22.4.16

On Vinyl

TLDR: Not a record collector? Keep moving.



My love of music was always intertwined with the format. In the old days that was a connection of necessity. If you didn't own the format you couldn't hear the music. This fact one never questioned. What that seemingly implicit connection obscured was that within it are intertwined two different impulses: the visceral reaction to the sound (a communication of more deeply sophisticated and sensitive humanity) and the fetishistic acquisition of symbolically loaded talismans.

First it was cassettes. The real point at which I was aware of being bitten by the bug of musico-material acquisition was lying awake daydreaming of how on the Saturday I would buy The Best of The Doors Volume Two on cassette. Soon after I started into vinyl records. Records, these mysteriously two dimensional objects in a three dimensional cosmos, are of a tactically human dimension and are more perfectly crafted fetish objects than tapes. Three years ago I tried to stop buying records. But then there's that delicious moment when you fall off the wagon. Regardless, the impulse has been there for a while with me to break vinyl's spell. In fact, for a few reasons, I'd say in the last year this is looking like an easier proposition.

The first reason is that vinyl has long ceased to be an authentic object. In the eighties and through the dance music explosion of the nineties vinyl was real. Records weren't an afterthought for niche consumers. They weren't things to hang on your wall like tokens. In other words, to refer to the elemental connection outlined above, they weren't purely fetish objects. They had a unquestionable utilitarian purpose as carriers of sound.

Grime twelve inches around 2003-5 were for me the final real records I bought. I remember every week frantically buying twelve inches off Cameo at Uptown in a Soho basement. It felt like the last chance saloon. Nearly ten years ago I also remember buying what must have been my first completely unreal record. That was Vampire Weekend's debut in 2007. It's a great album but the disc itself sounded terrible, perhaps the knowledge of mastering had been forgotten? It came with something which has become an essentially curious, wholly standard addition with vinyl, downloadable mp3s. These seem logical to us today but how can they be? Surely it would be truer just to buy the mp3s? When I see new vinyl releases, like for instance this record of Young Thug's Barter 6 I have, they seem inauthentic. A CD is, for the time-being at least, truer - even though the iPhone is now the "correct" format for music.

The vinyl reissue is another object which has fundamentally changed. In the nineties I would often hit the second-hand record stores of Europe. France. Switzerland. Spain. Holland. Austria. Italy. Then around 2005 I visited a store in Montpelier that was literally full of slick reissues of classic funk albums. Somehow nothing could be less appealing. I think I would have rather found one reasonably good, slightly scratchy funk LP. Why was this?

There was a sense that the umbilical cord which connected the authentic cultural expression with its physical manifestation had been broken. We've had reissues for years but they never formed a perfectly arranged pristine phalanx of duplication. Reissues were almost always renegotiations of culture, they were almost always valid statements in their own right. The works of labels like Trojan and Kent or even (more recently) Soul Jazz and Strutt were never outright facsimiles of the past. They were interventions, re-imaginings and often as compilations they were (a dirty word which has its place) curations. That's to say the records were actions of creativity. That same impulse you'll find today on Mixcloud.

I'll have to admit that, paradoxically enough as both vinyl grows, as mp3 downloading inevitably wanes (seems like Apple keeps quiet about this...) and as streaming reaches a new peak of dominance that I'm happiest with the idea of buying CDs. More and more often the original vinyl edition I find on Discogs is damaged or lost. I twice tried to buy Tod Dockstader's Electronic Vol.1 on Boosey and Hawkes from european dealers. Both times the sellers had transcribed the wrong catalogue number, the first which I discovered on opening the post. A stereo edition of Stockhausen's Gesang Der J√ľnglinge to replace my sleeveless mono copy arrived, contrary to the description, badly scratched and had to be returned. And old records have become stupidly expensive. Beat Bop on Tartown for £1,045.45 ? I paid 50 pence out of the back of Ford Cortina.

I think too perhaps that after thirty years collecting I've bought the records I've really craved. Buying secondhand online is, while soul-less, real-enough but sooner or later one reaches the point where one's memory of desires is exhausted and new impulses can be more truthfully negotiated in other means. The new stuff and old stuff I'm coming to afresh is cheaper to grab on the seemingly unloved format of the CD.

Plus I'm running out of space to house the fucking things.