I got more feedback on my recent post about the vinyl revival than for anything else I’ve written.
Some of these were useful correctives to my prose style (“reads like it was written with a goatee dipped in ink”); others were a bit more constructively engaged with the content and helped me clarify and nuance what I was trying to say.
The main point is this:
The current fetish for physical – including Record Store Day specifically and the vinyl revival more generally – is a digital phenomenon. Let’s not fool ourselves otherwise.
More waffle below.
Firstly, Richard Elliott from Sussex uni dropped by with a few comments on the blog, which I’ve reproduced at the bottom. I rather clumsily implied that I found the idea of his Music Materiality conference “boring”(!) so my first clarification tried to address that. Here, in an expanded form, it serves as a useful overview of my position:
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 – whether that’s ‘physical sales up = industry rescued’, or ‘vinyl is a purer, more authentic form of listening’. It seems to me to be a kind of 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 both cultural defensiveness [‘don’t take my vinyl away from me!’] and the tepid either/or dichotomies [physical/digital; indie/major; past/future] that too often seem to seep in.
Most of the discussion that I saw taking place was from the independent techno aficionados clustering around the Bleep43 Facebook group (disclosure: for whom I once wrote reviews). Many in that group are hands-on involved in that scene, as producers, DJs, label owners, etc. – so a useful insight – and some are just passionate fans.
Someone commented it was a shame the discussion was taking place on Facebook, so I thought I’d reconstruct the comments that emerged into more coherent conversations for posterity and public (*ahem*) ‘record’. I’ve divided them into comments from the production side, on one hand, and from the consumption side on the other. But they’re all from the same group of (I think) 9 people.
[commenters are anonymous as it’s a private group; I am ‘TB’]
“As a vinyl only person and someone who currently runs a vinly-only label I too am fed up of this hyped revival situation. Some records are costing stupid money, with stupid angles to flog it – I just recently saw 160gm as a selling point. It’s silly enough that 180 is a selling point – esp for DJ music, we have to carry these things around, lighter is better, quality of 140gm is fine. It’s gotten silly.”
“Yeah, the ‘heavyweight pressing’ thing on 12″ singles is some serious bullshit”
“I love the idea of a record store day … but I despise Record Store Day™”
“The majors have usurped the spirit…”
“Record Store Day in particular has completely screwed alot of small labels”
“The ‘vinyl revival’ has completed fucked up pressings in Europe, to my knowledge. I don’t know what other peoples experiences are but Record Store Day in particular has completely screwed alot of small labels for delivery times…..
“Hardly any pressing plants around (none in UK) and they cannot cope and as I’ve been informed the technology isn’t there to ‘just open a new one’. Loads of cutting/mastering places but it’s the pressing plants there is a lack of.”
“I think this is the main concern, the one that the people behind RSD itself are expressing, and the one that has genuine impact on people’s livelihoods, musical diversity, etc. But I think it’s too easy to point the finger at majors for pushing out small labels. There’s three of them and they represent just enormous sheer volume and power.So it’s true on one level – but it’s also not helpful: that’s always going to happen, it’s what market conditions dictate (particularly in an under-resourced physical domain).
“To me, it’s a more generalised issue based around commodity fetishism and a kind of anti-digital/anti-commercial pro-vinyl/pro-independent attitude that seems to shut down the consideration of possibilities for creating new and interesting futures, rather than rehashing past formats. You can point fingers at small labels and individuals too.”
“Not strictly true. The fact is, some labels are being delayed by months due to it. This has solely come about from the majors getting in on RSD. You can use new formats and old and this still be an unfortunate issue. Because of the small amounts of sales of vinyl generally, the standard – and obvious – route folk go is vinyl first followed by digi formats.”
“I’m just fucked off that I cannot get out the things quickly enough, a ghetto operation like mine doesn’t stand a chance, have I got to put things in to be pressed now for release next year??! “
“Short answer: I agree! Long answer below:
“It’s an economic issue. We have one form of economy (based on the exchange of physical goods, if you like – the ownership model) transforming into another (based predominantly on the regulation of digital services – the access model). The former is dwindling so that, as has been pointed out above for instance, there are no longer any pressing plants in this country. A point was reached were they didn’t make economic sense. What would make a lot of people happy would be if there were one or two presses to cater for limited interest, supply and demand were balanced, and this micro-economic market reached its equilibrium. But it doesn’t work like that and nor do I think it should either – it would essentially amount to a managed decline, or a museum piece.
“It’s also a cultural issue because vinyl isn’t a transparent vessel for holding music, it brings with it all sorts of associations. And the current economic formation we have (and that’s continuing to develop) has the exploitation of cultural associations right at its core – i.e. advertising, marketing, PR, social/behavioural analytics… Creating buzzes, trends, virals, hype, etc.
