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.
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.
The Arc of ‘Progress’: The Rise and Fall of Physical Records in the Mainstream
The analogue record stores tones and tunes. It gives tactile form to the ephemeral temporality of music in a double sense: as a fixed durable playback device whose lasting enables us to return to it at any given time, and as continual sonic wave etched in vinyl whose form is the concrete image of a musical piece unfolding in time. In the former capacity it resembles the book. In the latter capacity it is akin to traditional photography. As such the analogue record is one of the landmark elements of the modern mediascape, an icon of recording that thanks to its remarkable affordances came to sit at the core of great cultural transformations of the twentieth century.
In a nutshell, vinyl was a high-modern sound carrier. Connecting artists and their audiences via the work of other artists and engineers, vinyl materialized what at first glance seemed immaterial: feelings, thoughts, ideas and ideals. It captured the abstraction of music, it fixed sonic waves in the tangible form of a record. Lawrence English put it succinctly when he told us: ‘composing music is intangible, vinyl makes it tangible’. When the people of The Vinyl Factory produced a short documentary about the art of vinyl mastering, it was tellingly entitled ‘Sculpting Sound’. While records are like books and photographs in their capacity to create cultural archives, they may also be artistic objects in their own right. They resemble sculptures and pictures. You do not only hear music, you are in direct visual contact with music as the tone arm ‘reads’ the sound message of a revolving record. That’s part of an analogue musical experience.
As early as 1935, Marcel Duchamp created a series of so-called ‘rotoreliefs’ — discs that resemble contemporary slip mats and feature special graphic designs. Observing them rotate on a turntable creates all kinds of mesmerizing visual effects. In keeping with his idea of opposing what he dubbed ‘retinal art’, Duchamp’s rotoreliefs presciently pointed to the artistic valence of records as readymades. Today not only picture disc or centre label may play a similar aesthetic role, but also a special kind of cut or aforementioned slip mat.
In this context it is quite easy to see why the analogue record may be approached as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk — a total piece of art. And yet, before the tsunami of digitalization hit, we took the synaesthetic character of vinyl for granted, just as we have done with many other miraculous marriages of technology and culture. It is therefore useful to unlearn our blasé approach to common technologies like vinyl. Michael Taussig phrased it well when he wrote that ‘Westerners would do well to be reminded of the magic of sound-reproduction in their recent histories — their fascination with the introduction of transistor cassette recorders in their lifetimes, and beyond that the effect of the first sound recorders and reproducers in the United States’. Today we indeed need the analysis of a social scientist or the sensitivity of an artist to be reminded of these facts and appreciate what made so many of our aesthetic delights possible in the first place.
Mesmerized by the deceptively effortless pragmatics of the digital world, we have for a time become detached from the poetics of physical media, as well as their politics and historical importance. We seem to have forgotten that the analogue record was to sound and music what the book was to word and literature. This is an enduring legacy of vinyl, one that does not automatically cease to exist when a new thing comes, just like theatre hardly gets ‘replaced’ by cinema. Each outstanding medium is capable of generating its own culture, and every culture sustains its iconic objects. Vinyl is a case in point, underscoring a principle of objectification once articulated by Regis Debray: ‘No tradition has come about without being an invention or recirculation of expressive marks and gestures… and no new dimension of subjectivity has formed without using new material objects.’ When introduced in its current modern form of the 12-inch vinyl LP in the late 1940s, the analogue record embarked on a new path of changing both the subjectivity and objectivity of cultural life. As we shall see, it has created conditions for blurring the boundary between the two. By the time it was technologically honed and made widely accessible in the late 1950s, vinyl began to change culture forever.
Sociologically, it meant two things above all: (1) music and sound could now be transmitted not only in space but also in time; and (2) music entered the household. Music is thus fixed through a tangible and durable form of records, and as such it is a giant — and unprecedented — step in democratization of access to musical experience, recorded voice and other sounds. Not only is it a giant step, it is truly revolutionary event that has irreversibly altered the scale and depth of the reception of musical aesthetic and other audio content. Now, once recorded and disseminated, records are in principle available to anyone. It is a truly public medium for private use.
Because music is both an entertainment factor and a matter of knowledge, the implications of introducing records to the world were far-reaching. Vinyl was spreading knowledge in various senses of this word: it exposed people to music and thus made them aware of what is out there and what other people are capable of doing with voice and instruments. It enabled people to learn the musical forms from hearing without socially privileged and costly formal training, it made them aware of themselves as they reacted to music, and opened up the world of cultural multiplicity and musical tradition. This is a privilege in a pre-recording world and cannot be taken for granted. It is hardly a random occurrence that giant pop legends of our time like Sinatra, Miles Davis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the artists of Motown emerged and inspired incredibly intense response at the time when records entered the market as socially available modern products. Consider this statement from Keith Richards’ autobiography:
I’ve learned everything I know off of records. Being able to replay something immediately without all that terrible stricture of written music, the prison of those bars, those five lines… Being able to hear recorded music freed up loads of musicians that couldn’t necessarily afford to learn to read or write music, like me… With recording it was emancipation of the people. As long as you or somebody around you could afford a machine, suddenly you could hear music made by people, not set-up rigs and symphony orchestras. You could actually listen to what people were saying, almost off the cuff. Some of it can be a lot of rubbish, but some of it was really good. It was the emancipation of music.
You would expect records to forever occupy a venerable place in the cultural landscape, if not in the big music industry. As music continues to be an ostensibly heavyweight player in global civilization, so could records continue their historic mission and aesthetic appeal. In 2007 the analogue double-sided disc became 120 years old. A year later the world could join Columbia Records to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its flagship product — the 12-inch vinyl record as we know it today. But no spectacular festivities ensued. No special releases and high-profile debates preceded those historical dates. On the contrary, the mid-2000s was the time when vinyl’s presence on the market reached its all-time nadir, both in the mainstream and in the club scene. Overlapping with that was the sharp decline of CDs that repeated the life cycle of vinyl at a significantly faster rate, additionally accelerated by the steep improvements in electronic formats. Consequently, big music outlets and smaller independent stores, especially in the United States, were closing fast, since the raison d’être of their physical existence seemed to be called into question.
Few cared about this silent downfall as the digital revolution has come to triumphant completion. Then it was the Apple iPod that iconized the decade and sound seemed to matter only insofar as it could move along with people and things. Mobility and the designed personal object seemed to have overridden other considerations. Therefore, even fewer expected that the upcoming years would bring a sense of vinyl’s renewal evidenced by skyrocketing sales and ensuing media buzz. In half a decade between 2009 and 2014, the analogue record had its breakthrough, or it seemed to have broken one more record — it gained a new commercial life and unexpected publicity. Although some of this unexpected media attention looked like paying long overdue lip service, the phenomenon appeared to have undeniable appeal of a cultural anomaly in the paradigmatically homogenized late modern music market.
Becoming Iconic: The Golden Age of the Vinyl LP
Like other technological objects, vinyl is both a child and a victim of ‘progress’, andthus — ultimately — can be seen a mere step in the chain of technical and economic evolution. It is all the more effortless to buy into the notion of an inevitable succession of formats and irreversible replaceability of media when almost every aspect of our key technologies gets constantly ‘updated’, whether it is pragmatically necessary or not. Despite some initial enunciations to the contrary, in time it became clear that the analogue record was destined to repeat the life cycle of its kind — just like it replaced preceding formats, it would in turn be replaced by new ones. It did not come out of the blue. Its birth meant superseding the earlier forms such as shellac records, with life expectancy strictly dependent on the coming of the next species of technical evolution driven by quest for improvement. Comparatively, vinyl had a long run and undisputedly ruled the music world for quite some time. It definitely had the proverbial ‘15 minutes of fame’. Interestingly, it largely overlapped with the lifework of pop art master Andy Warhol who coined the phrase.
Vinyl rose spectacularly in the mid-1950s only to quite abruptly exit the mainstream in the mid-1980s. However, because music records are not just the transitory products of technology and economy but furnish the world of culture and aesthetics too, they have remained responsive to non-capitalist and non-rationalistic logic of the human sensorium and social meanings. Such ‘cultural logic’ is not necessarily linear, and not necessarily logical in the strict sense either. But it retains a certain autonomy, strong enough to withstand pressures of money and power, to explain counter-intuitive phenomena and to question and critique seemingly ‘natural’ or ‘inexorable’ trends of the social life of this object. The arc of vinyl’s story provides us precisely with such a denouement. In particular, vinyl’s unlikely survival and perhaps even more surprising revival charts a sociocultural path that questions supposedly normal, inevitable and totalizing effects of progress. It shows us what can transpire instead, suggesting alternatives and pointing to non-standard, hybrid practices of an ‘augmented’ rather than ‘virtualized’ reality. Let us glance over this historical drama.
