Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age

Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward

As a multifaceted cultural object, vinyl has remained a persistent force within our technologically accelerated culture -- although not without bumps in the road.

Excerpted from Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age by Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2015. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Academic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
Chapter One

Vinyl as Record

Several Lives of the ‘King Format’

The Power of the Form

Perhaps there is no such thing as music, only musical experiences, and these vary greatly. Listeners always seem to bring an element of ‘subjectivity’ with them. The physical properties of sound ‘objectively’ shape what we hear. These two popularly distinguished levels of understanding are actually intertwined, so that the line between them gets blurred. If we learn from our historical experiences with sound and intensive modern exposure to music, then one of the lessons indeed is the fact that ‘you can take the sound out of the human, but you can take the human out of the sound only through an exercise in imagination’. What remains rather clear is that musical experiences exhibit variability typical of other cultural experiences and a chief reason why they vary is that creation and transmission of music requires complex mediation. The musical medium matters, the conditions of production and reception do too.

Mediating music is a universe unto itself. There is no doubt that the technological and cultural how of music is as important as its melodic and rhythmic what. As John Cage has stated, ‘What people ultimately have to learn is to use records not as music, but as records’. Broadly conceived matters of form can and often do trump the issues of content. As this book seeks to show, the boundary we conventionally tend to draw between these aspects is another one that loses its sharpness as we set out to understand the life of a music format like analogue record. In fact, when it comes to vinyl we talk about multiple lives. This seems especially true when we consider the social significance of music. The question of the sound carrier and its historical trajectory belongs to this story. In real life, the music format is inseparable from the practices that it affords and contexts in which it is typically ensconced. This is true of the vinyl, equally as it is of the Walkman and the cassette, or the mp3 player. The practical entwinement of manifold aspects of musical experience makes it difficult to tease out how they are connected to each other and what does what. As listeners, we tend to intuitively simplify the matter by saying, ‘music is all that counts’.

In this book we would like to take a more counter-intuitive path and show that, however useful, ‘music’ is a simplifying figure of speech, an elision of everyday language that may gloss over many obvious and less obvious conditions that make it such a powerful social force. These conditions are historically dynamic, technologically contextualized and materially mediated, and as such they count for more than we would normally care to admit. In short, there is more to music than meets the casual ear.

At least since E. H. Gombrich, we know that the frame contributes to making its content. Marshall McLuhan famously insisted that the medium is the message. The American historian Hayden White argued that, even when it comes to writing non-fiction, the form of representation constitutes its content. In more general terms, the ‘outside’ defines the ‘inside’. The way we do things co-constitutes these things and us too, although there has been a bias to downplay this insight as mere technicality or ‘surface’ of social life in favour of society’s putative latent functions, generative codes, ‘deep plays’ or simply its ‘depth’. However, the surface and depth are intimately related, one recalling the other through practical engagements. In fact, the two frequently become indistinguishable in practice. And, precisely because of this intimate relationship between surface and depth, the issue of the material form or format of things keeps returning in social sciences. Daniel Miller strikes a compelling note when he suggests that the historical contexts of materiality constitute our collective unconscious. But this may be particularly true of professional scholars and intellectuals conditioned -- to be sure -- by their own contexts of production and interpretation. In what may be called lay communities, materiality and framing is not so much suppressed; instead, it is taken for granted or acknowledged in non-discursive ways. It also tends to get conflated with the idea of a materialistic approach to things that economize everything, reducing aesthetics to mere decoration, and framing to packaging. The thing is that both styles of thinking -- the materialistic reductive one and the abstract discursive one -- miss the point of material form being something special and co-productive of even our deepest sentiments. This is the general idea behind some specific tasks of this book such as treating the analogue record not only as a musical record but also as a record of culture (in the current chapter), seeing the analogue medium itself as a cultural message (in Chapter 2) and experiencing ‘deep stuff’ in the concrete surfaces of the thing (Chapter 3).

The vinyl-centred trajectory of mainstream producers, publishers and consumers of musical works is an illustrative record of modern aesthetic developments. This trajectory has somewhat erratic character. As we shall see, vinyl’s cultural biography has been a transformation of something presented as irreplaceable, that ‘can’t get obsolete’, to something that gets discarded as soon as more profitable and convenient stuff comes our way. But there is also another parallel dimension to this story, one that is surprising and that offsets the putative power of the mainstream. It sensitizes us to the independent force of mediums and the mediating power of independent cultures. It is about vinyl’s own resilience and what it has come to mean to different communities and pockets of the market which picked up the pieces where the mainstream left off. And it is about what social scientists and our interviewees alike call the aura of art objects, or the ‘magic of things’, or the ‘power of appearances’. These are not mere esoteric metaphors, although metaphors too do count for more than we typically grant them. These descriptions refer to real experiences.

