CD, LP, download, even smartphone...let us celebrate the many ways that we listen

Martin CullingfordThu 28th April 2016

Sound quality is important - but above all, it's the music that matters

It’s proving to be a passionate debate. Evidence and emotion play equal roles, and each side is convinced they are right. No, not the UK Referendum on the EU...but vinyl records.

When I ponder it, it does seem quite extraordinary that, in 2016, we should be illustrating the front cover of Gramophone with an LP. For many of you, vinyl will of course have played a substantial role in your collecting lives. It’s quite possibly the format which best evokes those heady early days of discovery as you began exploring classical music. But it’s now so long since LPs were superseded by CDs that there will be many who might never actually have owned a turntable – and I count myself among that number. 

But while I can’t therefore share the emotional connection to vinyl, I can share, and understand, the depth of relationship with recorded music that underpins the debate. In his fascinating cover feature for us this month, Andrew Mellor talks to a breadth of interviewees who reflect the many reasons why vinyl has once again grabbed the popular imagination: its distinctive sound qualities, the ritual, the artwork, the permanence, the business potential, the counter-cultural appeal… Whatever happens, whether it proves to be a trend or merely trendy, the renewed appeal of vinyl touches on so many issues about how we relate to recorded music, and is thus deserving of in-depth discussion.    

And it’s important we do discuss it. For as a magazine and readership which takes listening very seriously, we all know the impact the quality of sound, whether via LP, CD or digital file, can have. But we must never forget that it’s still the means to an end, not the end itself, and that extraordinary musical experiences can still be had when the sound, or method of playback, is less than optimal. After all, that’s something our reviews of historic recordings, some from the early 20th century (and however skillful the re-mastering) prove month after month. 

I sometimes hear quite sniffy opinions expressed about people listening to music via smartphones whilst out and about. And, despite the very high quality streams now available, such listening conditions are of course far from ideal – but it might be the only listening time a person has. They might be a seasoned collector (they might even be you). Or they might be someone who, while commuting on a train, or out jogging, is choosing, or chancing upon, classical music for the very first time. It may be the beginning of their heady journey of discovery – the one so indelibly linked for many of you with memories of vinyl. And who’d want to do anything other than encourage that? 

Likewise, I worry that discussion around new concert hall plans can occasionally give out unhelpful messages. While there is something extraordinary about a state-of-the art auditorium, we’ve all experienced brilliant concerts in less than perfect venues. To imply otherwise doesn’t send the most encouraging signal to new people to give a concert a try. 

So while celebrating the sonic summit of high-end listening, vinyl or virtual, let us always remember that the climb there, even the foothills, can be full of life-changing experiences. Let us celebrate and advocate all methods of listening. After all, it’s the music that matters. martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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