Let’s Get Physical: Against the Vinyl Revival

Last week Jack White reached number one in the US album charts with Lazaretto, which sold forty thousand vinyl LP copies in its first week, and comes replete with format gimmicks like three-speed play and holograms.

Record Store Day is growing every year and Cassette Store Day is returning for a second year this year. The trend for record shop closures is starting to buck.

As digital streaming services gain legitimacy as much as they court controversy, every week there is yet another article about the joys of physical music and the Guardian are currently crowd-sourcing photos of people’s record collections.

This weekend there is a two day conference on the materiality of music in the digital age at Sussex University.

Conversations about physical media are thriving in the digital era – but is the ‘physical revival’ actually preventing the most interesting debates from getting through?

For an academic, one of the real benefits of blogging is to be able to put forward ideas without applying a veneer of impartiality. When we’re talking about music in particular, it’s unlikely we’re going to be an entirely impartial observer. I probably wouldn’t trust anyone who pretended to be one.

So let me get this out of the way first: I cannot stand the so-called ‘vinyl revival’ and everything it represents. It strikes me as being regressive, mindless, uninventive, fetishistic, elitist, superficial (both economically and aesthetically) and entirely missing the point. Honestly, it’s just awful.

On the other hand, I do love vinyl. I have a modest and neatly formed collection of around 250-300 records (about four IKEA Expedit shelves’ worth) and, as I was moving them for redecoration at the weekend, I was keenly reminded of just how evocative the materiality of the format is. Touch, smell, weight and visual cues all tie together, triggering memories of particular people, places and events. I estimated that there must be barely a handful of records whose contents I couldn’t hear in my head and that, in fact, I could probably even recall the time and place where at least 90% of the collection had been bought.

So, as I transferred them into cardboard boxes, I found myself going through a kind of High Fidelity-style legitimation ritual, using autobiographical references to justify their continued presence in the flat to myself as much as to my partner. I picked the odd one out as I went, declaring its provenance out loud: “Sister Ray – well it was Selectadisc then”, “eighteenth birthday”, “Paris flea-market”, “HMV”, “inherited from my nan”, “ooh, I had to haggle for this one”, “Edinburgh”, “Oxfam, Chelmsford”, “e-Bay – took years to track this down!”, “Reckless Records, Upper Street. It’s a bakery now…” and so on. They form a kind of multi-sensory diary.

I love my vinyl. I romanticise its physicality as much as its content and I derive joy from doing so. Perhaps sacrilegiously, I have equally strong associations for CDs, tapes, MiniDiscs – even MP3s, stored on a hard drive I’m loathe to discard (“this one took two weeks to download on a 28.8k dialup in 2001”). Even the Spotify playlists I put together five years ago, back when all the ads were for local skip-hire companies, have a special place in my heart.

But the trend is increasingly towards casting vinyl in some sort of heroic light, turning personal nostalgia – or even nostalgia without memory, for a past we did not experience – into music’s saviour, its most authentic moment.

This is how the album was meant to be heard.

It just sounds better than digital.

And so we find, at a recent event on ‘Vinyl Culture’ hosted by the Cultural Studies wing of the University of East London, several commentators talking about how vinyl fetishism and audiophilia constitute some sort of act of resistance against the long march of digital neoliberalism led by the major record labels in particular. There’s a recording of the event here, although I think you have to have a strong stomach to make it to the end. I managed the first hour, grumbling under my breath all the while.

The rather stultifying consensus of the panel’s discussion is essentially that the demands placed on the listener by vinyl’s physical limitations are not just, in some way, ennobling – hence the “listening experience” of Classic Album Sundays which encourages us to resist the “danger of becoming careless listeners” – but that they are so because they offer a glimpse into a more ‘independent’ ethic from the past that offers a redemptive escape from the corporatised, technologised, accelerated, distracted present which we’re now all necessarily embroiled in.

(Largely this is driven by Jeremy Gilbert’s narrative – also articulated here – which deserves a deeper, closer response elsewhere because, I think, it knits together the kind of concerns with the current music industry that are typical of a certain left-orthodoxy; the sort of thing about academia that industry people have complained to me are ‘ideological’ – although not exactly the same, see also the backlash over the LSE piracy report last year. Very briefly, I think there are good things about Gilbert’s account but there are also several very bad things. I want to return to it in a later post.)

