Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Record Collecting 2: Foot-fetishism

Record collecting isn’t only about articulation; it’s also about foot fetishism. Several years ago I gave a talk above this subject, which opened with these words from Georges Bataille: ‘No collector could ever love a work of art as much as a fetishist loves a shoe’.
            I used this quote to explore the dual nature of analogue records, suggesting that they are works of art and that they are like shoes. On the one hand, there is an aura around vinyl records because they are original artworks; there is usually no manuscript or performance that precedes them. As Sarah Thornton has argued:
Initially, records transcribed, reproduced, copied, represented, derived from and sounded like performances. But, as the composition of popular music increasingly took place in the studio rather than, say, off stage, records came to carry sounds and musics that neither originated in nor referred to actual performances. [...] Accordingly, the record shifted from being a secondary or derivative form to a primary, original one.
This is one of the reasons why collectors have sought out the first pressings of vinyl records. It is these items that come closest to revealing the author’s intentions. In the era when vinyl was the leading format, the work that took place in the recording studio was focused on what the music would sound like as a vinyl disc.
On the other hand, physical records are shoe-like: their appearance and texture enables them to be fetishised. Shoe enthusiasts and record fans are attracted to certain designs: there are particular labels that are their quarry. With both shoes and records, fetishists feel the pull of rare items, whether these are in diminished numbers because they have been retrieved from the past or because they have been artfully manufactured in limited edition runs.
What shoes and records also have in common is they both endorse and problematise theories of articulation. The shoe can be disconnected from the foot, just as music can be disconnected from the sound carrier. So far, so good: the links between the two have to be articulated. However, in neither case are the component elements as separate as Hall’s theory would wish them to be. Shoes have a direct effect on feet: they can squeeze them into elegant shapes or puncture them with blisters and bunions. Feet also have an effect on shoes: they stretch them and strain them in accordance with the owner’s pedal extremities. In like manner, formats have an effect on music: they set tonal and temporal parameters. And music does some stretching of its own: it has tested the boundaries of the sound carriers' constraints. Sound recording has a further complicating factor: some of the people who help to get records made could be regarded as being both artists and cobblers. Where, for example, do we place the record companies? While in some cases they can be hands off, in others they make a direct contribution to their musical output. They also make a direct contribution to the physical production of the discs. Consequently, as well as being articulated, the connections between feet and footwear and between music and formats are entwined.
But what about festishists – what are they doing with these items? Stuart Hall would argue that they articulate them anew. The foot fetishist removes both feet and shoes from their regular use. They are abstracted and objectified. There are some record addicts who follow a similar pattern. Their love for vinyl has overtaken their love for music. The lyrics to Pearl Jam’s ‘Spin the Black Circle’ spring to mind: ‘See this needle / See my hand / Drop drop dropping it down oh so gently / You’re so warm / Oh, the ritual / When I lay down your crooked arm / Pull it out / A paper sleeve / Oh, my joy / Oh, I’m so big’. Eddie Vedder’s swelling love would come as no surprise to Georges Bataille. For him the format always wins out over the artwork.
Few record collectors would own up to this, however. Instead, they would argue that their excessive amassing of records is evidence of their excessive love for music. They use their vinyl and they use it as it was originally intended. This use of records (and of art in general) is problematic for theorists of collecting. Russell W. Belk has described collecting as the ‘perpetual pursuit of inessential luxury goods’, and stated that it is ‘the process of actively, selectively, and passionately acquiring and possessing things removed from ordinary use’. W.N. Durost similarly suggested that:
If the predominant value of an object or idea for the person possessing it is intrinsic, i.e., if it is valued primarily for use, or purpose, or aesthetically pleasing quality, or other value inherent in the object or accruing to it by whatever circumstances of custom, training, or habit, it is not a collection. If the predominant value is representative or representational, i.e., if said object or idea is valued chiefly for the relation it bears to some other object or idea, or objects, or ideas, such as being one of a series, part of a whole, a specimen of a class, then it is the subject of a collection.
The word ‘predominant’ is important here. There are different types of record buyers. There are those who value records mostly for the music that they contain and there are those for whom non-utilitarian stockpiling starts to take over.
            Are the latter on the rise? It is notable is that where people used to speak of record collecting they are now asked if they are into vinyl? The word ‘record’ implies both the object and the music; the word ‘vinyl’ is focused on the object only. Moreover, vinyl is no longer closely entwined with the creation of music. While there is some music production that focuses primarily on the vinyl record, most new recordings are not made with this sound carrier in mind. Consequently, vinyl is no longer ‘primary’ or ‘original’ in most music-making practice. There is also the widely reported phenomenon that many younger vinyl purchasers don’t own record players. This isn’t to say that they’re not fans of the music that their vinyl contains, but they’re not using vinyl to access it. The general movement is towards the vinyl's objectification. We are heading there feet first. 

