The joy of ceremony

I wrote a short story recently for Arc magazine. Part of it contains a futuristic pastiche of listening to a record player:

"I did try, once, to get away from technology, move away from the latest kit. I took a therapy class; they called it a 'record player' class. Weird. They had this collection of 'vinyl records'. Have you heard of them? They're black discs made from alcohol and tree sap that had been carved so that a needle makes a sound when it's dragged over them. Very ethnic. Anyway, a group of us sat down in a room and then one person put one of these black discs on a sort of potter's wheel. She lay a moveable stick on the disc and music came out of vibrating cones that were standing nearby. We had to sit, in silence, while the device played four songs, one after the other, with no breaks. It was just audio and we couldn't stop it, or watch an accompanying video, or change anything. It freaked me out!"

Probably, in forty years time, people will regard a record player as a piece of history, a relic in the attic that about as likely to get used as a wooden tennis racket. If they do, they might be missing a trick. I think there's another angle to the record player; a very important one. When you listen to a record player, you have to sit down and listen to some music for twenty minutes and do nothing else. It's almost a form of meditation, at least in comparison to flicking between songs or flicking between channels or talking on the phone while paying for the groceries and herding your children and moving your trolley out of the way of someone else who's also talking on the phone...

I remember when I switched to storing my music on iTunes and an iPod, many years ago. I was over the moon; I could listen to music immediately. I could select from my entire music library at the click of a button. I listened to lots of songs that I hadn't bothered with, songs that had languished in albums that I was no longer interested in sticking on my record player or loading into my CD drawer. It gave my music library a new lease of life.

There was, though, a downside to this digital immediacy, a downside that became clear to me recently when I was at a friend's house. He has a large record collection and, one morning, he suggested we listen to U2's 'The Joshua Tree'. I agreed. I sat down on his battered sofa while he made some coffee. When it was ready, he handed me a cup, then walked over to his record cabinet and slid the album out. He took the record out of its sleeve and passed me the gatefold album. I looked at its atmospheric cover, large enough to fill my vision, then opened it up and gazed at the interior art; Anton Corbijn's photography of four moody blokes in a great expanse of desert and mountains. While I read the lyrics to 'Running to Stand Still', sipping the coffee by my side, my friend carefully placed the record on the player, took out a brush and carefully wiped the record's surface. When the surface was clean and clear, he put the brush away, turned the stereo on and let the valve amplifier warm up. Once it was ready, he put the needle on the record, sat down in his armchair and, together, we listened to side one.

That is so slow! And you have to listen to all four songs! But it isn't a bad thing, is it? A huge part of the enjoyment is that it's a ceremony. It unfolds at its own pace. You can't hurry it. What's more, you don't want to hurry it because the pace of it, the focussed, singular quality of it creates a bubble of quality, a short piece of sanctuary time. The process also gives that bubble structure. You don't just sit somewhere for half an hour, listening to four songs. That would feel like a gap, a lull. The record player ceremony is an event, with its own components and atmosphere and value. I touched on this idea in my article 'How owning a DVD ruined my evening'. The Record Player Ceremony is a little like the Japanese Tea Ceremony, perhaps not as rigidly structured but it shares, I think, the same ethos. They are both a structured period of time that can create a state of mind different to everyday life.

The Record Player Ceremony also used to be part of a larger process. You didn't just download the MP3 file from a remote internet server. You went to a record shop, with its atmosphere and smells and eclectic staff and fascinating customers. Inside, you browsed while listening to the music playing in the store and you bought your album and held it in your hands and slid the record carefully out. You looked at its shiny, scratch free surface and your head filled with the anticipation of listening to it, sharing it with your friends and losing yourself in the music it contained. The lack of immediacy wasn't a problem because it created anticipation and that can not only make the upcoming event more exciting but often be more exciting than the actual event itself.

I miss that. I think a lot of young people now probably miss that too. This might explain why vinyl record sales are actually increasing, and have been doing so for years, reaching a six year high, with a 55% increase last year and an almost fifteen-fold increase over the last twenty years. That's great to hear.

Let's enjoy the ceremony.