While the 12-inch vinyl really hit the market only from the 1950s on, the double-sided black analogue record had entered the mediascape of modern society much earlier. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, records were made of different materials but the one made of a shellac resin became predominant. It revolved at a speed of 78 revolutions per minute (rpm), which meant 4 to 5 minutes of audio material per side for the 12-inch record and only about 3 minutes for another popular format of 10-inch. Even if a relatively elite object in the preceding decades, the shellac record slowly but surely permeated the domestic spaces and collective consciousness of Europeans and Americans, and certainly provided the early experiences of delight and magical fascination with the recorded music that Taussig mentioned.
FIGURE 1.1: ‘Mädchen mit Schallplatte’ (Girl with Record)
Karl Hofer,1941. With thanks to the Albertina Museum, Vienna.
By the time Germany plunged Europe into the abyss of Nazi terror putting the powers of modernity to its darkest uses, the analogue record had become a paradigmatically modern cultural medium there and beyond. During the dire wartime, records might have provided a spark of normality and hope on both sides of the barricades. That was the case in Berlin too, which only a decade earlier experienced an unprecedented creative boom in many domains of art and technology and that ‘was never a natural constituency for the Nazis’ due to its left-wing traditions and cosmopolitan elites who generated ‘more opposition to the Nazis than any other German city’. We find a kind of record of that in the oeuvre of the German painter Karl Hofer (1878 — 1955), a chronicler of the social life in Berlin during WWII who was considered a ‘degenerate’ artist by the Nazis due to his involvement in the movements of expressionism and so called new or ‘magical’ objectivity. In 1934 he was dismissed from his professorship of art and until 1945 had to create under a work and exhibition ban. One of the paintings that survived the bleak era hints at the analogue record’s potential as diversion. Created during the war in 1941, two years before his studio got destroyed in a bombing raid, the painting ‘Mädchenmit Schallplatte’ (Girl with Record) foregrounds the iconic look of the 12-inch analogue record held by a half-naked young woman, while another, smaller disc and a gramophone are placed on the table nearby. While the dominant background palette matches the girl’s lackadaisical and sad countenance, the stark red and purple round labels of the records stand out. The Vienna-based Albertina Museum used the caption which explains the presence of records as an act of ‘integrating the elements of modern life’ portrayed against the background of ‘listlessness and resignation of the picture’s protagonist’.
Interestingly, the war contingently occasioned the appearance of the vinyl record. As the introductory information of Yale University Music and Sound Recording Cataloging states, ‘during and after World War II when shellac supplies were extremely limited, some 78 rpm records were pressed in vinyl instead of shellac (wax), particularly the six-minute 12ʺ 78 rpm records produced by V-Disc for distribution to US troops in World War II’. The shellac discs produced between 1925 and 1947 employed electrical rather than earlier, strictly acoustic and mechanical recording techniques that provided decent fidelity but were monophonic and brittle. Moreover, due to the high revolution speed they utilized, not much musical material could be squeezed onto them.
Records in the Post-War World
With Europe ravaged by the war, the record industry first thrives especially in the Americas and it is in the United States where the 12-inch and 7-inch vinyl records were pioneered and commercially launched to a great success. Introducing the so-called microgroove that contained sound data to be played at significantly slower speed of 33⅓ enabled the industry to pack much more sound on the by then familiar format of a 12-inch (30cm) disc. The birth dates for the 12-inch album and 7-inch single discs are 1948 and 1949, respectively. But these inventions were not just a direct consequence of the wartime material economy. Aesthetic motivations were at play too. They took the forms of individual vision, collective feelings and the feedbacks between them. Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records was one of the industry executives whose aesthetic taste and business decisions proved visionary. As Clive Davis recalls, it is Lieberson who ‘is widely credited with introducing the LP format — the vinyl, 33⅓ “long player” that replaced 78s, which held far less music — to the American public. Not coincidentally, the more expansive LP was ideally suited to the classical music and original-cast recordings that Goddard loved.’ The incredible potential of the new sound carrier was lost neither on Columbia nor on anyone else in the industry.
As a result, the 1950s was the decade that quickly and firmly established vinyl as the dominant modern analogue format. In 1957 stereophonic vinyl became available. An unprecedented quantity of music was then made available in unprecedentedly high quality. Quantity and quality went more or less hand-in-hand, a true feat of civilizational change. Increased production and availability overlapped with dynamic technical enhancements. Columbia not only collaborated with such institutions as the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein to release the classical repertoire and whatever then passed for ‘high culture’, but used the expertise of artists like Bernstein to promote new, avant-garde or dance-oriented musical forms through the new sound format. Jazz was a perfect genre to promote, as it encompassed vibrant avant-garde and dance cultures. Here the cutting-edge musical genre of progressive cultural potential matched the cutting-edge industry and its vision of progress. The inventive company very self-consciously advertised not only such genres and their ambitious, often black representatives like Miles Davis, who debuted on Columbia in 1956, but also its own educational role in developing the new signature product, the long-playing vinyl album. Records were the source of knowledge and cultural competence, both aesthetically and technically. Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 educational record What is Jazz is an epitome of how vinyl was at once the perfect medium for new music as well as an element of acquiring a new lifestyle and new competence offered by corporate innovation and standardization. Released the same year, Erroll Garner’s Plays for Dancing is another example. The back cover contained instruction on how to properly use the turntable’s needles: ‘“Permanent” needles may cause permanent damage.’ Customers were advised to ‘play safe’ and consult their Columbia dealers.
Many other albums released at that time included all kinds of commercial and technical information, one particularly common being: ‘Columbia, the greatest name in sound, is the originator of the modern “LP” record. Your dealer can demonstrate a varied line of Columbia phonographs, styled to enhance the decorative scheme of your home. See him today for the pleasure of your life.’ For quite some time the sleeves of Columbia LPs featured carefully curated covers and special notes explaining the cutting-edge production process and the technique of providing ‘the true spectrum of high fidelity’. Importantly, they invariably evoked the authority of science and technological progress to establish its cultural legitimacy and ultimate technical perfection, a strategy that three decades later would be turned against vinyl itself. Symptomatically, Miles Davis’s 1958 album Jazz Track had not only standard musical liner notes but also the information about the vinyl format itself that read: ‘This Columbia High Fidelity recording is scientifically designed to play with the highest quality of reproduction on the phonograph of your choice, new or old. If you are the owner of a new stereophonic system, this record will play with even more brilliant true-to-life fidelity. In short, you can purchase this record with no fear of its becoming obsolete in the future.’
As we shall show, the industry changed its mind as soon as a prospect of increased profit became apparent, but it required a change in the discursive presentation of progress too: the ideal of true-to-life high fidelity was gradually replaced by high-end clean sound. Before that happened, however, vinyl happily enjoyed its golden age. Between 1956 when Miles Davis released his Columbia debut Round about Midnight and the iconic 1959 Kind of Blue, Lieberson doubled Columbia’s sales to $50 million. The 1960s saw the triumph of the album format when pop and rock and roll bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones became the soundtrack of the decade.
Taking the pioneering experiences of Columbia as a benchmark of mainstream developments, one can clearly see the magnitude of change, responding to and in turn inspiring the changes in culture. Explaining this condition in monetary terms, Clive Davis, who assumed the presidency of Columbia in 1967, recalls that in 1965 ‘Columbia’s pretax profits were about $3 million, roughly 3% of sales… By 1970 our market share was 22%, after tax profits had risen to $6.7 million in 1968, then to $10 million in 1969, and, incredibly, to more than $15 million in 1970. The record division had jumped from a tiny fraction of CBS’s overall profits to about one-third of its bottom line. It was a sensationally good period.’
Indeed, taken together the two decades of 1950s and 1960s turned the tables of not just music world but entire cultural universe the way that the two previous decades of 1930s and 1940s couldn’t despite moments of historical prosperity, for example in the aforementioned American jazz world. The US market was not the only one in the Western hemisphere that was gradually embracing the analogue record, although it may well have been the most enthusiastic. Interestingly, analogue record’s reception was by no means unanimously celebratory in South America upon its introduction to the mass market. While records and gramophones were becoming huge there too, notably in the blooming market of Brazil, their success was initially bemoaned by some renowned Brazilian critics and musicians. One of the more remarkable examples is Luciano Gallet who complained in the 1930s: ‘pianos are no longer sold; the creation of serious music is extremely weak, and so people are throwing themselves to records and dance music.’ A complaint was voiced that musicians were becoming unemployed ‘due to the popularity of gramophone’. To some music-loving Brazilians, records came to be associated with the ‘ominous, absorbing empire of the gramophone’. Although rather undemocratic in their spirit and critical about new forms and hybrid genres like bossa nova inspired by international cross-fertilization and jazz influences, they understood the power of records as something potentially threatening to the entire system of social privileges and cultural hierarchies. Slowly but surely, the spread of records meant not only increased profits for big record companies but also spreading knowledge, awareness and emancipatory sentiments, especially among subaltern groups that from the late 1960s on would revolutionize the music world. From globally renowned Motown and reggae labels to tellingly named house and techno labels like Underground Resistance, vinyl remained the hopeful medium for the subaltern peoples in the Americas, even if initially it was a relatively pricey commodity. Comparatively weaker but similar effects occurred in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s. In a rather unlikely way, jazz was considered pernicious there and thus targeted by the communist state propaganda as subversive, particularly in Poland and Czechoslovakia where underground groups were relatively strong. Vinyl records from the West were rare cultural objects but — as renowned Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko recalls — the fact that jazz was a ‘forbidden fruit’ was significant for the formation of modern musical avant-garde there which later gave rise to the now iconic and internationally sampled vinyl series ‘Polish Jazz’.