This appeal to independence, materiality, and an older, more ‘authentic’ style of consumption is also the driver behind Record Store Day, which operates in a spirit of protective conservation. But this spirit is also an endangered species! Spencer Hickman – former manager of Rough Trade East, Dealth Waltz Records label head and UK co-ordinator of RSD – complained in a recent Quietus article that the annual event has become too big. Although it was set up to celebrate “the culture that I grew up in and around”, this year, he says, “it’s been entirely driven by capitalism”.

The argument is that it’s become less about the shops themselves than the releases so that, for the first time, the ‘average’ overshadows the ‘good’. This is summarised in the article nicely by Rob Sevier of archival label the Numero Group: “The economy of Record Store Day is, ‘What can we shit into the form of a record and shove into the hands of the wanton masses?’” Majors and chancers are cynically muscling in on the indie ethic and putting out music that has no good reason to be associated with the antiquated format on ‘limited runs’ of ‘heavyweight vinyl’. Worse still, they are often doing so using digital masters and without mastering appropriately for the format, negating any purpose for cutting to vinyl in the first place. This has knock-on effects at the production and distribution level, with pressing plants unable to cope with the demand and majors getting first dibs, so that indies ultimately get priced out by their own success.

So what do you do? More restrictive qualifying rules? A selection committee? Different days for independents and majors? None of the above, Hickman says: most people think the music he likes is awful so there’s no accounting for taste – and the dividing line between indie and major labels is thinner than ever. Some labels have begun to boycott the day as a result, contributing to the homogeneity of the release schedule, but it’s up to stores to decide what they stock and consumers to decide what they want. The hope is that the market will self-regulate.

In other words, the answer to “Too much capitalism!” is of course “More capitalism!”

(This has something in common with Gilbert’s account, where he differentiates between large-scale monopoly-oriented capitalism and the more noble pursuit of what he calls ‘commerce’ – local cottage-industry style trade that exists for its own sake, rather than the accumulation of profit. This, I think, is a romanticised distinction that I have trouble with – as I wrote in a previous post – but, again, this needs qualification at another time).

Vinyl sales doubled in 2013. This “renaissance for records”, said BPI chief Geoff Taylor, is increasingly the “format of choice” for fans and marks a trend that is “no longer retro-mania”. The reference is to Simon Reynolds’ caustic appraisal of culture in these times of online abundance. Reynolds’ chief conceit is that the abundance and infoglut of the internet create the perfect conditions for perpetual nostalgia and perpetual anxiety alike, resulting in a recombinant cultural aesthetic that dwells in the often-very-recent past. This has consequences both positive (unearthing sounds and stories that have been suppressed or overlooked) and negative (what happened to pushing the vanguard?).

Against this kind of a backdrop, RSD not only tends to trade in retromania – re-releases, archive material, 7″s, picture discs, etc – it is itself a retromanic concept, artificially buoying a diminishing recorded music market by tapping into the broader emotional experience of music and creating scarcity: young and old alike are able to revisit a time when market limitations that have now been circumvented (supply and demand logic; the time and cost of manufacture/distribution) – and not just marketing per se – structured consumer desires.

We’re talking about economics but clearly we’re also talking about emotion – anxiety, nostalgia, desire, memory. So the arguments over physicality and independence might best be summed up as a tension between economic and cultural capital. This is found in the intellectual/audiophile argument regarding sound quality and technical detail and a dismay that this sort of connoisseurship is being replaced by mindless collecting for its own sake. It’s also found in the aesthetic argument about the ‘kind’ of releases that are appropriate to the event. Hickman claims that most people think his taste is awful such that he spends a great deal of time and money putting out limited runs of music that only he likes. This may be intended as a self-aware admission of hubris but the subtext suggests ‘my expertise is particularly refined; it’s not suitable for mass-consumption’.

