“When I listen to an album sitting alone, it’s great. When I listen to that same album with my best friend Ian MacKaye, suddenly we’re together, listening to an album we have been playing since we were teenagers. Now, it’s more than music. It’s our lives coming through the speakers.”
So says punk legend and L.A. Weekly columnist Henry Rollins in Why Vinyl Matters, a terrific new book by author and historian Jennifer Otter Bickerdike that is a true love letter to vinyl records. Available now through ACC Publishing Group, the book features interviews with dozens of musicians, including Rollins and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, who both give passionate testimony to their love of the medium.
One of the things Ulrich says he loves about vinyl is “the ritual element of it. It’s running your finger down the side to try and open the plastic wrap, and usually cutting that part under your nail. Then pulling it out, and seeing if there’s an inner sleeve, and hoping for a gatefold. Nowadays, you just walk over to your computer, you click three times, and you have 140,000 songs at your fingertips.”
Many of us have fond nostalgia for vinyl, including Bickerdike. “All my earliest memories revolve around music and the ocean,” says the music industry veteran turned author and academic, who grew up in Santa Cruz. “I remember being three or four and going to the beach on Thanksgiving Day after we ate, stripping off all my clothes and running into the water before my parents could do anything. This was always followed with going back to my grandparents' house, having hot chocolate and putting on one Dave Brubeck record after another. He was a favorite of my grandfather’s. The idea for the book came from these deep-rooted, intertwined loves of music, family and the place that records play in that mix.”
In addition to Rollins and Ulrich, Bickerdicke also spoke to such vinyl enthusiasts as Mike Ness from Social Distortion, Fatboy Slim, Fab 5 Freddy and High Fidelity author Nick Hornby. Rollins and Ulrich were both on her lists of “ridiculously out of reach and ideal” people to interview, but it turns out they were both eager to cooperate.
In fact, Ulrich was the first person Bickerdike spoke to for the book; he even agreed to talk before she had a publishing deal. “Lars was wonderful to interview, so passionate about music, the history of it, and the importance of the physical vinyl format. I love these two men [Rollins and Ulrich]. They were integral on making this dream to write about something so important to me become a reality.”
Once Bickerdike had Ulrich and Rollins, the floodgates opened, “Sometimes people even contacted me to say they heard about the project,” she says. “It was amazing to see how much vinyl meant to so many different people.”
“2016 also marked the first time that spending on vinyl outpaced what people spent on digital downloads.” -Jennifer Otter Bickerdike
Everyone Bickerdike interviewed loved “the physical aspects of vinyl,” she says. “The whole ritual of buying, opening and exploring each individual release — the liner notes, the thank-yous, the production information. This part of an album forms a Rosetta Stone as suddenly you realize that this musician played on that record, so and so wrote this song. And the cover art. It’s such a great 12 by 12 canvas for any artist to work with. The packaging of vinyl is immersive and iconic.”
Not to mention that for many, vinyl just sounds better. Ness told Bickerdike, “There is just something about vinyl, something about wood speakers, and the way that they are configured, and the amplifier. … It’s the combination of everything that makes vinyl an essential part of how I listen to music.”
Vinyl doesn’t have the immediacy of a download, and for many this is a big plus. Rollins said that vinyl “requires you to be where a record player is. Time, place, ritual. The area around the system is your temple — all are welcome. … I can’t explain to you how important this is to me.” Bickerdike adds, “I think vinyl is the best when you want to sit down, unplug and just be reminded of the here and now. It’s just a more fulfilling all-around experience.”
Bickerdike, who now teaches music journalism at the BIMM Institute in London, says another wonderful part of writing the book was that it provided a great excuse to hang out in record stores, where she saw the spectrum of people who were still buying vinyl. “I was very pleasantly surprised to see the age of vinyl buyers [was] all over the place, from the usual suspects in their 40s and above, to kids who clearly were in the midst of their first time in a brick and mortar store.”
In the course of researching Why Vinyl Matters, Bickerdike discovered that vinyl sales hit a 25-year high in 2016. “More than 3.2 million LPs crossed record store counters, the highest number since 1991,” Bickerdike says. “2016 also marked the first time that spending on vinyl outpaced what people spent on digital downloads.”
Bickerdike was also thrilled to see that the number of record stores has gone up as well. In the 2000s, many stores and chains went under, including the late, lamented Tower Records. But record stores are now proliferating again; the U.K. alone saw an increase in physical outlets selling music from 6,808 in 2010 to 10,391 in 2014. It’s fascinating to realize that even with the music industry in a continuous state of flux, vinyl — which first “died” back in the '80s — has become one of the only areas of stability and growth in the business. To many, vinyl is indeed here to stay, which is what makes Why Vinyl Matters such a fun and timely celebration of the format.
“The history of music is a history made on vinyl, with rock being a crucial part of it,” Bickerdike says. “It’s an integral ingredient in the definition of being a teenager, of growing up and finding your own identity. One thing that really came out during my interviews is how invisible our musical identity has become. Music is such a huge part of expressing and exploring who we are. The popularity of vinyl puts that back in the social mix.”
Why Vinyl Matters: A Manifesto for Musicians and Fans is out now through ACC Publishing Group.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the book's release date as Oct. 13. It actually came out Sept. 28, although it will not ship from Amazon until Oct. 13. We regret the error.]