The generational change was inevitable everywhere, and as the stereo record-cutting process had been perfected by the end of the 1950s, vinyl effectively conquered the hearts of the listening public and hence the market. To understand the significance of the change and appreciate the profundity of its social and cultural meanings, let us turn again to Keith Richards, a representative of a cohort that benefitted from the vinyl revolution directly and that subsequently transformed international culture at a hitherto unheard of rate. There are few artists more qualified to reflect on the relevant effects of recording from the 1960s onwards than Keith Richards. It is the case not only because of his crucial role in creating and maintaining one of the greatest and longest-lasting music acts of the modern era, the Rolling Stones, but also because he is now regarded as the unquestionable bearer of the band’s authenticity and a genuine guardian of the cultural tradition it stands for. Richards made an important point when he emphasized:
It surely can’t be any coincidence that jazz and blues started to take over the world the minute recording started, within a few years, just like that… It was like opening the audio curtains. And available, and cheap. It’s not just locked into one community here and one community there and the twain shall never meet. And of course that breeds another totally different kind of musician, in a generation.
In his book Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, Stanley Crouch portrays one such momentous generation of new musicians epitomized by the lifework of Parker. He points out that ‘they would learn from the mass technology of print, from the phonograph record’, and cites Ralph Ellison, who recognized that new musical phenomena were about cultural change, not just a shift in the entertainment business. This cultural change meant — among many significant things — projecting previously marginalized black artists into the national and international limelight. The career of Miles Davis, who refused to be perceived as mere entertainer and insisted on using his albums for the purpose of making artistic statements, is a well-known case in point. Although Parker himself, who died in 1955, was not able to see his influence come to full fruition, the cohort of musicians he nourished and inspired, like Miles Davis, utilized the vinyl format perfectly and it is hard to imagine the cultural ascendancy of such icons without the analogue LP. Keith Richards shares this view and likewise emphasizes the social and cultural impact that recorded music made in the mid-twentieth century, comparing it to the cultural power of printed words:
What I found about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself. As great as it is, this is not one stroke of genius… And so you suddenly realize that everybody’s connected here. This is not just that he’s fantastic and the rest are crap; they’re all interconnected. And the further you went back into music and time, you think thank God for recording. It’s the best thing that’s happened to us since writing.
The productive reciprocal feedbacks between new music now widely accessible on records and the collective social effervescence of the 1960s gradually made vinyl a kind of ‘charismatic’ cultural object that spliced new aesthetic sensibilities with nearly revolutionary political awakening. Importantly, it had then become a relatively inexpensive cultural object. As David Byrne noted, it was ‘cheaper than a concert ticket’. Today it is particularly true of performances by bands like the Rolling Stones — their Sweet Summer Sun — Hyde Park Live may not be seen as exactly cheap but it is roughly ten times less expensive than a Rolling Stones concert. The disproportion may not be so pronounced in other cases, but it is going to be there. Records are cheaper and they stay. Not much has changed in this respect since vinyl’s formative decade of the 1950s. But it was then that vinyl became the big bang of mass music market, the first and only format of high quality called ‘high fidelity’. It had a truly transformative effect as the format with democratic features and aristocratic properties. Records enabled music to travel globally just like commercial planes made global modern tourism a genuine social phenomenon, at least for certain chunks of Western middle classes. As David Byrne observes:
Not only could recordings bring distant musical cultures in touch with one another, they also had the effect of disseminating the work and performances of singers, orchestras, and performers within a culture. As I suspect has happened to all of us at some point, hearing a new and strange piece of music for the first time often opens a door that you didn’t even know was there.
In other words, during the first two decades of their commercial career, long-playing vinyl records opened the new doors of aesthetic perception, just like the culture of the 1960s did socially, taking quite literally Aldous Huxley’s famous spiritual quest first spelled out in his iconic 1954 book, The Doors of Perception. The aesthetic and the social seemed intertwined. Buying and exchanging vinyl symbolized the new cultural awareness, new networks of learning and teaching. Records were milestones of cultural development and different releases punctuated social time no less than great books, literally becoming instant classics, reaching millions of people across all social and racial divisions, not only reflecting but directly inspiring change.
Such records carried musical, visual, sensual and political messages, and the medium itself was an integral part of it. As the swelling currents of modern pop and dance music emerged in the 1950s and subsequently defined the revolutionary, ‘swinging’ decade of the 1960s through the sound of rock and soul, vinyl records became inseparable part of that story. Think about the musical and broader cultural impact of such records as Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (1968), James Brown’s I’m Black and I’m Proud (1969) or Janis Joplin’s Pearl (1970). They were then new and fun things to observe and own, and ‘by the early 1970s, no matter where you were, the record store was the coolest place on the block’.
The Premature Decline: Short End of Long Play
Interestingly, the late 1960s was also the time when beneath the surface of thriving popular analogue culture new tendencies began to form. One such tendency particularly important for this book was the gradual emergence of electronic music. An unusual harbinger of the electronic revolution to come, both in aesthetic and technical terms, can be found on the 1968 spoken word record of Glenn Gould released by Columbia Masterworks. Entitled Concert Drop Out: Glenn Gould in Conversation with John McClure, this vinyl features the legendary classical pianist covering a variety of topics related to the performance and recording of music. Asked by McClure how he feels about electronic music, Gould symptomatically responded:
I’m inclined to think that it’s the future, very much the future. I feel rather optimistic, not about what’s been done up till now but what can be done with electronic music. I think that a lot of doors are going to be opened there, especially if we get very good technicians involved with it.
As we shall show in greater detail below and in the subsequent chapters, electronic music became a particularly relevant musical phenomenon, not only because it has indeed come to signify futuristic sensibilities, but also because it greatly helped to save vinyl when it declined in the mainstream and because of the crucial role that the technicians did play in the process of advancing electronic music by experimenting with the analogue medium. Robert Henke, whose experiences and perspective we relay throughout this book, is one such exemplary figure connecting the technical with the aesthetic and expanding our notion of what ‘good technician’ means.
Before all that happened, however, vinyl records had been enjoying their undisturbed ‘golden age’ as they witnessed and contributed to the effervescent transformations of the mid-twentieth-century world. They created new consumption patterns along with new kinds of aesthetic competence, technical knowledge and cultural anticipation. Proliferation of records became the undisputed social fact. Partly for these reasons, vinyl stores began to form real modern archives on a par with big libraries and as we show in Chapter 5 equally worthy of attention. Miles Davis’s biographer John Szwed tellingly observed that ‘record stores are also libraries of a sort’. Moreover, many records had the aura of cool that only few books can ever achieve.
The Premature Decline: Short End of Long Play
Notwithstanding all sacred overtones, every charisma is prone to be routinized, at least in the eyes of the lay audience. Already by the late 1970s the analogue records could be seen as sliding into ordinariness, or at least as increasingly quotidian when one considered the consumers of the maturing pop scene. Christian Marclay recalls that time in his American experience:
Coming from Switzerland to the United States in the 1970s, I noticed that change in attitudes towards objects. I would see records on the streets, in the gutter. I would see thousands of records in thrift shops that nobody wanted, that nobody cared about.
Vinyl certainly had not lost its importance and aura to the artists though, especially those committed to the ethos of new independent scenes such as punk in the UK and Europe. It is telling — and moving — to read Peter Hook’s recollection of his early band Joy Division’s struggle to legitimize their existence by releasing a 7-inch vinyl and the poignant moments of anticipation and exasperation upon initial playing of the first self-produced record of Joy Division An Ideal for Living in 1978: ‘Now I was going to play my own record. Excited doesn’t cover it: I was nearly wetting myself. I put on the record to play. It sounded awful.’ Joy Division members, committed but under-informed and penniless working-class men, were devastated to have discovered that they had requested what could not possibly bring good results — four tracks packed on a 7-inch single that can contain only 3 or 4 minutes of properly sounding music on each side. As Hook admits, ‘in the end we were just giving them away, and weeks after delivery we still had hundreds left over. God knows what became of them — they’re worth a mint now, of course. An Ideal for Living is probably our most bootlegged item.’ Indeed, today one must be prepared to pay anything between $1,000 and $5,000 for one of a thousand original copies.
