Reluctance

Aug 19, 2013 10:24 AM, By Jason Bovberg

For the past few months, I’ve been contemplating the various ways that I’ll be able to fully digitize my music in my living room. My wife, in particular, wants to be able to have all our music available at the touch of a button from our main entertainment system there; she’s tired of messing with CDs, and so am I. And now that the world has been in the grip of a digital revolution for some time, and competing music software solutions abound (from popular vendor-focused solutions from Apple to open-source tools from any number of smaller players), we’re way past due to make seamless digital music a reality in our home.

But for various reasons, we’ve been sluggish with the transition. I’ve talked about those reasons in past columns—see “The End of Everything” and “Kicking and Screaming into a Tiny Future”—but the gist of it is that I still love the tactile feel of things like CDs and LPs, and DVDs and Blu-rays, and books and magazines. In the case of music, I’m the guy who still buys CDs, then rips those CDs to the computer for my digital collection. I know my way of thinking can be hopelessly antiquated, but I have never purchased a digital album from an online music store. It still seems too ephemeral and low-fi and even untrustworthy—all for the simple reason that I can’t hold it in my hand. If nothing else, I love having that physical backup copy that I can always turn to for a reliable, relatively hi-fi experience.

My digital-music experience so far has been haphazard. I’ve ripped many CDs to my computer—solely for the purpose of playing them on my iPod when I need music on the run. I still listen to music far more often at home than on my iPod, and I haven’t yet found the solution that makes most sense for me in my home. Part of that sluggishness comes from the fact that I have never really loved the Apple solution. The company is annoyingly proprietary, the iTunes UI leaves a lot to be desired, and I simply don’t use any other Apple products in my home.

To me, it has always made more sense to standardize on what I already have in my home-computing environment, which is Windows-based—but unfortunately Microsoft has taken forever to come up with a great entertainment solution that meshes fluidly with its computing solutions. In particular, the Zune—although a fine device and UI—just never took off. And although the Xbox is a huge hit in the industry, I never really considered it a great music solution for the living room. But it looks as if the company has finally gotten its act together in this arena, and I’m now looking forward to putting all the pieces together later this year, when Xbox One debuts, and I can use that in conjunction with my Surface Pro and my Windows 8 desktop system to really make everything hum. (I wrote about these new possibilities in “Can Microsoft Surface Pro, the Xbox 360, and Xbox Music Reinvent Music Enjoyment in the Connected Home?” and about the new Xbox One in “Xbox One: A Media/Gaming Console that Isn’t for Kids Anymore?”)

And yet, even now, the very idea of constructing this digital paradise leaves me a little cold. Obviously, the convenience will be wonderful: The cohesive Xbox Music experience is really what I’ve been waiting for all these years, and the addition of cloud storage makes it a no-brainer. But I feel like I’ll be losing a piece of my soul by ripping the rest of my CDs and then storing them away in boxes. Sure, I feel like a relic admitting that, but there are many relics out there who value physical media as forms of art. There’s a lot more to a music album than just the music: There’s the liner notes, the cover and disc art, and just the whole package that is part of the experience of enjoying both the artist and the art. I hold similar feelings toward books and film.

And so, as I’ve gradually prepared for this comprehensive digital revolution in my home, I’ve found that I’m doing something that you might deem rather peculiar. That’s right, I’m assembling a small stereo-only system in my office downstairs that will serve as a listening area for LPs and CDs.

Those old long-playing albums and the turntables that play them have always held more than a nostalgic fascination for me, and in fact LPs are making a substantial comeback as the rest of the world goes digital—and not just among old-timers such as myself but also among students and other hip youngsters who appreciate the sound and feel of them. The comeback strikes me as significant enough to consider it, in fact, as a metaphor for this reluctance many of us have for losing an essential part of the music-enjoyment experience. LPs, after all, were always exemplary for offering the biggest and boldest musical experience, with their square-footage opportunity for cover art, their luxuriously huge liner notes that often included posters and band artwork, and their old-school analog hi-fi sound. In many ways, LPs are the precise opposite of the MP3 experience.

Fittingly, my new old-school listening area is in the same room where I keep my similarly “old school” books. My office is a haven for a guy like me—a guy who is enjoying this analog renaissance, in the form of music stores that sell turntables and used (and new) LPs alongside CDs and MP3 players. When I go to these stores, those old LPs are the first things I flip through, finding comfort in their tactile feel, their distinctive smell, their heft, their presence in the world as an art form. It’s almost as if a part of me needs this facet of the experience to remain in my life in order for my evolution into the digital realm to happen upstairs.

And make no mistake: That upstairs digital changeover is on track. My wife has threatened me with bodily harm if I fail to deliver on that promise after installing this old analog listening station. And I will most certainly enjoy the digital purity and convergence of the entertainment in the living room. But just as important for me will be the ability to escape the future and slip back into the past, by dropping a needle into a groove downstairs.

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