Vintage Vinyl: A local couple’s curated look back
By Craig Manning | Feb. 24, 2018
Vinyl records are back.
You might be surprised to read those words if you’re old enough to have ditched your record collection when CDs came along, or young enough that you’ve never dropped a needle on a record before. The vinyl resurgence is real, though. In 2017, vinyl album sales hit 14.32 million units — the highest number on record since Nielsen Music began tracking sales data in 1991.
As streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have redefined music listening for the modern age, listeners have decided that they want something tangible. So why are many music fans — particularly die-hard collectors — choosing vinyl over cheaper and more readily available CDs?
"Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America," a new book with northern Michigan ties, shines a light on the answer.
“The artwork and the liner notes tell interesting stories,” said "Designed for Hi-Fi Living" co-author Jonathan Schroeder. “That’s really what we wanted to focus on with this book. The music is obviously a big part of it, but we’re finding a lot of young people who will buy vinyl and just use the download codes [included with the purchase]. They never even really play the vinyl. They’ll have it as art, and then they’ll listen to the music through their iPhone or iPod.”
Schroeder and his co-author and romantic partner Janet Borgerson grew up in an era where vinyl reigned supreme. Schroeder even held out after the format was deemed obsolete, not buying his first CD player until 1990. (The CD format was first introduced in 1982.) When Schroeder and Borgerson did make the jump to compact disc, it was because record labels had virtually stopped releasing new music on the vinyl format.
To this day, both Schroeder and Borgerson are vinyl fanatics. Together, they share a record collection that includes some 5,000 pieces of vinyl. While that collection does include traditional albums from some of the “usual suspects” of the classic rock era — like Led Zeppelin and Elton John — Schroeder and Borgerson tend to be more idiosyncratic with their collecting.
“We started realizing [records] were fun to look at all the time,” said Borgerson of the couple’s early vinyl collecting habits. “So we started putting them up as décor on a picture rail that we had. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god! Look at the colors! Look at the images! Look at the ocean and the palm trees!’ And then all the sudden, we thought: ‘We love these covers, but for some reason they all seem to be Hawaiian music.’”
That lightbulb moment proved to be the epiphany that would eventually lead to “Designed for Hi-Fi Living,” a book that Schroeder describes as “the story of post-war America told through record album covers.”
Instead of just thinking about vinyl records as a music format, Schroeder and Borgerson started seeing them through the prism of different categories and themes. The Hawaii records, as it turned out, were meant largely as promotional tools. They were sponsored by airlines or travel companies, and the backs of the sleeves even featured maps of airline routes between LAX and the Hawaiian islands. The purpose of the records was to entice contiguous U.S. citizens to get on a plane and experience Hawaii firsthand.
“Designed for Hi-Fi Living” provides an eye-opening look at a time when record album covers were meant to sell trips, lifestyles, and experiences, in addition to the music itself. The couple’s 8x8 book features full-color reproductions of nearly 150 album covers, split into two parts: “Home” and “Away.” The “Home” section features records themed around dinner parties, cocktail parties, dance parties, barbecues, painting, and DIY projects.
The “Away” section, meanwhile, features records themed around trips, airlines, and far-flung destinations. With themes like Hawaii, Alaska, New York City, China, India, and even the Moon, this section of the book illustrates how vinyl records played a role in getting listeners ready for both the jet age and the space race.
Along the way, Schroeder and Borgerson break each section into smaller chapters and categories, the better to frame the broader story they are trying to tell. One chapter of the “Home” section, for instance, is “Music for Hi-Fi Living,” which takes its title from an RCA Custom LP series. The series includes records like I Could Have Danced All Night and I Married an Angel, loosely charting a journey from teenage romance to marriage to domestic bliss. The series — and most of the records discussed in the book — did double duty: carving out an arc for the idyllic post-war lifestyle, and providing the soundtrack to it.
“Designed for Hi-Fi Living” has both a nationwide focus and a global mindset, but the project also has northern Michigan roots. Schroeder and Borgerson both grew up in Flint, but their families summered at Duck Lake and occasionally took sojourns away from the water to visit Traverse City. Many of the records featured in the book, they say, were purchased in TC, either at the no-longer-in-business Full Moon Records or at the Goodwill on South Airport.
The book itself, meanwhile, had its release party at Brilliant Books in December.
Even now, Schroeder and Borgerson find their way back to Traverse City at least once a year. Those visits typically include a stop by RPM Records, a big orange building on Hannah Road that stocks tens of thousands of new and used records.
For her part, Borgerson wonders if the return of vinyl might inspire the new generation of record fanatics to take a journey similar to the one she and Schroder took with “Designed for Hi-Fi Living.” After all, while the purpose of vinyl has shifted away from advertising and lifestyle commentary and toward the artists and the music, the factors that make records uniquely appealing haven’t changed.
“When we started buying these old records, what really compelled us were the pictures and the liner notes,” Borgerson said. “We learned a lot about history that was not in our textbooks. We learned a lot about travel and post-World War II culture from the liner notes. So it’s interesting to think, as vinyl comes back, that you can learn something from this material object — between the notes, the writing, and the art. I think there’s a compelling continuity between what happened to us and what motivated us to write the book, and maybe what’s motivating the return of vinyl in general.”