This anecdote indicates not only how important records still were in the late 1970s, especially for young and independent artists, but also what could go really wrong with the format given its limitations and specificities. Vinyl required expertise, knowledge, competence and care, not only from producers but also consumers. It was a demanding medium. The inherent potential of frustration among artists and audiences could be decreased by the next cycle of inventions that imperceptibly travelled from laboratories to studios and then stores and homes, swiftly becoming a fait accompli of much-vaunted technological development. Specifically, at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s a new sound revolution was under way: digitalization of the recording process. By 1982 when the Compact Disc (CD) was introduced, it was clear that this new step offered exactly what the vinyl LP promised some three decades earlier: more music on a single disc.
This technology and its effects were not just introduced to the public but advertised as an improvement that would eventually supersede the existing records completely. An improvement in sound quality needed to match quantity of sound content of a given disc, just like the previous leaps of progress did. For this reason the CD had to deliver a better audio experience. This involved summoning scientific discourses that hardly mattered in everyday listening practice. The very first commercially available digital recording was Ry Cooder’s album Bop Till You Drop released in 1979 by Warner Bros Records, which then meant that it was still a vinyl release. Like the groundbreaking records of the 1950s, the back cover of this album featured a little explanatory note about digital sampling. It is instructive to analyse the narrative presented on that occasion by the industry on each and every copy of this pop LP: ‘Digital equipment can encode and play back from 20 cycles to over 20,000 cycles without noise and harmonic distortion produced by analog recordings. No generation loss, noise build-up, or loss of presence occurs with this form of recording through mixdown and tape transfers. The result is that music sounds cleaner, brighter and more dimensional.’
Despite official enunciations, the reception of the album seemed less enthusiastic, if not directly contradicting the asserted improvement of a new technology, reportedly even in the artist’s own opinion. In the Allmusic review, Brett Hartenbach wrote: ‘Something must have gotten lost in translation from what was played to what came across on the recording. There’s a thinness to the tracks that undermines the performances, which according to Cooder is due to the digital recording.’ Clearly, certain qualities seemed to evaporate. The perfect coverage of the frequency spectrum that the new medium was promised to deliver could hardly help. As Jonathan Sterne explains, although in principle human hearing has exactly the range of 20 to 20,000 cycles mentioned by the note on Cooder’s record, ‘in practice most adults in industrial society cannot hear either end of that range’.
Still, the nascent digitalism revealed the possibility of delivering a remarkably ‘cleaner’ sound, one free of any unwanted sounds and imperfections of vinyl when delivered on CD. Doing away with the vinyl meant, however, that the characteristic ‘warmth’ of analogue sound was gone too. The digital solution resembled throwing out the baby with the bath water. But the narrative of clinically perfect sound combined with convenience of a truly long-playing device overrode other considerations and helped the industry to convince nearly the entire buying audience to
purchase their favourite music again!
The 1980s was still the time when ‘digitally remastered’ versions of many classic albums would be released on vinyl, for example Columbia Jazz Masterpieces series. The series was described as a next generation project that ‘signifies a complete dedication to bringing the listener the finest sound quality possible. All recordings in the series have been digitally remastered from the original analogue tapes, using state-of-the-art equipment.’ By doing that Columbia contradicted its own, once explicitly stated promise that records could not possibly become obsolete, indicating that they do belong to culture, not just to technology. It was a kind of recycling of the old catalogue that offered a middle way that nevertheless proved to be a cul de sac. Today the original releases are often considered more valuable than those remastered versions. Yet, to be fair, it took the experience of the digital phase and its experimentation to make this difference fully apparent and embodied. It is now that the ‘cleaner’ digital sound can be coded as ‘too clinical’ in all its guises, and thus inauthentically removed from the original source recordings. It also takes the reputation, integrity and critical acumen of senior stars like Richards and younger like-minded artists like Jack White of the White Stripes, who persistently uphold vinyl through a narrative of simplicity that keeps music and technology at a healthy remove from each other. Here, the analogue is good enough to capture the ineffable qualities of music creation, its soul and its warmth. It is also very good at literally capturing and materializing the creative moment for others to enjoy. Richards’s approach comes in handy one more time:
I always felt that I was actually fighting technology, that it was no help at all… You can’t get these indefinable things by stripping it apart. The enthusiasm, the spirit, the soul, whatever you want to call it, where’s the microphone for that? The records could have been a lot better in the ’80s if we had not been led by the nose by technology.
Indeed, at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s when new digital recordings and remasters were introduced as a solution to the perceived noise- and distortionrelated ‘drawbacks’ of the analogue technology, different special techniques like Direct Metal Mastering (DMM) or audiophile pressings were being released. They too provided explanatory notes suggesting that these new, carefully crafted analogue productions were in fact as perfect as it gets. Consider the liner notes from Cat Stevens’s Teaser and the Firecat LP released in the Canadian Audiophile Series: ‘The Audiophile process produces a superb master from which this record is manufactured on the purest possible anti-static vinyl. The cutting of the master from the original stereo tapes is performed at half the normal speed, the velocity of the cutting stylus being dramatically reduced results in a more faithful cutting of heavily modulated passages and the general extension of the frequency range. A&M Records’ Audiophile Series provides extremely high fidelity sound reproduction, remarkably clear and distinct, virtually free of surface and background noise.’ Similarly, Miles Davis’s Blue Note release Volume 1 came in 1984 as an audiophile DMM cut, digitally remastered and designed to be ‘eliminating the volatile nature of lacquer pressings and faithfully reproducing the intended sound with absolute accuracy’.
However, the die-hard fans of the old tried and tested vinyl complained about DMM’s perceived overemphasis on high frequencies. Was ‘absolute accuracy’ ever the dream of the mass audience created by the record in the first place? Was not ‘high fidelity’ faithful enough? For the then young independent musicians like Peter Hook of Joy Division, the superiority of the analogue recording is out of question: a valve recorder that makes music ‘really warm- and fat-sounding’ is ‘the best recording medium that you can ever use. Sounds immense.’ If anything, the new ‘digitally remastered’ vinyl releases proved the analogue format’s flexibility. Its full compatibility with digital technology was debatable but not excluded. The fans of the new, however, seemed fed up with some practical nuisances and ‘dirty’ aspects of vinyl. Crucially, what once made vinyl win and even gave it its very name, Long Play, now could be relativized to the point of obsolescence. As a result of an intense marketing reorientation, within a decade analogue records were supplanted by the CD, a physical digital format that was smaller but longer-playing, potentially too shrill sounding, but ‘cleaner’ and more portable.
A remarkable fact about those explanatory notes attached to records released during the first wave of digitalization was not only the reiterated claim to aural perfection but the very idea that the buying public cared or needed to care about it. Thirty years after the first educational actions, the big labels started talking again, dwelling on a scientific parlance and acoustic facts. The music industry clearly did not believe that its sonic product could speak — or sound — for itself. On the contrary, one is under the impression that music was badly in need of professional spokespersons in the 1980s. The seemingly self-evident power of progress nevertheless needed its articulate industrial avant-garde. Recorded sound became the site of corporate technological debate and associated discursive struggle showing one more time that music is not just about music.
In the end, the decision had predictably been made in favour of the new, if only for the sake of trying it out, and the industry simply switched gears one more time and went into a promisingly profitable direction, eventually leaving the buying public with little choice and unwittingly proving that new bottles do make the old wine seem to taste ‘better’ even if it had been quite delicious already. For example, the LP’s share in the US market of pre-recorded music dropped roughly from 40 per cent to 1 per cent in the ten years following the full-scale commercial launch of the CD in 1983. Consigned to oblivion by the corporate agents of technological progress, the analogue record became an endangered species of the late modern mass media.
Peter Runge reminds us of the root motivation for this dramatic digital shift on the side of the producing industry. According to him, the production of CDs is roughly eight times cheaper than the analogue record. At the same time, however, the prices of CDs have never been comparatively lower. The discs remained relatively expensive well into the 1990s when it was still possible to buy most of the second-hand pop rock canon on vinyl for far less money. Robert Henke makes the market consequences of this situation plain:
CD was basically the golden age for the music industry because the cost of the CD went very, very quickly all the way down and the price stayed very, very high for a very long time. I believe that what happened in the music industry in the last 40 years was a very abnormal, historically unique singularity because it was just able to make a lot of money with very little effort. The amount of money you could make with a CD release is insane… an unhealthy amount of money, an unjustified amount of money.
In short, while the golden age of vinyl meant a giant leap of popular music, it was the shift to the digital that meant the golden age for the popular music industry. However, from the consumers’ point of view, CDs did take less space and attention, the considerations that played an important role even for some committed collectors we interviewed like Ben Gosney, shaping their buying practices in favour of the CD. On top of that, the digital compact disc offered remarkable pragmatic gains in line with the Zeitgeist of the 1980s — the sometimes unfairly parodied decade of excess, plastic chic and easy listening.
