Review: Vinyl Nation Revels in the Joys of Tangible, Browsable Record Collections

As someone who has fairly recently rediscovered my own vinyl collection and stopped being nervous about adding to it (thanks to annual events like Record Store Day, which finally happens again this weekend), the prospect of watching a documentary like Vinyl Nation, about individuals whose collections often number into the many thousands of albums and singles, seemed like a little slice of heaven—and so it is. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that vinyl sales are experiencing a resurgence, and filmmakers Christopher Boone and Kevin Smokler attempt to understand both why vinyl ever went out of fashion in the first place and what factors are allowing sales to boom once again.

Image courtesy of the film.

Featuring interviews with collectors, record shop owners, musicians, and most interestingly, those artisans who work in record-pressing factories, Vinyl Nation is as interesting for what it doesn’t do as it is for what it does. The film doesn’t attempt to credit a certain type of music or record label for bringing back vinyl (although I think Jack White’s Third Man Records could make a case for being a massive part of the format’s return to popularity). The film dives into the impact of certain types of DJs who didn’t go digital, but even they couldn’t single-handedly keep the format going. What bonds these collectors to the format is this idea of having something physical and large in your hands that you actually had to turn over, forcing you to engage with the music on a more tactile level. Many of them have collections so large that they have to bargain with themselves that for every new record they buy, they have to get rid of three.

There are deeper discussions about how much one’s record collection reflects their personalities, and some interviewees get quite emotional when they start contemplating what will happen to their vinyl when they die—the idea of splitting up their collection seems incomprehensible. There is some talk of what makes an individual album more valuable, but Vinyl Nation isn’t about high-end pieces; it’s about record bin diving and finding weird, cool, and yes, sometimes valuable, works in the strangest places.

I don’t think anything about this movie thrilled me more than hearing even the most ardent vinyl enthusiasts admit that vinyl doesn’t sound any better than CDs or streaming services—it depends on how the music was recorded and mixed, how the record was pressed, the sound system it’s played on. All this nonsense about the “warmth” of vinyl and falling in love with the pops and clicks that sometimes happen when listening is thrown right out the window. This is blessedly not a film about audiophiles, and those interviewed seem to look down on those types of collectors. The film also verifies what I’ve always suspected: that colored vinyl has worse sound quality than black vinyl.

Vinyl Nation looks at the youngest generation of buyers, who purchased their relatively inexpensive turntables at Urban Outfitters and whose first record is likely the picture discs of a Disney soundtrack. But those kids count just as much as their parents, and they learn early how to use and respect the equipment. The return of vinyl seems to have brought a broad and diverse group of people together that might have never found each other outside of the aisles of record stores and conventions. When they walk into the home of someone with a collection, they zip on over to the shelves of vinyl and let their eyes drift over the titles. It’s an awesome sight to see, but an even more incredible one in which to engage. This movie exists for those of us who appreciate a solid deep-cut existence.

The film is now available via Facets Virtual Cinema.

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