Ubiquitous Grooves: A Vinyl Obituary
Perhaps these days our real choice is not between buying vinyl or digital, but between listening and not listening.
A Feast of Records
Since its inception in the USA in 2007, Record Store Day (RSD) has grown in popularity and duly penetrated European countries. An homage to the material life of music, RSD also represents a golden opportunity for bigger independent record labels to sell limited edition colored 7-inches and other collectable treasures (I say “bigger” independent record labels because labels have to press a minimum of 500 records to be part of RSD).
This year I stayed home on that celebratory Saturday. The idea of a guided pilgrimage to the local record shop made me feel slightly nauseous. General celebrations and days of blissful commemoration – duly documented and reported on the national news – awaken my suspicions. A more cynical and pessimistic part of myself would be tempted to file Record Store Day in the same category as Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Actually, in the '20s, American stores had come up with a strikingly similar operation called “Baby Week”, principally aimed at increasing the declining sales of layette (under the guise of “educating” young parents). Imagine.
Why not celebrate “Vinyl Week”? From the outset, Record Store Day appears to be a more serious and honest endeavor, and yet, it may only be a slightly more “upmarket” or hip conflation of sentimentalism and commerce (or just another capitalist party under the guise of supporting independent record shops). Record Store Day is first and foremost a trademark, and not every record shop can afford to participate or stock the records (arguably, only relatively successful record shops can join the party).
The Vinyl Rush
In the '90s, the French sociologist Régis Debray wrote about the contemporary thirst for remembering and reinventing traditions. He imagined – as a joke – that soon one would start celebrating plastic and vinyl. The compact-disc industry had developed according to industry plans, and vinyl was a decidedly unhip format. Few people kept their record collections. Debray anticipated the metamorphosis of vinyl into the cool, magic substance which vinyl-researcher Simon Poole quite aptly christened “black gold”.
Reasons for the vinyl revival have often been enumerated and discussed (Richard Osborne gives a few of them in his extremely well-documented book Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record). One of the main arguments is that, as a tangible artefact, the vinyl record affords a greater range of sensual pleasures for the listener. In other words, vinyl is a typical audiophile format: the format privileged by discriminative, serious listeners.
In his April column in the French music monthly Rock 'n' Folk, cult rock critic and record-collector Patrick Eudeline (member, in his own time, of the infamous punk band Asphalt Jungle) thus wrote about vinyl as the real format for music-lovers. Eudeline claimed that digital formats were for the ignoramus or, to put it in his own tender terminology, for “peasants” who understood nothing about music. But he should not worry about “peasant” invasions: the record shop will remain the reserved territory of a wealthier fringe of the Western European population, which still has spending power, “distinction” and “good taste”. And, in the not so distant future, the record shop may even acquire the glossy attractiveness and exoticism of a touristic destination. In this scenario, vinyl records will function as simple tokens or souvenirs. A little something to bring back home.
One can browse galleries of photographs on the UK website of Record Store Day: the vinyl rush is documented. Yet, a part of me remains intrigued and would want to follow the cheerful vinyl-buyers and other lucky 'participants' of Record Store Day to the privacy of their own homes.
Buried in Sound
For some time now, I have become rather obsessed with knowing how people listen to music. The event of RSD only rouses my curiosity further. I wonder when and where people listen to their newly-purchased records, wondering when they consciously put on an LP. This is only because I have been collecting stories of frustrated listeners. They would put side A of a record on, leave the room, and plainly forget to listen. For they were desperately, diabolically pressed for time.
I also know of many people having towers of records looming in a corner of rooms: music to store and listen to for rainy days. A slightly bashful record collector I interviewed last December confided how he would buy and feverishly stock records: a most conscious squirrel, he always had at least ten records, still in their plastic film, awaiting to be played. He too was a busy young man.