The ‘Second Life’ of Vinyl During the First Wave of Digitalization
While the CD revolution was originally presented as a sound revolution, it was primarily a convenient advancement with no ambition to create a democratizing effect similar to the original impact of the LP, however imperfect. More than anything else, it was a profitable novel commodity that tapped into popular desires of lightness, ease, perfection and cleanliness. Only the introduction of digital mp3 files achieved a truly new level of democratization. Yet this time the sound was severely compromised. Music lovers were encouraged to purchase their favourite catalogue the third time in order to make music more portable than ever. Amazingly, quite a few did spend money again. However, this time it seemed more about mobility of music than music itself. Specifically, you were buying the excitement of 24/7 access and portability. You could take your whole personal collection of recorded music to the next party, ‘plug in and play’, as some iPod parties encouraged. The swiftness with which the CD was jettisoned and superseded with initially sonically inferior, new digital format suggests that as far as the mainstream market is concerned music and its sound does not necessarily come first.
Both generations of the digital wave, CD and mp3, meant progressively easier listening and material streamlining of music formats, but it also created an unprecedented excess of sounds and files so that depreciation of the musical commodity observed by Marclay was further exacerbated. As our interviewees admit, from teenage DJs to icons of new electronic music, today no one can hope to impress anyone with tens of thousands of files. There’s no glory or merit to having your iPod stuffed with millions of electronically cloned files because no serious sacrifice stands behind obtaining them. There is no serious selection factor involved if a young person boasts of having hundreds or thousands of albums. And there is little sense of adventure either. As Jack White says, ‘there’s no romance in a mouse click’. As object, music reduced to computer data becomes practically indistinguishable from bureaucratic folders.
The relative depreciation created by otherwise useful computers applied to CDs too, at least from a certain point on. As soon as personal computers rendered CDs perfectly and cheaply replicable objects, their meaning changed and they came to be interpreted as mundane objects even quicker than records did before them. Acceleration of technology led to acceleration in transformative interpretive processes too. In fact, it was CDs that just 20 years after their invention became a paradigmatic ‘cheap plastic’, to evoke Marclay again. This created a new dynamic context in which analogue records could be seen as a comparatively valuable and stable format, the only physical sound carrier that made sense precisely because it was not digital.
Furthermore, the ever-increasing ease with which music as virtual file could be copied, transferred and exchanged meant putting the traditional idea of buying to own on the slippery slope of anachronism. Cultural meaninglessness was promptly revealed as the flipside of perfect convenience. As a result, vinyl could emerge as not only the authentic and uniquely sounding format but also the only music carrier worth owning and collecting in the strict sense of the term. This phenomenon suggests that there are limits to economy of convenience and that a modicum of non-economical values and a minimum of traditional notions of materiality and continuity retain meaning.
Although all this may not be exactly surprising to sociologists and cultural analysts, it took years for the general public to realize it and act accordingly. As far as sociology is concerned, already in 1900 Georg Simmel clearly articulated the mechanism of value that is created through the relative difficulty in producing or getting a given cultural object:
There is a series of cases in which the sacrifice not merely raises the value of the aim but even produces it. It is the joy of exertion, of overcoming difficulties, frequently indeed that of contradiction, which expresses itself in this process. The necessary detour to the attainment of certain things is often the occasion, often also the cause, of regarding them as valuable.
Then and now, the passage of time is required to make the shifting conditions of life obvious to the point of general visibility. Only then can socially significant and economically palpable reorientation occur. A series of practical experiences must make themselves manifest as well, so that contrasts and differences that produce conditions of cultural re-evaluation become embodied and observed rather than merely theorized and understood. This is partly why vinyl re-emerged as a valuable counterpoint to the new mainstream only after some time. Jenus Baumecker-Kahmke makes a related observation:
I think it just took a really long time for people to understand that they neglected vinyl and I think that it’s definitely here to stay now, at this relatively healthy level. I’m kind of surprised how long it took, but it’s a natural kind of process. I think that people started to realize that CDs are not what the industry promised them. People put in a CD that they bought in ’88 and it doesn’t play any more, so I think that this is a kind of awakening to that fact that vinyl is actually quality product, that’s how people understand it now.
Going Underground and the Rebirth of Cool: The ‘Second Life’ of Vinyl During the First Wave of Digitalization
Before vinyl could be rediscovered, fully re-experienced and economically revived, it first needed to survive the systematic neglect of the industry and maintain dynamism capable of supporting the last remaining pressing plants and mastering studios. By the late 1980s analogue records were effectively banished from the mainstream. Most pressing factories ceased to be viable enterprises. There were, however, firms that decided to buy well-maintained equipment at relatively low prices from those who decided to get rid of what now appeared to be ‘relics’. The limited supply of records that did appear on the market despite the slump in vinyl sales in turn attained the status of a rare good, at least in terms of quantity if not always quality. The radical redirecting of industry’s attention to the new digital technology meant that from the mid-1980s on, no special advances in analogue production were proposed. As Peter Runge recalls, ‘there was no further development in vinyl recording technology after 1984’. Subsequently, and unsurprisingly, the craft of pressing records experienced a sort of crisis in the 1990s when many professional plants simply stopped operating. Institutional learning processes got interrupted, infrastructure eroded or got concentrated in fewer hands, not all of which were able. As a whole, the world of analogue production gradually sank to a lower or sometimes even sub-par level. Jenus diagnosed this situation in the following way:
Now there are a lot of labels that put a lot of effort into the quality of their productions the way we do. I think the pressings, overall, have gotten a lot better than they were ten years ago. Ten years ago there were still shit pressing plants operating, and people would go there because it was cheap and they would get a record that sounded shit. That’s all been weeded out a little bit and the pressing plants that are successful make really good quality products, so when you buy a record now, usually the production is good.
Vinyl culture may have seemed abandoned and impoverished, or even downright moribund by the time the 12-inch vinyl record became 40 years old. And it may have been effectively dead by the mid-1990s, were it not for the purposeful dedication and spectacular rise of another musical universe — the new underground dance cultures such as house, techno and drum’n’bass. Just as the mainstream producers and consumers ditched vinyl like an antiquated toy, an urban avant-garde of club music embraced it as its medium of choice. The vitality of that culture gave vinyl the breath of life at a critical point. Even if not always of high technical quality, analogue records kept being pressed and thus present in various niches of the music market. They were the key tools of DJs and, through them, stayed on the radar of young generations accustomed to CDs. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton are certainly right when they wrote that the DJ saved the life of many a club-goer and music lover. By reinventing the performative charisma from behind the turntables, countless selectors from Frankie Knuckles to Nina Kraviz not only saved vinyl but made it cool and sensual, perhaps cooler than ever. As far as vinyl is concerned, the late 1980s and early 1990s meant a musical revolution done by a reinvention of the single — now just one track would take the entire side of 12-inch disc, often played at 45 rpm, which proved more suitable to loud cuts and club-oriented bass music whose low frequencies required more vinyl space.
This reinvention was of a special kind and meant new, sometimes extreme or ‘abnormal’ uses of the analogue technology and it gave a chance to experiment with other people who shared the DIY, punk-infused attitude. Robert Henke traces this connection between punk and techno in Berlin around 1989 and how they may have had more in common than we now assume. Basing the emerging techno culture on analogue records was a crucial ingredient of the independent and experimental spirit that corresponded so well with the Zeitgeist in that part of the world. Vinyl meant being able to do the old thing in a new way by freeing your mind and exposing yourself to serendipity and spontaneity of a creative process uniquely framed by technological and political revolutions.
As a matter of fact, no one was experienced… there was actually no experience apart from the understanding of the basic process. As a matter of fact, no one even thought about it, and in retrospective, this is really interesting… So, we were really experimenting.