To assert that there is no such thing as music, only historically specific social experiences of music, goes hand-in-hand with an understanding that there are no ‘immaterial’ cultural phenomena. The world of human culture is the world of sensual bodies, concrete objects and complex mediations. Perhaps it is the overpowering extent to which our culture is nowadays mediated that sometimes gives rise to certain romantic ideas of ‘direct’ contact with art or belief in ‘pure’ aesthetic substance. But there has never been a way out of material mediation. What changes is the kind of medium we adopt. Key questions are how and why media change, and why some happen to resist change. The persistence of the analogue record in the digital age offers a track record of a medium that refused to go despite being marginalized and that therefore gives us a fresh angle on the importance of the medium in general. Continuity despite massive irresistible transformations -- that is the issue at stake when we talk of vinyl’s lasting and resurgence in the digital age.

In his book How Music Works, David Byrne kicks off with a reflection congenial to ours. He writes about creation: ‘Context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung and performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it is actually the opposite of conventional wisdom.’ We concur. The story of vinyl we narrate in this chapter and flesh out in greater detail in the subsequent parts of our book is a specific variation on this general theme. In particular, what we learn from the case of the survival and revival of the analogue in the digital context is that even if the context does not determine cultural phenomena, it actively shapes our interpretation of what is created, and how we establish the value of things. The wholesale digitalization of culture, not just of music, made us sensitive both to what we have gained and to what we have lost, or may be losing, as we are rushed to embrace perennially upgradeable technologies. Often times, things once taken for granted reveal their value only when they are displaced. We will talk more about it in Chapter 3, which is devoted to the ‘thingness’ of vinyl, its qualities and entanglements.

A given cultural experience makes more sense or feels unique or compelling especially in contrast to a different variation on this experience. What it means is that we need to connect the thing and its context at the level of embodied experiences, not only abstract ‘processes’ and ‘structures’ that historians and sociologists tend to foreground. As we put things in historical perspective, bringing in new circumstances and current developments is as important as recognizing the ‘roots’ and past developments. And to make both the past and the present alive in our words, we have to account for what things meant in practice, how they changed sensual experience, what they made possible aesthetically and socially, why they move our bodies and souls. As cultural objects do these things over time, some of them change history. We learn all this from the career of vinyl. We just have to approach it holistically, not only with ‘reason’ but also with ‘heart’, to use Blaise Pascal’s old distinction. As Constance Classen writes in her book The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch: ‘The intention is to explore how the corporeal practices of any particular period relate to the cultural context of the time, and how this relationship changes under the influence of new factors’.

In other words, while vinyl demands attention as a neglected and rediscovered cultural agent whose inherent properties will be scrutinized here, it would be unfair not to realize that the context of digital revolution made us aware of more than one thing about analogue records and other pre-digital media. When it first entered the world, the digital seemed to be the kiss of death to the analogue. Nowadays the idea of the ‘analogue’ record makes sense again, and it is not despite but partly because of digitalization. Sometimes displacement does not mean being replaced but relocated to a new, perhaps more advantageous position.

While this is a paradigmatic unintended consequence, it is not random either. Digitalization sheds new light on analogue technology. It is easier to see vinyl as the ‘sacred’ format when virtual files become the mundane ‘everyday’ format. Moreover, as our use and understanding of ‘virtual reality’ has proliferated and deepened, we are in a position to realize that what we face is more of an ‘augmented reality’ than anything else. This is ‘more like adding a layer of digital content to the existing world’. Under such circumstances, it is easier to see vinyl and other ‘analogue’ media as a base for the digital, or as one of the strands of the ‘real’ that grounds the digital. Adding even more complex layers of electronic stuff to our experience may blur the traditional contours of ‘reality’ but -- and here comes an important point -- it may nowadays be more of an intellectual than bodily/experiential effect. As Steven Levy notes, ‘it’s interesting that “virtual reality” never really caught on all that much. I guess people don’t really want their senses completely hijacked.’ Robert Henke shares this sensibility, and we will return to it in Chapter 4, where we unravel the meaning of the ‘good physical commodity’ vinyl exemplifies.

To the extent that the radical digitalization initially turned vinyl into endangered species of cultural and technological evolution, it seems to be one of those Nietzschean forces that make vinyl stronger rather than weaker. The truth is, nevertheless, that few cared at all about the hastily abandoned vinyl until sales numbers ‘proved’ that it can be ‘successful’ and when the hip showed that it is, well, hip. Vinyl’s cause needed its committed carrier groups who would act upon its objective and relational powers when few believed in their relevance anymore. Without such groups, their dedication, passion and sacrifice, the social value of a thing is merely potential. Importantly, for the lovers of music on vinyl, like the ones we interviewed for this book, numbers did not matter then and they do not really matter now, even if some of them happen to make more money out of vinyl than only five years ago. It takes such dedication to command respect and create cultural meaning, although even these may not be sufficient conditions of successful cultural performance. In the face of massive systemic top-down changes, it is the unflinching commitment of the representatives of these dedicated independent carrier groups that establishes them as credible in our eyes and effective in their respective domains. Still, we always have to keep one eye on the broader context and ask why vinyl would have to go through the bumpy mainstream technological dialectics of triumph, downfall and renaissance? All this within the span of half a century.

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