Why Vinyl Matters: Nick Hornby on Records, High Fidelity, and His Personal Top 5

Editor's note: In anticipation of the launch of our new site, Reverb LP, we invited author Jennifer Otter Bickerdike to submit an excerpt from Why Vinyl Matters: A Manifesto from Musicians and Fans, released in October 2017 from ACC Publishing Group. Read below for just one of the 25 interviews you can find in the book.

Nick Hornby is a writer who has published essays, screenplays, lyrics, and novels. Of these, his best known is High Fidelity, which centers around the life and trials of London record shop owner Rob Fleming. The book follows Rob and his employees, Dick and Barry, as they discuss their desert-island "top five" music lists and the importance of mix tapes. High Fidelity has sold over a million copies. In 2000, it became a feature film and went on to be made into a Broadway musical in 2006.

Why is vinyl important?

I don’t think it’s important, really. I like it, and still buy it, for reasons that I’ll get into. But I only ever wanted the music. The format was immaterial to me. These are wonderful times to be a music fan: every piece of music ever made, more or less, is available to you in a device the size of a cigarette packet for no, or very little, money. This is particularly helpful if you know a lot about music already. The only limit is your ignorance—so only knowing the Top 40 is a disadvantage.

How did vinyl records influence your writing process?

Nick Hornby - High Fidelity

I wasted my time at university, and one of the ways I wasted it was by looking for vinyl in the secondhand shops around the town. As a consequence of my time wasting, I was unfit for the kind of highflying career that some of my friends embarked on after college. I became a writer instead. But what I wanted from my books was the kind of punch and accessibility that the best popular music has.

What does a record provide that other formats do not?

The reason I started buying vinyl again was that I didn’t think I was making enough of a commitment to music. I’m an enthusiastic user of Spotify, and I’m not enough of an audiophile to tell the difference between the music provided by a streaming service and a pair of good earphones, versus a vinyl record. When audiophiles talk about the obvious superiority of the latter, they forget that most people are not and have never been audiophiles, and that an iPhone and a pair of earbuds can provide better sound than the kind of crappy stereo systems we used to use.

But these things enabled me to pay less attention to the music itself. I skip tracks all the time, I listen to things for twenty seconds before deciding whether I like them, I don’t pay enough for the music I do appreciate. So I decided that whenever I fell in love with an artist or an album, I would do them the courtesy of spending some decent money on their work, sitting in a room and listening to it properly, over the course of twenty minutes or so. It’s stopped my endless skid over the surface of things.

Why has vinyl returned?

Well, of course it hasn’t really returned. Sales are still tiny. But it isn’t, as we thought, going to vanish completely, at least for a while. There’s snob appeal, for sure—vinyl looks great, the covers are cool, the format is fashionably retro, and so on. But I suspect that many young people are taking the position that old-school music nerds adopted: what you own says something about you. You can’t own the music on Spotify. Everyone has the same—namely, everything—despite attempts to personalise the new platforms. Vinyl offers a way of distinguishing yourself from those who care less than you do.

John Cusack in High Fidelity (2000)

What was your first vinyl purchase and what did it mean to you?

The first album I can remember buying with my own money was the first Paul McCartney solo album, which neatly sums up my place in relation to music history: I was too young for the ’60s. Records meant a lot to me for the next seven or eight years, because they represented a commitment. I had one record, and then, a month or so later, I had two, and then, a few months after that, I had 15 or 20.

When I bought something I didn’t like, it was disappointing but also weirdly humiliating, as if I’d been made a fool of. I knew those records very, very well. Nobody will ever again know a collection of songs so intimately. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, actually. I shouldn’t have listened to a mediocre Paul McCartney album thousands of times when I’d never heard Blonde on Blonde or Kind of Blue.

How many records do you have currently?

A few hundred. I sold the vast majority when I switched to CDs. I was one of those people! But like I say, it’s the music that’s important to me.

Top five records of all time on vinyl and why.

Today: Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Al Green’s Greatest Hits, Jackson Browne’s Late For The Sky.

Tomorrow: a different five. And on and on, forever. Always for the same reasons: a record must have ten or twelve truly great songs that are brilliantly sequenced, and no filler.

How is your vinyl collection arranged and why? Do you rearrange yours during times of "emotional stress" like Rob in High Fidelity?

I have always organised my music according to what is now the Apple system: first names first. I did it this way because Andys Records in Cambridge, where I bought a ton of music, did it this way. So J. Geils is always under J. I have never messed around with it.

Why did you include the scene where the jilted wife sells her cheating husband’s prized collection to Rob?

Because it’s such comic agony for music collectors! It was funny, hearing the reactions of music fans to that scene—they dream of finding records like that, but they were more sympathetic to the cheating husband than was appropriate...

A scene from High Fidelity (2000)

How does the physical object of a vinyl record play into this equation?

People want to own what they love, and to demonstrate that they love it. This mostly has to be done out of the house. It’s interesting that the appetite for live music seems to be growing, just as people are willing to spend less on recorded music. The sense of wanting to be in the same place at the same time, for an unrepeatable event involving loved musicians, is very strong.

When High Fidelity came out twenty years ago, Rob seemed a bit sad and stagnant in his belief in the record store and vinyl. Would he be having the last laugh today? Are record clerks and vinyl enthusiasts the true taste makers?

I don’t think we’re back to that, not yet. The taste makers will remain online, and the people I know who run record stores are not making a secure living. It’s tough out there. My kids love music, but unless something changes, I’m not sure they will ever pay for it. Those of us who can remember paying for it must surely constitute the bulk of the record-buying customers now. When we’re gone, it will be even harder to keep vinyl alive.

Any other last words of Hornby wisdom?

One more thing about vinyl: it’s only used for music. CDs were horrible, not least because our homes and offices were littered with discs containing photos, instructions, work, all of them loose and scratched. The 12-inch or 7-inch record is only ever used for songs. That’s why we have such a powerful connection to it. It hasn’t been damaged by any other associations.

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