The juicy irony of that remarkable cultural process is that it was propelled precisely by those explicitly committed to advancing electronic music connected to new digital devices. Thereby they proved that, instead of pitting the digital against and the analogue, new hybrid forms of symbiotic coexistence of technologies can be central to ongoing creative musical developments and new musical experiences. It was a rather open approach at a time which was just enamoured with the digitalia of the rising electronic age more than anything else. In the mainstream the first waveof digitalization was something fresh and it meant some genuine practical ameliorations. But because it did not mean obliterating the physical, discrete items of musical pieces called albums and singles, it did not inspire a backlash that we would observe a few decades down the line when turning music into files pushed digitalization into its second, ‘virtual’ phase. Buying albums and singles still meant collecting the actual discs and some people would keep buying both kinds. What Antoine Hennion called ‘discomorphosis’ remained firmly in place throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
During much of these two turbulent decades vinyl went underground and remained healthy there, carrying remarkable momentum into the early 2000s. What may have been inconvenient for the general public proved practical for DJs. The alternative electronic dance music was always about computer innovation and digital sound but vinyl remained central in all its divisions. In particular, it was the use of 12-inch 45 rpm singles that kept visually identical but functionally different records alive. To use the concise words by Matt Black and Jonathan More of Coldcut from the description of their 1997 track ‘More Beats + Pieces’, ‘the best interface for DJs is still direct vinyl manipulation’. One more time, vinyl records gave rise to a new kind of musician, one dabbling in ‘sounds that are itchin’ for a scratch’, a bricoleur who samples and rearranges them, sometimes beyond recognition, as another producer of the British Ninja Tune label Amon Tobin evocatively showed with his Bricolage LP released the same year. Other vinylists like DJ Shadow and Madlib may have been less experimental but they crucially revealed the richness of analogue archives and creatively showed an enormous extent to which they can be reappropriated, sampled and juxtaposed. They have connected the past to the future with vinyl being the key link. It was a recontextualization of the analogue that clearly indicated the additive not mutually exclusive relation between the main mediums. But this potential for hybridization was first overlooked. In 2012, nearly a decade after his seminal album of remixed Blue Note classics Shades of Blue, Madlib stated in a conversation with Thomas Fehlmann that going through the archives of the iconic label ‘was fun’ and that ‘they have way too much stuff they should have released. The best records are still in the vaults.’ It is the skills, knowledge and integrity of those producers, diggers, turntablists and remixers that earned them critical acclaim and significantly contributed to the rebirth of vinyl’s cool and esteem.
Of course, these creative uses of vinyl were not entirely new. Already in his 1937 essay ‘The Future of Music: Credo’, John Cage anticipated the potential of the turntable as a musical instrument. ‘With a phonograph it is now possible to control any one of these sounds and give to it rhythms within or beyond the reach of imagination. Given four phonographs we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat and landslide.’ This is a techno revolution foretold. But prior to that, in the late 1970s, US American DJs such as Jamaica-born Kool Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore or Grandmaster Flash developed a series of techniques of mixing, scratching, backspinning and cutting that later became the standard repertoire of hip-hop and house performers. Importantly, for all these artistic circles turntablism was ‘more than just dragging a record back and forth under a stylus, or segueing two tracks together nice and smooth. Hip-hop is very much like the British class system: it’s not so much what you say that matters, but how you say it. This is as true of the DJ as it is of the MC and graffiti tagger. Thus, turntablism recognises that the best music is a complete triumph of style over substance.’ While the question whether one could define the best music in such radical terms may be debatable, the trajectory of vinyl in the digital age indicates that matters of style in music consumption and production is a key issue. Vinyl as a medium and a practice is an element of style in the music world.
The ‘Third Life’ of Vinyl in the Second Wave of Digitalization
For DJs and producers in the underground electronic music vinyl was the source and the medium, an instrument to play and a sound to use. Certainly it was not an antiquated toy. On the contrary, there were enough artists for whom vinyl became connected to both the exuberance of partying and the seriousness of heritage protection. The development of samplers crucially boosted both aspects of vinyl’s importance and aided the creative rearticulation of its cultural worth at the time when it was being marginalized as something ‘obsolete’, ostensibly in the name of digital progress. Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, may have been more convincing as a writer than a musician when he used his 1996 LP Songs of a Dead Dreamer as a manifesto of the new DJ culture. His words still stand as a symptomatic statement of purpose of a generation that embraced the old format of the past for the sake of a new future:
DJ culture — urban youth culture — is all about recombinant potential. It has as a central feature a eugenics of the imagination. Each and every source sample is fragmented and bereft of prior meaning — kind of like a future without a past. The samples are given meaning only when represented in the assemblage of the mix. In this way the DJ acts as the cybernetic inheritor of the improvisational tradition of jazz, where various motifs would be used and recycled by the various musicians of the genres, in this case, however, the records become the notes.
It is hardly a coincidence that many DJ pioneers and stars of electronic music drew on jazz, from experimental excursions of Amon Tobin and Bill Laswell to master house DJs like Danny Tenaglia, Ashley Beedle or the German DJ-collective Jazzanova to producers like Ludovic Navarre aka St Germain, or Garza and Hilton of Thievery Corporation. As their artistic profile rose in the 1990s, vinyl-dedicated underground quite literally became a groundbreaking force in music, doing what any bohemian culture can do well: challenging and undermining mainstream sensibilities and industrialized officialdom by simply following its own independent vision. The underground electronic music culture was rarely explicitly political or critical the way rock artists could be in the past. Again, there was rather an elective affinity with more aesthetically driven avant-garde and dance traditions of jazz. However, even in the hedonistic sphere of the 1990s techno culture, releasing and playing vinyl retained an element of cultural mission and socially relevant intervention. In the wake of DJ Spooky’s pronouncements, the US American techno star Jeff Mills used the back cover of his 1997 Tresor release Waveform Transmission for the message whose core we have already cited at the opening of this book and which is worth quoting again in full: ‘As barriers fall around the world, the need to understand others and the way they live, think and dream is a task that is nearly impossible to imagine without theory and explanation. And as we approach the next century with hope and prosperity, this need soon becomes a necessity rather than a recreational urge.’ The German producer Hendrik Weber aka Pantha du Prince describes his attraction to techno in a concrete way that complements Mills’: ‘what fascinates me in techno is the idea of endlessness. The idea that something constantly emits the pulse. People of different social backgrounds can simply dock to this pulse.’ Recognizing a similar socially uniting potential in other kinds of electronic music, Thievery Corporation emphasized music’s critical and awareness-raising role and gradually developed its outspoken anti-capitalist attitude. More examples could be given. If anything, these more culturally or even politically conscious attitudes within new independent genres grew over time. Writing in the new 2006 preface to their classic history of the disc jockey, Brewster and Broughton observed that many DJs learned to keep their distance to the pitfalls of stardom and that ‘most people now understand that DJing is more about collecting great music than doing supernatural things with a mixer’. The DJ is a respectable artistic figure when he or she refers to values of knowledge and authenticity besides doing their regular job of musical entertainers. Importantly, independent labels kept pressing vinyl and thus disavowed the conviction that analogue record culture was inexorably destined to expire in the digital era.
Perhaps most crucially, vinyl remained healthy during the lean years of the 1990s by association with what turned out to be one of the most dynamic new incarnations of hipness and youth energy. Being the medium for new party music, the seemingly old-fashioned vinyl found itself at the core of cutting-edge developments and intensely effervescent rituals of club culture. It was this paradoxical juxtaposition that ensured not only the economic survival but also cultural resignification of analogue records. Vinyl had been endowed with the edginess and coolness of the flourishing 1990s electronic music underground. It was ‘rejuvenated’ because those were rather new sounds and a novel approach to musical experience championed by the generations that grew up listening to rock, soul and disco, often already on CDs, but wanted to push the boundaries further without jettisoning the heritage. Keeping vinyl alive was the intuitive way to go. Vinyl appeared in considerable quantities in new record shops where one could see the structure of fresh genre differentiation that stood for the stylistic dynamism of the electronic underground. If many of these productions were parts of the independent micro-trade, they also introduced a whole range of micro-genre classification in addition to the apparently complete analogue canons of pop and rock. The new vinyl stores were full of jungle, trance, ambient, breakbeat, progressive house, glitch and all kinds of crossovers between these styles. Those who resented specific genre-categorization used other kinds of labelling, for example place-related such as Detroit techno or Chicago house. One way or the other, these signifiers were the symptoms of underground dynamism that used vinyl as a totem. The stronger the underground grew during the 1990s, the healthier vinyl culture was. As some DJs began to outgrow their humble niches, vinyl gained a modicum of global public visibility again. The hip media presence of various DJs, from the star producers and remixers like Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim and Paul Oakenfold to drum’n’bass icons like Roni Size and LTJ Bukem meant that vinyl too could appear hip, or at least curiously useful and directly connected to high musical standards to which these alternative artists held themselves. Finally, there were those who maintained somewhat lower profiles but high standing within broadly conceived electronic dance music, and those were often the undisputed champions of vinyl, often running their own independent labels: Moodymann, Theo Parrish, Mike Huckaby, Carl Craig, Sven Väth, DJ Krush and many more.
In short, this new underground culture supported the vinyl when corporate labels basically gave up on it in the name of ‘progress’ and the pop- and rock-buying public deemed it a dead or funny relic. While the CD was a customer-friendly money-making machine, vinyl became the DJ-friendly party-making machine. It was also the treasure trove of the musical traditions. This saved it from the vulnerable fate of obscure collector’s item or audiophile’s elite product, the stuff of old musty basement stores or expensive sound salons. If industry could pride itself on being technologically ‘progressive’ and economically skilful, it was culturally and aesthetically blinkered. The drum’n’bass producer Darren Jay noticed — and explicitly stated on his own vinyl release — that certain ‘corporate record companies jumped on the bandwagon’ in the second half of the 1990s. Still, the mainstream needed more than two decades to reconsider vinyl and apparently did it only when risk-free profit and social hipness of vinyl was made obvious by persistence and dynamism of various independent sections of the market. For this reason DJs indeed were the true musical ‘revolutionaries’, to use Brewster and Broughton’s phrase, especially in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Nowadays, however, the situation gets more complex and fluid again.
