A Stack of CDs

Essay

Feb 06 2020

Gold Tape

A Stack of CDs
This essay is about my love of music, and my yearning for a more private and tactile listening experience.

Dear Reader,

I promised myself: When the new Rorie album comes out, I will get a record player. 

I’ve known Rorie (Erin) since the days of my beloved yellow boombox. We listened together, singing to showtunes, composing choreography for fun.

So last year, when she announced her first full length album, I knew I couldn’t just play it as a digital download! There I was, on her Kickstarter page, selecting the vinyl, even though I didn’t have anything to play it on.

A few weeks ago, the record arrived and I thought, well, it’s time. I ordered a turntable, hoping it would get here before I left for a road trip. 

The night before our journey, there was the box, waiting by the door. I ripped it open straight away, not even hanging up my coat. I set it up, and tested out the Rorie vinyl — I’d just play it a little, to make sure it worked okay! Without meaning to, I sat on the floor, listening to the whole thing, right then, my coat still flung over its chair.

As the record played, I felt perfectly at peace.

When I steam music, I feel pressured to share, react, boost the numbers on Spotify.

Vinyl feels like freedom. A private performance. Just the music and Rorie and me, like listening to the boombox in my bedroom. The songs have space to breathe, to reach me. No action required — other than flipping the record over when it reaches the end of Side A.

Growing up, even when iTunes was an option, I stayed analog as long as I could. 

The digital interface felt unfamiliar, uncomfortable.

In high school, when my peers had iPods, I still used my walkman, and I still had that boombox. Every morning I’d press play; every weekend, I grew my collection.

I went into the city on Saturdays for my voice lesson, and stopped by Newbury Comics afterwards. Usually, I browsed solo, making my pick of the week by what caught my eye in the used CD section.

Sometimes friends chimed in. Alexandra visited from New York and insisted I try Little Earthquakes. I listened to that weird album every day in October before it finally clicked. I gave it time, and now it’s there, a cherished part of my life soundtrack.

On my first visit to Oxford, I brought home the most British albums I could find at HMV. The Kooks, Lily Allen, and Kate Nash became the music behind my study montage, eventually bringing me back.

When I moved to the UK, I gave digital music a proper go.

I didn’t bring CDs in my suitcase. Instead I downloaded this new thing called Spotify: a candy shop of options.

Overwhelmed, I did what I could to emulate the feeling of a stack of CDs. Dreaming of Newbury Comics, I organised my playlists into albums.

Back to the present, I still use Spotify like this. But with my new record player, I’m determined, one album at a time, to bring back the stack. 

On our road trip, we drove to the Highlands, arriving in time to prepare dinner. I’m still learning to enjoy cooking, but one thing is for certain: the first step of any recipe is to select a soundtrack.

We hadn’t connected to the wifi, which, to my horror, meant that much of my music had disappeared from Spotify!

Actually, it wasn’t really there to begin with. All that time, I had been playing it a distance, streaming it from its cloud.

I opened iTunes instead, and we played that digital download of Rorie’s new album. The vinyl feeling flooded back.

Alone in the wifi-less wilderness, it occurred to me how public it feels to stream music, and how political.

Every time I stream a song, I vote for that artist’s success and visibility. I flag my support, sending messages to music labels. All the while, I’m being watched. Play counts tally up who I am, who I like.

Spotify knows me so well. I turn off autoplay, desperate to guide my own listening. But I’ll admit – when I do explore what the platform picks out for me, I usually like it. A lot.

It’s just not as good a story, discovering an artist by algorithm. 

Not as memorable as being handed favourites from insistent friends. Not as special as borrowing disks from my parents’ personal collections, where I found Aerosmith, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac.

I remember picking up Ray of Light at my school’s yard sale, and feeling so satisfied when a favourite teacher complimented the choice. I remember how my pre-ordered copy of Teenage Dream arrived in the mail, cotton candy-scented.

CDs take up more space, but it’s space I can see. Digital clutter goes on forever, while also never really being there. Even in the car, listening to CDs, we have to keep pressing buttons to prevent the media player from connecting to Bluetooth. The car really loves Bluetooth! 

It takes so much effort to simulate simplicity on a digital device.

I don’t want to see the play count, or popularity. I just want to listen. I just want to be there – here – with the music.

I love the physical setup of vinyl. I love the scrutiny required to land the needle on the right rung. I love to nestle the disk back into its case with clean fingers. It feels good to use my hands, to connect my motions with the music, a ‘Dance’ – like Track One of Valley in the Mirror.

I extend a hand to the music and I ask, as the song does: Can I dance with you forever?

Until the Next Chapter,

Xandra

P.S. Please write back, on PatreonInstagram, or email, and let me know: what’s your favourite album recommendation?

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