Bracing For Impact
This being the last week of the year, I wanted to put together something that encapsulated my 365 days of listening in a way that had a narrative thread or made a kind of profound philosophical sense. But here's the truth about that: I didn't do a great job of finding and listening to new music in 2018. Absent that authorial crutch, I come to this (probably) final entry of the year in a bit of a pickle in that I want to discuss something that has larger implications (as a retrospective) but I don't have an easy path to relay my own specific listening year in a way that provides adequate context for that discussion.
Of course, I am not obliged in any way to spin an easy-breezy story of the year that was. But I find myself stumbling out of the blocks, unable to focus on writing something "new" before I have capped off the year in my mind, and as I consider what made this year remarkable I can really only pinpoint a few things, and those things all relate in some way to the ideas of inclusion and representation. This is a year when minority artists were heard and valued by the mainstream in ways that they really hadn't been before. While I hope that continues unabated and increases moving forward, I don't feel like it should be remarkable that the industry is essentially doing its job to provide megaphones for these talented folks and we (the audience) are essentially doing our job of paying attention to acts that fully deserve it. I love that story so much, but I have little interest in writing something that is going to be a drop in the bucket of a million corporately sponsored thinkpieces over the next thirty days.
With that in mind, I want to talk about something kind of specific that I have been seeing recently: a backlash against vinyl as a medium for experiencing music. In my weary, old, and hopefully somewhat wizened bones, I feel like 2018 is the year that a distaste for vinyl is going to take hold and spread like a virus. I can see the beginnings of it starting to sprout through the soil, and it's both completely understandable in some ways and profoundly distressing in others.
A few notes to start with here for transparency so that you can see where I'm coming from and that I have reasons to love vinyl for what it is:
1. I was a DJ - not like one that you would pay to do…well, anything, but I had a lot of love for the art of it that I came by honestly, and I tried. The results were admittedly mixed, but it wasn’t for a lack of heart.
2. I owned a record store - not one that most people would spend money in (note the past tense), but one that catered to my particular love of indie and regional art. It was at what might have been the forefront of a revolution for that particular local area, but I hung up my spurs before it could get very far.
3. I currently work in a record store - as with any record store, it has its blindspots, but overall it is pretty good. In terms of prices and selection one could do much, much worse.
4. I am a vinyl collector - while my collection is not massive, it is curated to my tastes and continues to be a little more perfect with each addition (you can read about it here if you'd like).
5. I am an audio engineer - not one that you would hire to track and/or mix your next EP, but I have the credentials on paper and I have opinions about what sounds good when it comes to a finished musical product. I would expect anyone to take these opinions with a massive grain of salt, but (again) I came by them honestly and I can stand by them.
Perhaps most importantly, the biggest thing to keep in mind as I launch into this is that I wouldn't ever tell anyone that there is one "correct" way to enjoy music. Or rather, there is one correct way, and that is the way you want to do it at the time - using whatever method that you, as a listener, prefer in the moment.
Music has become a bit of a minefield for egalitarian ideals in the past few years. Let me offer an abridged history of the last two decades in music sales and distribution…
Compact discs were the most vibrant and important form of music distribution from about 1992-ish through the late 2000's. However, around the turn of the century, the ability to share music as compressed digital files began leveling the playing field for artists and distributors, no longer was a physical copy of the music necessary for it to be played back and enjoyed. In the late 2000's, labels piggybacked on that trend and leveraged musicians' reverence for vinyl to keep investing in it while bundling it with digital downloads as a convenience so that buyers could have it both ways: a tangible version and one that they could take on the go. It's hard to lay out the exact sequence of events in this setting, but basically the combo of vinyl and downloads wrapped a piano wire around the CD's throat over the next few years and began the still-ongoing process of throttling it. Obviously CD's are still being produced, but their sales seem to be slowly dwindling to a vanishing point. Somewhere in there (again, timelines are hard in this forum), smaller labels rejuvenated the practice of releasing music on audio cassette, a format that was thought to have been long-dead for new releases. Between the proliferation of tapes and the ability to keep and share digital files, an argument could be made that music was becoming (and ultimately should be) cheap, sharable, and easy to listen to anytime. The implications of this new market seem to offer the possibility of keeping the means of music distribution in the hands of the masses, without relinquishing too much power to the overlords at major and mini-major record labels.
And that kind of brings us to this moment in time: vinyl sales are booming, tape sales are doing pretty well (considering that they've made a miraculous return from the grave), digital/streaming music is everywhere because of course it is, and CD's are all but toast.
So, what is the vinyl backlash, then? If vinyl is doing as well as it ever has, wouldn't a "backlash" result in people not buying it in record numbers (pun intended)? Yes, but we're not really there yet. Right now, the backlash presents itself more as an idea than an action, something said more than manifested. The more interesting question might be "why is the backlash?", and I would argue that our current culture is paradoxically obsessed with both building things up that don't need to be (see: 80s/90s nostalgia porn) AND with tearing things down for no good reason (see: uh, the internet). But that question is ultimately a larger one and would need its own essay, so let's stick with the what.
The backlash comes from smaller labels who are (understandably and correctly) apprehensive of what a vinyl-driven market means for their releases, since only about one-in-ten vinyl releases will ever turn a profit. It is in the stores that continue to bring in CD's both new and used despite the fact that vinyl is what's keeping the doors open. It is in the spurious nitpicking of consumers who disdain vinyl for its "crackles, pops, & surface noise" and use that opinion to infer that vinyl is placed on too much of a pedestal even though it represents the fruit of a poisoned tree (the “tree” being the old major label system).