The General Revival: The ‘Third Life’ of Vinyl in the Second Wave of Digitalization
Today it is safe to conjecture that if vinyl culture remained confined to underground electronic music, it would not experience a substantial revival. Even if this sphere of musical production grew to permeate larger sections of the listening public, it would still be a stretch to claim that vinyl has experienced an international renaissance. In fact, the ever-expanding virtual universe and the ‘magic’ of its continual improvements on all fronts forged a situation in which many DJs either downscaled their professional use of vinyl or were convinced to suspend it altogether. Outside countries with strong club and vinyl cultures like Germany, Holland, UK or Japan, one cannot assume that dance venues would provide professional turntable systems. As we show in Chapter 5, dynamic vinyl-related electronic music club scenes exist only in certain urban environments. Meanwhile, house and techno have entered the sphere of bigger entertainment business and DJs in demand often find SD (Secure Digital) cards more DJ-friendly than records. This means that even the vinyl-buying communities of professional musicians do not necessarily demand as much as they used to when vinyl was undisputedly ‘the best interface for DJs’. This circumstance contributed to vinyl’s comparatively stagnant or even downward market performance in the mid-2000s.
Toward the end of the 2000s, however, attitudes began to shift within the broader independent sphere, especially among everyday listeners of all ages for whom matters of style not only in music but also in more generally understood aesthetic consumption are as important as any ‘substantive’ issues. Just like stylistic innovations of DJs in the 1970s and 1980s connoted creativity, subversion and respect for skills and effort in dealing with tradition, so did the commitment to vinyl by the new groups of aficionados who wished to critically distinguish themselves in a fully saturated musical world, now technologically ‘augmented’ to the point of being overblown. The second wave of digitalization meant unprecedented convenience and thus turned music into a low hanging fruit. In such a context the line between legitimate convenience and inauthentic and facile shortcutting may become rather thin and that much harder to navigate. Vinyl and its by now firmly entrenched underground cachet made it a tool of authenticity to the committed for whom musical experiences are about purposeful cultivation of broader aesthetic sensibilities and identities. To be sure, there were then more opportunities to capitalize on these tendencies and stores and pressing plants registered steeply increasing sales.
The mainstream followed suit within a couple of years. In 2007-8 both the independent and mainstream registered a certain upward tendency that did not abate. On the contrary, it never stopped growing, reaching long-time unheard of dynamism within a couple of years. Between 2008 and 2012, and only according to the mainstream Nielsen SoundScan data, over 15 million analogue records were sold internationally, which amounted to more than the entire sales between 1993 and 2007.
In the UK, data compiled by the BPI (a body representing the UK’s recorded music industry) stated that sales of vinyl rose by 43.7 per cent over 2011, representing what it called a ‘modest resurgence’. In the USA, the mainstream rock and pop magazine Rolling Stone recently ran with the headline ‘Vinyl Sales Increase Despite Industry Slump’, reporting Nielsen SoundScan data which showed that ‘though overall album sales dropped by 13 percent in 2010, sales of vinyl increased by 14 percent over the previous year, with around 2.8 million units sold’. The magazine report continues with the comment that ‘this is a new record for vinyl sales since 1991, when the format had all but disappeared in the wake of the CD boom’. Further evidence of the current remarketization of vinyl comes from the Wall Street Journal, which in early 2012 proclaimed in a headline, ‘It’s alive! Vinyl makes a comeback’, and reported that:
The digital revolution was supposed to do away with a lot of fusty old relics. First compact discs took their toll on the long-playing (and long-played) vinyl record; then iPods and digital downloads began doing the same to CDs. But long after the eulogies had been delivered, the vinyl LP has been revived. The LP still represents just a sliver of music sales. But last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan data, while CD sales fell by more than 5 per cent, vinyl record sales grew more than 36 per cent.
The trend continues. In June 2014 CBS News ran a report entitled ‘Vinyl’s Resurrection: Sales at a Record High’. Although impressive, these mainstream reports paint an incomplete picture that suffers from a typical shortcoming of the big industry perspective and a broad brush vision of general media outlets: it barely registers what occurs below the official corporate radar. This is a problem because in a post-Fordist world much is happening in the independent spheres and secondary vinyl markets. Peter Runge observes that his pressing plant Optimal alone sold over 25 million records between 2008 and 2012, which represents a significant increase, as the entire period between 1999 and 2007 only sold nearly 40 million records. How could it be? Optimal has been selling mostly to independent clients who ordered then and continue to buy now. A story would be different without them and it is the broad spectrum of those clients, from punk rock to techno, that helps understand the resilience and eventual rebound of the format. A simple visual chart of Optimal’s average sales over the course of the 2000s supports the general sense of relatively dramatic resurgence that began half way through the 2000s and exploded at the beginning of the next decade.
FIGURE 1.2: Average vinyl production between 1999–2014 at the
Optimal pressing plant, Germany. (DB, with thanks to Peter Runge)
Between October 2013 and February 2014 alone, nearly every month more than a million records left the plant. The story of Optimal’s success tells you more than the mainstream reports because it makes explicit the role of the independents. Roughly during that time, around 10,000 separate orders were made and independent clients from around the world placed approximately 80 per cent of them, receiving approximately 60 per cent of the total number of records then produced. This leaves little doubt about the continued leadership of non-mainstream agents of vinyl culture. According to Peter, who has been running the business since the beginning of vinyl production, major labels merely try not to miss out on emerging profitable opportunities, trying to capitalize on rather than stimulate new trends. Vinyl’s energy comes from outside the mainstream but its responsiveness, however ambiguous, certainly adds to the swelling tide.
FIGURE 1.3: Hybrid media arrangements: Vinyl-CD DJ setup. Nick
Höppner mixing tracks and media at the 20th anniversary of
Kompaktin Berlin, August 2013. (DB)
Undoubtedly, then, vinyl has been given a third life. It seems to have come to stay, if only as a healthy, incrementally growing niche. In the club scene its presence, although reduced, continues to play the same role it had before — it is a signifier of underground authenticity. Despite its cumbersome features whose limited practicality is made obvious by outstanding convenience of virtual tools, it remains an old-school awe-inspiring medium, still championed by the most renowned DJs and iconic clubs concerned with sound quality and traditional skills, for example in the Berlin-based Berghain/Panorama Bar. Importantly, few among those who keep DJing with vinyl are purists. They are far from endorsing any kind of myopic cultural reactionism. If cultures learn, then the underground electronic music milieu seems to have absorbed the lesson of the past by advocating hybrid arrangements and aural uniqueness of vinyl rather than its ‘objective’ superiority or ‘absolute’ value. Love does not have to be blind, even if it appears blindingly passionate. This is perhaps a message that emerges out of the conversations we have enjoyed with our vinyl-loving interviewees in those venues. Whether fans of electronic beats or indie rock, the vinyl lovers we spoke to tend not to be vintage fashion victims, snobbish retro maniacs or fetishistic fanatical collectors. Likewise, few, if any, traces of sentimental nostalgia came to the fore in our talks. Rather, vinyl signifies a commitment to a particular style and experience that do not have to be mutually exclusive with other types of experience but has enough uniqueness and autonomy to withstand the competitive pressure of other media.
Making Sense of Vinyl’s Revival
To return to music on vinyl is a way of retaining a possibility of irreducible physical experiences. Instead of symbolizing knee-jerk conservatism, the vinyl revival shows a resistance to progress based on an idea of linear chain of replacement. Its survival of the lean years within the haven of underground club cultures indicates that progressive attitude embraces plurality rather than any kind of exclusive mainstreaming. The persistent commitment to vinyl, even if still a relatively niche phenomenon, shows that seeking particular pleasures may be as important as searching for very convenient and profitable solutions. Style and ritual may appear as important as the ‘substance’ or even question the very idea of separately taken ‘substance’ and its role for human enjoyment and well-being. It does not seem accidental that vinyl culture typically gets associated with meanings of sensuality, warmth and sexy features. Indeed, in the experience of playing vinyl, not unlike in sexual experience, reproductive function recedes in the face of pleasureable act. We do not merely reproduce previously created music, we also derive particular pleasure as we give it a form of a particular, repeatable experience. Drawing a revealing comparison to eating, Wolfgang Voigt brought the message home when he quipped in our conversation that you don’t want to download your food. He also offered an ultimate perspective on vinyl’s multifaceted value when he said:
[Vinyl] has the most sexual credibility, if you like, it’s touchy, it’s warm, it has the biggest, warmest and most impressive history in pop music. CD has not that much history and as for mp3, I think it will never have a history, not for me. So vinyl is the ‘king format’. I can’t think of another way of saying it.