RSD is about retaining autonomy, celebrating difference, fighting ephemerality, and valuing tradition. That’s great. But ultimately the claims submitted in its defence are based on cynical exclusion rather than strategies for inclusion. Most people are idiots: they have shit taste, they lack expertise, they’ll pay over the odds for rubbish. The masses may be good for business but their ‘commitment’ is transient and not worth courting.

Afterthought 1: I went to an event on archiving digital music at the British Library a few months ago. There was one panel featuring Hickman, Jonny Trunk (of Trunk Records, a similar niche label), and Roger Armstrong (Ace Records, primarily a catalogue re-issues label). The discussion is archived here. It’s quite striking how the two niche hipster-aesthetes seem quite happy parroting exactly these arguments to mount a dismissal of digital, while it was Armstrong – a champion of the old – who was most open to exploring new technologies.

Afterthought 2: Vinyl supposedly helps condition us to appreciate music in full, as it was intended, without distraction. What if these technologies of distraction are actually producing exciting and productive new ways of listening – as recording technology itself did just a century or so ago? What if my ability and desire to skip through tracks on shuffle enables me to hear music in different ways and make new connections? What if, instead of being a sign of boredom and ‘carelessness’, my decision to change songs halfway through a track is actually a function of my brain constructing and following up new narratives based on the connotations the music is conjuring for me? Would that not be considered a more active form of listening? How long before the technologies – and more significantly (because the technologies do already exist), the legal and financial frameworks – enable me to do that more easily and fluidly? What new music could I create just by listening?

What would the ‘vinyl revival’ look like then, other than a cynical ritual played out by conservative, unimaginative, faux-aesthete bores?

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3 comments

  1. Hi there. A really interesting post, though I’m a bit confused by the way you set it up at the start. You include a number of recent or forthcoming events – including the conference I am organising this weekend – that show evidence of an creased awareness of the role of physical formats in digital times (and related themes). Then you say you’re bored with all of this before going to on to write a very engaged, seemingly non-bored contribution to the ongoing debates around vinyl, digital and so on that shows there is much still to discuss (and you note that too with references to future posts). I’m very much hoping the event I’m involved in will produce further variations and elaborations on these themes, so was slightly put out to be lumped in with all the stuff that’s so ‘boring’. But perhaps I’m misreading how those sentences are supposed to work. On your later points about different ways of listening, I completely agree, and Sterne’s MP3 book is another good example of how technologies of listening adapt to the body and vice versa. I think there is a strong case to be made against the audiophile tendency here, something I’m trying to grapple with in my paper at the conference. Thanks for food for thought.

    1. Richard – apologies if it sounds like I’ve just launched a wave of sweeping dismissal that includes your conference! That’s not how it was intended at all – I actually didn’t mean any of those linked articles/events to be dismissed, though I don’t necessarily support or agree with them all. I think I will edit that opening for clarity’s sake!

      What I’m ‘bored’ with is the claim for physical media to offer some sort of heroic redemption for a music industry that’s going down the pan, which seems to me to be lazy thinking, of which people in the industry, popular press, and academia alike can (still!) be prone. I would like to see more inventive attempts to deal with these issues (in all their aesthetic, economic, cultural, legal, etc dimensions) away from cultural defensiveness or tepid either/or dichotomies that too often seem to seep in.

      Looking through the Music Materialities conference programme, I’m very pleased to see that this is what seems to be happening. I’m disappointed to not be able to make it, so I’m hoping that the proceedings will find voice in the digital as well as material domain…

      1. Thanks for clarifying Toby and I’d certainly go along with what you say here: there’s a lot of vinyl sales up = rebirth of industry logic going on out there. I don’t think physical is the future but I probably spend a bit too much time thinking about the past to know what the future is. I liked what you wrote about evocative mp3 and spotify collections and I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the different ways music gets organised and laid out and made accessible (or not) with different platforms. As you said with listening creating a new kind of music making, so might the different patterns available in these new playable archives This is evident (and, I think, interestng) in the ways we (academics, presenters) opt to play examples in classes, conferences, etc..

        Sorry you can’t make it to the conference. We’ll capture what we can for digital discussion and hopefully some delegates will blog some of the proceedings. We’ll also be looking at possible long term outcomes.

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