Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Whose Vinyl is it Anyway?

In Vinyl I argue that the analogue record has been articulated. It is a physical object and it is a carrier of music. Because of this dual nature, any associations with particular types of music have had to be forged. I also write about the way in which indie music sought jurisdiction over the format, in particular the 7” single. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the major labels turned to the CD and advanced that format for their own major stars, the vinyl record began to signify everything that was different. The indie labels articulated it for their own cause: it became the small-is-good format for small-is-good forms of music. This association continued. As I have written elsewhere, independent record labels were pre-eminent in the production of vinyl records in 2013.
            This year’s Record Store Day has revealed that this jurisdiction is under threat. For indie labels, the vinyl revival could have become too successful. The first Record Store Day was held in the US in 2007, when 700 independent record shops grouped together to celebrate their ‘unique culture’ and increase trade by selling records that were made exclusively for the day. The UK came on board in 2008 and Record Store Day now incorporates record shops in every continent except Antarctica. For vinyl, it is the most profitable retail day of the year.
In the UK the amount of exclusive releases has grown from around 250 in 2011 to nearly 650 this year. Record Store Day is like any other large orbiting body: its gravitational pull throws normal life out of joint. In the run up to the event, production in the few vinyl pressing plants that remain is taken up with limited edition Record Store Day products. There isn’t enough capacity to continue producing regular vinyl releases.
Some indie labels and distributors have grown suspicious of the pressing plants’ priorities. In an article in The Quietus, Phil Hebblethwaite has tabulated their woes. As early as 2011, Rob Sevier from the Numero Group was arguing that, for the record business, the logic of Record Store Day is ‘what can we shit into the form of a record and shove into the hands of the wanton masses’. This year the distributor Kudus has complained that ‘it feels like [Record Store Day] has been appropriated by major labels and larger indies to the extent that smaller labels who push vinyl sales for the other 364 days of the year are effectively penalised’. The label Modern Love has stated, ‘Fuck Record Store Day and all you self-righteous wankers who think it benefits anyone “independent”’ and ‘Fuck you to all the pressing plants out there who have made major labels their priority’.
Some independent labels are now boycotting Record Store Day. They feel that its original impetus is getting lost. For them, the sale of vinyl was supposed to serve independent record labels, which were supposed to release independent music, which was supposed to be sold in independent record shops. Despite the common cause of independence, the links between these parties can come loose. One potential source of tension is that independent record labels and independent record stores can have different reasons for advocating vinyl. While the labels' embrace of the vinyl record arose in opposition to the major record companies' advocacy of the CD, the independent record stores' current promotion of vinyl stems from their reaction to the MP3. This produces a different outlook. Record Store Day is focused wholly on limited edition records; what distinguishes vinyl from downloads and streams is that access to music can be restricted. And so, what if the Record Store Day releases are being bought and not heard? This doesn't do much to further the cause of indie music. Moreover, vinyl has no natural allegiance to indie ideals. If anything the format represents the opposite of DIY. It is the one form of sound carrier that is exclusively professional: there is no easy way in which you can make your own vinyl records at home. It is also the format that lends itself best to production gimmicks – coloured records, picture discs, shaped records, limited runs, and so on. It’s a great way of packaging shit for the wanton masses.
A lot has changed since the 1990s. CD sales have declined, while vinyl sales have risen (although it should not be forgotten that the former still vastly outperforms the latter). And where the CD used to be priced more expensively than vinyl, the two formats have traded places. Consequently, the majors have returned to vinyl. They have thought again about all those old gimmicks and realised that they are a great means of promoting their artists and of making money.
They clearly have the means to do this (reclaiming the pressing plants is a neat capitalist ploy), but why should independent record store shoppers buy the major label's vinyl releases? Here, it is once again worth thinking about vinyl and its articulations. There have long been problems regarding what it is that distinguishes ‘indie’ music: is it a generic type or is it the means of production? The problem for indie could be that vinyl has been articulating the music, rather than the other way round. If the major record companies choose to reacquaint themselves with indie's beloved analogue format, how easy is it to tell the difference between their releases and those of the indie labels? 
This is the point that is raised in a Record Store Day thought piece written by John Harris. He describes the event as being a ‘benefit for a struggling musical genre’; one that, like vinyl records themselves, is an object for nostalgia. This genre is massive, however. It is guitar-driven rock music, predominantly made by young white men and predominantly bought by older white men. Harris conflates the output of independent labels and major labels, as well of separate rock genres, such as psychedlia, punk and indie. More cruelly still, he sees little distinction between the new records and re-releases that are issued on Record Store Day. If the old records are retrospective, then so are the newer guitar-led groups. In this scenario, indie is no more than the genre that used to have jurisdiction over vinyl. It is now lost amongst the general drone of guitars that have taken hold of the format. In supporting all of these rock records, independent record stores might do well out of Record Store Day, but independent record labels' are losing one of their distinguishing features. 
In Harris's scenario, vinyl is at least still being associated with a particular strand of music. Elsewhere, there is evidence that the format has taken on a life of its own. Spencer Hickman, the organizer of the UK event, shares some of the concerns of independent record labels and distributors. He also raises some new ones. Not only is Record Store Day failing to support independent record labels, but the vinyl releases are failing to support independent record stores. He has stated, ‘this year feels like the first time it’s been entirely driven by capitalism. It now feels like it’s not celebrating the culture of the record store and why they’re so good; it’s about the releases’. In this vision it is as though the records have taken over the shops and are disrupting their normal practice. It’s not Hickman’s fault that the stores aren’t full of appropriate music, just look at what the vinyl has done?
This year’s Record Store Day included releases from One Direction and Herbert von Karajan, so any argument that it could be associated with a single genre – even one as broad as rock music – is moot. The question that then presents itself is whether the day could be associated with any music at all.  Perhaps the biggest fear for anyone with a longstanding interest in vinyl is that the format has slipped from being one that was the leading sound carrier in a golden age of popular music, to one that was fetishised because it was the leading sound carrier in a golden age of popular music, to one that is fetishised because it is old. Were the patrons of Record Store Day there because they like music, or were they instead celebrating the collection of outdated objects? Was their ‘culture of the record store’ just one of nostalgia for the days when people used to go to shops? In her excellent book Clampdown Rhian E Jones has added her voice to those who are worried about the retromania of our times. She states that ‘popular culture seems currently consumed by pastiche, recycling, solipsistic navel-gazing and pantomimes of authenticity, preoccupied with kitsch fripperies and politically disengaged, with previous traditions of protest and consciousness weakened, compromised, commodified, confused or forgotten’. One of her most dreaded objects is the cup cake. If any vinyl lovers are worried that their format is being constructed as a similar ‘kitsch frippery’ then they had better start articulating and they had better start agitating. 

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