The ‘King Format’: Beginning to Make Sense of Vinyl’s Revival
Vinyl may indeed be the king of contemporary musical culture: it does not rule, but it reigns. How does this work?
Records are unlikely to be the ‘ruling’ format in the environment effectively run and dominated by convenient and versatile digital devices that make most things happen in virtual reality. But as long as performance of playing and listening occurs in real spaces on actual objects, vinyl retains attractiveness as a tactile definitive thing and thus it retains a possibility of intimate connection with humans. It is an ‘organic’ object in a world increasingly facilitated by all kinds of artificial intelligence. As long as private domestic sphere and public club sphere remain the loci of actual ritualistic performances of music, there is a chance for vinyl to stay meaningful, just like theatre remained meaningful after cinema had taken over the collective imagination.
Moreover, if music is something uniquely abstract and seemingly immaterial because it is invisible, then vinyl comes possibly the closest to materializing music in a directly palpable and observable way. A record revolving on a turntable is music materialized, visualized, sculpted. Not only can we see tracks and their structure in the micro-architecture of the groove. We can also touch it. Music on vinyl is eminently tactile. As Constance Classen has reminded us, being ‘the deepest’ and perhaps the most taken-for-granted sense, touch gives us sensuous access to reality which is at once fundamental and somewhat overlooked. Nevertheless, it is precisely the haptics of analogue records that distinguishes them today more than ever. It is the haptics that makes analogue pragmatics so different and unique when compared with digital interfaces.
While vinyl lovers and DJs have good intuitive and practical understandings of vinyl’s attractive tangibility, it is instructive to collate them with Hegel’s conception of aesthetics and music that had been created before sound recording became possible. In Hegel’s view ‘sound in contrast to the material of the visual arts is wholly abstract’. His presentation of music points to one of its unique dimensions as an immaterial art that ‘cancels’ space and seems to exist, so to speak, outside fixed spatial contexts, forever invisible, ephemeral, untouchable. To make this point Hegel offers insightful comparisons of music and visual arts:
Unlike the visual arts, [music] does not permit the manifestation in which it flourishes to become free and independent and reach an existence self-reposing and persistent but, on the contrary, cancels it as objective and does not allow the external to assume in our eyes a fixed existence as something external.
Records have altered the perception of this situation, at least to a certain extent. They gave fixed tactile form to music, seeming to turn it into an external object and a material manifestation that we can return to each time we want, just like we can look at the painting again and again. Hegel seems to have been keenly aware of this human urge or desire to somehow fix or reproduce music when he reflected on the meaning of musical notes: ‘Unlike buildings, statues, and paintings, the notes have in themselves no permanent subsistence as objects; on the contrary, with their fleeting passage they vanish again and therefore the musical composition needs a continually repeated reproduction.’ Again, records offered a form of reproduction, a way of dealing with music’s evanescence. Thus, in the 1950s, when the world obtained relatively long-playing high-quality records that could be kept at home, a truly new era of musical experience commenced. Moreover, this fact added a completely new kind of practice to the world of music — playing records. Eventually, a separate culture of mixing and DJing emerged, showing what imaginative and creative handling of records can do to music and to human beings themselves. Today cultural theorists do not shy from acknowledging the deeply transformative character of objects. In the words of Andreas Reckwitz:
The central issue then is that certain things or artifacts provide more than just objects of knowledge, but necessary irreplaceable components of certain social practices, that their significance does not only consist in their being ‘interpreted’ in certain ways, but also in their being ‘handled’ in certain ways and in being constitutive, effective elements of social practices.
High modernity of the mid-twentieth century made people accustomed to this condition but it is important to recognize it for what it is — a genuinely groundbreaking transformation of arts and culture more generally. Records played their distinguished part in this transformative process. We have tried to show that as they became ‘routinized’ and later largely surpassed by the next generation of recording technology, the objectification of music became largely a subconscious fact. The subsequent digital objectification removed music a step away from the world of haptics and vision. Stripping a piece of music down to its sonic data and making it one with electronic devices may have made it as ‘pure’ and ‘clean’ as it gets. But by becoming weightless and virtual, music disappeared in machines, its material existence dissolved, as it were, in the existence of electronic devices.
In the case of portable machines, musical experience certainly became our nearly perfect companion. The danger may be that listening to music starts to belong everywhere, that is — nowhere. In case of personal computers that over time began to store thousands if not millions of musical and other files, music got integrated with everything that the computer is designed to perform, which nowadays practically means — everything. Turning cultural products into files is a convenient reduction, but a reduction nonetheless, one curiously compatible with the hyperaccelerated culture of ‘progress’. If the vinyl re-vival retains an element of simple re-action, it is the element that makes it interpretable as a perfect antidote medium to a culture stuck on fast-forward mode. Vinyl offers ‘slow listening’ at home and adds value to club performance.
In this context vinyl becomes the epitome of ‘warm’ and ‘humane’ materialization of music, a perfect mode of making elusive music tactile, friendly and more ‘sacred’ again. The digital and the virtual brought music somewhat closer to its abstract ‘pure’ state. Vinyl, on the other hand, grounds it in our concrete experiences, in actual spaces of our existence. This is not to say that computers are inherently incapable of achieving that. They may do so too, but in a very different manner. Features of records can be simulated in virtual reality, but so far experiences provided by the actual handling and playing of vinyl simply cannot be replaced. Vinyl may be seen as a strange medium by a future generation but it can hardly be dismissed as replaceable. It is with this example that we can discern the fact that ‘progress’ is not perfectly linear. Rather, as a cultural and human fact, technological development has a multi-track character, a social movement with lateral moves and parallel trends.
The career of vinyl as we have narrated it here indicates not only the fact that there are limits to the seemingly hegemonic rule of linear progress, but also that there are limits to our standard cultural criticism of it. If the capitalist notion of creative destruction is exactly that, a cultural notion rather than an exceptionless social law, then the disenchanted vision of artefact advocated by Walter Benjamin and replicated by his followers should also be approached precisely as such, i.e. not as an axiom of sociology but a critical vision. Among other things, our research indicates that by itself technological reproducibility does not rid cultural objects of aura. Many other, more salient conditions must be jointly fulfilled for this to be the case. Conversely, a whole constellation of cultural factors must come into play to make increase in value and recognition possible and lasting. The binary logics and relational structure of meaningfulness form one set of such conditions. Another set of factors consists of various aspects of materiality of a given object in relation to its environment and human sensorium. By an ironic turn of events, the late modern revival and iconic consecration of mechanically reproduced analogue records neatly contradicted Benjamin’s vision. His was an ideological rather than strictly theoretical work. Understandably, he responded primarily to what he saw were the critical demands of his day and pressing sentiments of his heart. A price to pay for such an approach, however sensitive, is not negligible, for it consists in misconstruing the complexity of culture and its irreducible material entanglements.
Considering the cultural trajectory charted by vinyl, a much more fine-grained understanding of cultural meaning and its transformations is required if we are to make sense of it. As material context relativizes nearly every act of value creation, historical developments in such technology-dependent artistic domains as electronic music easily went far beyond Benjamin’s vision. As one analyst argues, ‘with electronic music, the artwork moves from the era of mechanical or “technical reproducibility” to the era of digital hyper-reproducibility — to an extent that even Benjamin himself might not have dared to imagine. Henceforth, there is no longer any question of an original. Everything takes place through duplication. The computer and the network have merely accelerated a process that has been underway for some fifty years.’ The presence of the analogue record in the digital age points to the necessity of relativizing our understanding of such notions as duplication, reproducibility, acceleration and meaning. As all cultural designations, these are hardly absolute entities. Authenticity resides in multiple webs of meanings and things, not in a singular notion of originality. The career of vinyl also shifts our basic understanding of what counts as an oxymoron or contradiction in terms, showing that there indeed is such thing as a ‘unique copy’. In his critique of Benjamin’s ‘erroneous prophecy’, Jacques Rancière concisely settles the score:
From Romantic fragmentation to the contemporary practices of deejaying, sampling and remixing, which multiply the ‘unique copies’ created by the artisans of reproduction, via the development of the industry that deals with conserving heritage and obliges its constant broadening and ‘rejuvenation’, it is possible to trace an empirically erratic but theoretically coherent line.
In this opening chapter we have attempted to draw such a line or trajectory, if only provisionally. It is in this empirical and conceptual context that we now wish to present a series of close up views of vinyl’s multifaceted eminence. Besides being the kingly interface of the most abstract of arts, vinyl and its associated objects form a holistic artwork that uncannily materializes and synthesizes the sensual appeal of music concert, sculpture, picture and book. It is an ordinary medium that is an extraordinary message, a thing whose form defines its content, a commodity that redefines fetish, and a totem for modern tribes called music scenes.