In light of all this, allow me to offer a defense of vinyl-listening in the current age. And before I get started, let me say that I have some experience on the other side of the fence: during the transition from tapes to CD's back in the 90s, I was someone who said that CD's were literal garbage and that they were essentially a tool that big business was employing to make tapes obsolete and necessitate all of us having to reinvest in all the music we already owned. I truly believed at the time that tapes were better and resented any opinion to the contrary…but then I got a CD player and never looked back.
In terms of labels trying to come to grips with the fact that vinyl is looked upon as the "prestige" format and that their bands come to them specifically because they want their work pressed on vinyl, I don't know what to say. There is a serious problem with bottlenecking in the resource chain, and there is a not-inconsequential cost associated with pressing that relatively few acts will ever recoup for their labels. That is the reality right now. While we are in a relative renaissance of new vinyl-pressing plants opening in North America and Europe, I can't say that there is a solution on the horizon. Even when the day comes that the plants have space to take anyone and everyone, there will still be the problem of major labels pricing everyone else out (like they do leading up to every Record Store Day). It is an imperfect system, to be sure, but it has less to do with the format than it does the patriarchal major-label system that chokes out smaller competitors. This is to say that the pressing of vinyl in and of itself doesn't seem to be the chief concern, but rather the question of how do we remake the system into one where all can compete viably.
As far as stores are concerned, my read on this after having been enmeshed in what I call "Record Store Culture" for some time, is that individual stores are run from the top down with a certain mentality, and that defines who they are. Some stores strive for the credibility that comes from having the newest, freshest, hardest-to-get vinyl. For our purposes here, we can describe these stores as ones that are operating in a currency of "cool". Those stores are often not user-friendly for a lot of people in that they don't provide a comfortable space for the casual shopper (think of the scene in High Fidelity, you know the one). Other stores are run with a mentality to move units, offering a bit of anything and everything in a bid to be a place where everyone can find something. This undeniably makes them more approachable but also means that they will probably never achieve the kind of notoriety of the “cool” stores as previously described: having a little bit of most things means that you'll never have all the specialties that certain collectors are looking for, and that some shoppers will leave disappointed after not finding anything that's in their wheelhouse. There are a very few stores that operate in both spheres, but it takes years of sustained success for that to be possible. There's no right or wrong way to do this, a business owner has to make decisions based on what's worked in the past, what they think will work in the present and future, and the particular market that they're in. So be it.
For the audience though, things are a little different. The audience has the ultimate say on this, in some respects. If we (collectively) buy more vinyl, then over time it will be become easier to obtain (increased demand —> increased supply), and to some degree this is already happening: pressings are larger for many releases, and repressings happen more quickly than ever. Even though it's not "cheap", vinyl is attainable at rates that range from about $17-$25 for most new release LP's and used vinyl is even more economical (outside of collectibles and rarities). These are not file-sharing prices, or even tape prices, but neither are they prohibitively astronomical.
But if I'm being honest, it's the argument about sound quality that really gets under my skin. I mentioned before that some listeners balk at the "crackles, pops, & surface noise" they hear when listening to vinyl. This argument is bogus on a couple of fronts, in my opinion: A) if your setup is reasonably clean and well taken-care-of, these things won't really be noticeable - of course they will happen occasionally, but they won't be a deal breaker, a vinyl brush, some protective sleeves, and a bit of discipline are all it takes to minimize most unwanted issues; B) many, if not most, vinyl appreciators relish exactly this in the experience of listening to records - each crackle is proof that the record is a concrete worldly object, a pop is the anticipation of the needle catching in the groove, the surface noise is evidence of the record's life beyond your listening. Vinyl listeners fall into a couple of camps on this - they either fight tooth-and-nail to keep their collection free of anything that might cause issues in playback, or they welcome the variability because it allows them to fall in love with the dynamics of how a piece of real-world hardware changes over time and in different conditions. Neither is right or wrong; both provide moments of sheer, unspeakable bliss for different reasons.
Look, here's the deal. Vinyl is a commitment. It is a commitment of time because listening to it is rarely just the duration of a three-and-a-half minute song, but rather the twelve to twenty minutes of at least a side of the disc. It is a commitment of space because those flat 12" x 12" squares start to add up at a certain point when it comes to storage. It is a commitment of money because yes, you probably will have to buy an apparatus of some sort and/or some supplemental gear in order to get to where you want to be with your setup. It is a commitment of mental resources because your collection will sometimes dominate your headspace in ways that you wish it wouldn't. Like any commitment, there are things about it that suck, and I get it.
If you personally would rather convenience and transportability and don't want to make that commitment, then…cool. That’s great, no judgement. There are a few small-minded people out there who feel the need to trash others for not jumping on their chosen bandwagons, but let's disregard them for the sake of this argument. If you don't want to commit to the vinyl lifestyle, then don't. If you and I met on the street and talked about music, I wouldn't care how you listened to it. At the end of the day, it's not the delivery system that deserves accolades, but the ideas that it's carrying.
Let's make 2019 the year we DON'T push back against things for no reason. Let's enjoy the things we enjoy and not begrudge others the same right. Let's be better fans and better friends, even when we're strangers. And when it comes to vinyl, let's not shoot the messenger.