“What RSD does is glorify and fetishise the older model so that what you’re buying is a whole bundle of associations – including, to a large extent, the *experience of scarcity*, as if that were a good in itself (creating focused listeners, etc). That’s a function of the new economic-cultural model, parading itself as a return to good old-fashioned values.
“But markets are based on competition, tending towards monopoly. Without defending the majors – which, don’t forget, aren’t faceless monoliths, but are made up of thousands of individual people, a large proportion of whom are genuine music lovers – you also can’t blame them for following that logic and doing what they do well. If they didn’t, then they’d fail, and others would succeed in their place.
“Majors are an easy target because they’re visible and powerful. A generalised market culture that we’re all in some way complicit with (including myself, as I tried to say in the post) is a much harder but more necessary one, I think.
“All I’m saying is, we should engage with it better.”
“Yer right, I can’t fault them, it’s just a shame that the two cant go side by side (some plants can cope with it, my latest release didn’t get delayed when i expected it to)”
“I agree. It’s like we are stuck or trapped in a permanent near-past and aren’t moving on. […] It’s like Adam Curtis the film maker is always banging on about – people get trapped in a myth of the past that holds back new ideas and new possibilities, it stops people imagining a new world. This can relate to politics, economics as much as selling or distributing music/art. It’s interesting in itself that RSD, as an event/phenomena what ever you want to call it, is having a negative effect and creating negative feelings amongst a lot of people that love the vinyl format!?
“Having said that I’m continuing to press vinyl, so does that mean I am stuck too? But I am pressing vinyl for a reason other than the ‘authentic experience’. Never the less we are still selling some kind of experience, that ultimately we want to give people pleasure from. I take great pleasure from making this stuff because I like making and distributing things. I want it to be sustainable though and it can’t be the ‘vanity’ project I want it to be (i.e if I had loads off money I would probably release things that I know wouldn’t sell! But would love to ‘put out there’) but then again I view my ‘project’ (the label) as just that, a project that in the long term is about something else other than just releasing dance music, I don’t know what that might be or where it will go. Contrary as I am, I do struggle with the idea of making and adding to the mountain of Mammon that is out there…”
“I agree with his misgivings 100%. I also agree with him when he writes “I do love vinyl.”
“I want vinyl to keep going, but without the pointless frills, and for it to be affordable. Use what format you like.”
“I literally never use playlists or “random” functions. I mostly listen to albums or deejay mixes digitally. Really nothing has changed from the days of cassettes or CDs for me in that regard. I have some feelings about the gimmicky nature of vinyl sales currently tho.”
“I love streaming too, it’s totally energised my listening habits: compiling, exploring, sharing, and so on. I didn’t put this in the post but maybe should have – my tastes and habits are also a great deal more socialised and collaborative than they’ve ever been before. Different types of listening.”
“I actually have nothing against gimmicks, as long as they’re not totally cynical.”
“I used to go to that Reckless Records and still go there even now it’s a bakery. And in a lame nod to their predecessors, the bakery has decorated the walls with the sleeves of boring rock-canon LPs by the Beatles and so on. Yawn!”
“The tradtat, ‘authentic experience’, retro mania, that seems to be dominating lots of things these days is stopping us (by that I mean people generally) from moving forward with ideas.”
“[The] 2nd afterthought [on new ways of listening digitally] is particularly interesting and one that I have been giving a lot of thought to recently – playlists, random shuffle – the sort of listening habits that we have now with this new technology should be celebrated a bit more.”
“If you don’t think iTunes Shuffle mode – at least conceptually – isn’t one of the greatest things ever, you’re out of your mind. Something new (I doubt many people ever got up after every song to swap in a new LP) that was totally enabled by digital technology.”
“I also agree that this idea of the vinyl fan being more of a focused listener isn’t true. They like to think they are, and certainly many folk do have less of an attention span if they can keep flicking – i went to college with a guy who could barely ever make it thru a full song. But loads of digi fans listen just as intently as someone sat with a record.”
“There will never be another Abbey Road, Kind of Blue, London Calling or any other classic LP that was bound to the restrictions of the vinyl format. But creativity won’t stop – regardless of the means of consumption. Kind of pointless discussion – no offence meant obv.”
“I guess I’m arguing that the interesting question isn’t about whether it’s true or not but whether it’s always undesirable. I reckon there might be some positive outputs of this reduced attention span. As long as people still have the capacity to think about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and the ability to switch between different listening styles (distracted, intent, passive, active, whatever). Without that then we’re fucked.”
“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…
“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, interesting) in the ways we (academics, presenters) opt to play examples in classes, conferences, etc..”