Music also accumulates in the digital spaces of hard disks and online playlists. Of course it is forever impossible to catch up; and the absurd density of the archive, combined with new releases, weighs heavily on contemporary listeners. There is no end to this, and no solution: collecting and accumulating have something oppressive, and frankly quite monstrous, to them. Of course, this did not prevent me from getting a Shangri-Las seven-inch from a charity shop (a first pressing on the Action label), or from running to the Glasgow Conservatoire Library the day they were selling some of their LPs. There was little point in resisting: music (or rather its objects) continues to trap me. The sirens' calls have solidified into things, and – could Marx be wrong? -- all that is solid will not melt again.
The records live their quiet life in a corner of my diminutive living-room. Sometimes I take them out and play them, disturbing their mute absurdity. Sometimes I too forget about them. Unplayed, the discs are not dissimilar from the pretty, potted roses I forgot to water and which died from my carelessness. This is because, to put it in the timeless words of Clarence, the record collector interviewed by Eisenberg in the late '80s: “records are inanimate until you put the needle in the groove, and then they come to life” (The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa).
In their recently published book, Vinyl, Dominic Bartmanski and Ian Woodward have written about the lived experience of vinyl; they went clubbing in Germany, interviewed record shop and label owners, spent hours with makers of beats... Mostly they speak about crate-digging in cool, underground places. Buying and hunting for music have become another form of living with – and experiencing – music; and indeed, it is certainly for those who cannot stop and listen: buying becomes a substitute for listening (but perhaps this was always the case to some extent, tying in with the idea of the collector).
Vinyl is everywhere, in the form of LPs, but also books, programmes and exhibitions. Not only do we hear records, we also engage with them through touch and seeing. The recent Curves of the Needle exhibition held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne last April echoed with earlier events such as the The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl first held at the Nasher Museum of Art in 2010. I wonder why there seems to be more joy, more imagination, more rhythm and more life to these galleries than to many record shops. I still nurture the idea that one day record shops will become museums, while museums will be metamorphosed into wilder, adventurous sites.
People on Sunday
A rather banal yet piercing feeling often comes back: the world has become too cluttered, too full, too diabolically packed with objects. There are indeed much more objects than meanings and this dense, inextricable jungle of things, tokens and fetishes almost makes it difficult to breath.
Only the perfect image of a 20-year-old girl, somewhere in the prewar German countryside, listening to her gramophone records in the open air brings me some form of appeasement. The girl was recruited by Curt Siodmake for his semi-documentary film People on Sunday. During the week, she is a record saleswoman in Berlin – at weekends, she carries her wind-up mechanical gramophone beside Nikolassee beach. The year is 1929 and there is a formidable carelessness to her demeanor: the camera captures a youthful hope, apparently barely touched by the Depression. The girl seems completely unaware of the weight of history. She is not conscious, either – how could she be? -- of shellac as a historical format, one which would literally disappear in the war effort (many shellac discs were effectively melted to manufacture new records or weapons).
Indeed, we can retrospectively read the prewar period as marking a real age of innocence for discs. Very few thought about them as collectible objects. The girl does not treasure the playback device (a record is even broken during the course of the film) - playing shellac is not a mark of appreciation or distinction, but the most obvious and popular choice. At any rate, playing discs is not the privilege of the educated or distinguished connoisseur. More or less, the shellac may be the equivalent of today's digital file, just as vinyl were later the unproblematic and almost “neutral” format to play music.
In Siodmake's film, the girl's selection is small yet she listens. She has room for music; she treasures it more than its shell. Now that we have spoken about vinyl records at length, one crucial (and after all, perfectly legitimate) question still haunts me: what about music?
Perhaps, today, our real critical choice is not between buying vinyl and buying digital files (for considering aesthetics-as-politics is too superficial an idea to really mean much) but between listening and not listening. After all, MP3 files and records sound exactly the same when they are not played. The real act of resistance to digital culture and the acceleration of capital (in the words of Hartmut Rosa) is not purchasing obsolete or tangible formats, but taking the time to stop and play them, at our own unhurried, lazy pace, as if we were always people on Sunday.