As someone who spends lots of time thinking about the future of music as an app phenomenon, it might surprise you that I do a lot of my listening on vinyl records. I'm not alone – reports abound of vinyl's surging sales numbers over the past five or so years.
Though they make up a tiny percentage of overall music sales, vinyl record sales have grown at a time when other physical formats are skidding. It might have something to do with my age and the people I hang out with, many of whom are music nerds of the highest order, but I don't know a single person who buys CDs. Everyone I know who is interested in having physical copies of their music buys it on wax.
I should mention that I'm in my early twenties. I had cassettes as a kid, but CDs have been the dominant physical format of my lifetime. Napster came out when I was in elementary school. IPods arrived at the beginning of seventh grade. Digital music has been a part of my musical life since nearly the beginning.
I can't find numbers to support this claim, but I'd bet that many of the so-called "digital natives" buying all of this vinyl are like me: serious young music fans who are well aware of the respective advantages and disadvantages of both formats. We spend too much time cruising blogs for MP3s by skinny-jean'd Brooklynites and even Baltimoreans. Our iPhones are loaded with music apps. When we come home, we listen to our favorite albums, carefully, on vinyl.
We are old enough to remember saving allowances to buy CDs and listening to a particular radio station because a favorite song was on its rotation, but young enough that dropping a needle on a record has a magical appeal. To paraphrase one of Brooklyn's favorite sons, we listen out of a borrowed nostalgia for an unremembered, pre-internet age. Putting on a record allows us to escape the internet for 40 minutes or so before returning to our lives as web developers, tech bloggers, social media marketers, and graphic designers.
For people my age, having grown up with Napster (and Limewire, Bearshare, and Soulseek — remember those?), it feels silly to pay for MP3s. The same goes for CDs. All you'll do with them is rip them to your computer and iPod. For those of us who want to pay for music, vinyl is a way to do that in return for something that isn't easily obtainable for free on the internet. And for audiophiles, the sound quality of vinyl is often a factor too.
As someone who's into both music and technology, I decided to seek out apps to compliment my vinyl habit, forming a more perfect union between analog and the digital.
Most of what I've seen falls flat, because it tries to supplant the vinyl experience rather than augmenting it. This app turns your iPad into a virtual turntable, for instance, which is interesting as a novelty but obviously can't replicate the actual experience of listening to a record. I'm looking for something that doesn't ask me to stop using my turntable, but rather adds to that experience.
So far, I've found two apps fit the bill. The first, Scrobbyl, was introduced at a Music Hack Day last year and hasn't yet seen a wide release. It allows users to log the vinyl tracks they listen to on Last.fm, in the same way they might with iTunes or Spotify — and it works passively (i.e. in the background), without interrupting or otherwise diminishing the vinyl experience.
Vinyl purists might that find the premise of scrobbling their vinyl runs counter to the reasons they like it in the first place. For others, Scrobbyl would be a welcome addition to the home, lending vinyl one of the distinct advantages of digital music — the ability to share what you're playing — without changing anything else about it.
The other is a mobile app for iOS and Android called The Vinyl District (free, pictured). This is my favorite kind of tool, one that accomplishes a practical task with aplomb and few frills to get in the way. The Vinyl District locates what record stores remain. It uses your iPhone's or Android's GPS to find the closest vinyl merchant to your location, then provides you with customer reviews and directions for getting there. It also includes social features I can't imagine ever using, but the next time I'm in an unfamiliar city with some time on my hands, I'm busting this thing out.
In the meantime, I'll keep discovering new music on the internet and buying it on vinyl. Recently, I've been working my way through a Songza playlist called "James Murphy's Record Collection" — a set of disco, house, and post-punk gems that influenced the LCD Soundsystem frontman. Now I have a long list of stuff to look for the next time I go record shopping wherever my iPhone might lead me.
Photo Flickr/Troy McCullough