Monday, 12 May 2014

Notes on Eurovision 'Camp'

I don’t usually watch the Eurovision Song Contest, but my Greek partner’s mother is staying with us at the moment and Saturday’s show provided an irresistible opportunity for some pan-generational, pan-European viewing. It was also more interesting than expected, with Conchita Wurst’s victory providing an added political dimension, as well as moving the competition outside of its normal confines of camp. For my thoughts on her victory, please click through to the article ‘On Camp & Conchita’, which was published in the Quietus today.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

You Only Sing When You're Not Winning

On Sunday I went to see West Bromwich Albion, the football team I support, play against Arsenal at the Emirates stadium. It was a pedestrian game, which provided a fitting conclusion to a pedestrian season. West Brom barely had a shot on target and ended up losing one-nil to a Gunners side who were also bereft of inspiration.
            And yet it was a lot of fun. As always with football there were two forms of entertainment: there was what was taking place on the pitch and there was what was taking place in the stands. The West Brom fans were great: singing and chanting throughout.
            I’m interested in how the vocal display varies: sometimes it is inspired by the sporting action, sometimes it inspires the sporting action, and sometimes it is just entertainment of its own. Supporting a team like West Brom, the latter comes to the fore. The supporters relish out-singing other fans, even when the team is losing. There is a good repertoire. It always features Psalm 23 and you often hear the Dambusters March. There are now several Spanish tunes in honour of manager Pepe Mel. There are also taunts that are aimed at more elite teams such as Arsenal and their notoriously quiet support (‘shh!’, ‘one-nil and you still don’t sing’), and there are the tunes that all supporters seem to use (‘Tom Hark’, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag’, ‘Go West’, ‘Cwm Rhondda’). This shared repertoire used to bother me. I wanted more originality from each set of fans. I’ve come to understand the great utility in it, though. The practice relies on subtle (and far from subtle) variations of lyrics and can provide a great to and fro between the home and away fans.
            Football fans also take advantage of mediation. The Premier League is the most televised in the world. It is claimed that its global audience, across a season, is 4.7bn people. I’m not sure when it first started, but crowds are now making use of the 90-minute timeframe of the game. For example, at the Emirates, there was 60 seconds of applause from the West Brom fans at the nine-minute point of the game. This was in honour of Jeff Astle, who wore the number nine shirt for the club from 1964 to 1974. He died in 2002 of a degenerative brain disease, which was almost certainly caused by his frequent heading of the ball. His family is currently campaigning for the Football Association to look into this problem. Another example of time-based action came at St James’ Park on Saturday. Newcastle United fans exited the game during the 69th minute, marking the fact that the team hasn’t won a trophy since 1969. Broadcasters are briefed about these actions and they usually televise them, even in edited highlights of the games.
            What about pop? Music audiences also react to mediation, and the activity in the crowd is often disconnected from the activities on the stage (a subject I discussed in a paper at Kings College in 2012). They do seem far behind their sporting counterparts, however. Would this change if more gigs were televised live? And how would pop fans make use of numbers? 

Friday, 2 May 2014

Record Collecting 1: Articulation

I’m continuing to think about Record Store Day and why it appears to have upset more people this year. In my previous blog entry I focused on the corporatisation of the event, but other themes couldn’t help creeping in - articulation, structuralism, cup cakes. What much of it comes down to, I feel, is the changing nature of record collecting. There is a distinction between being a record collector (which was the old way of viewing of things) and being ‘into vinyl’ (which is perhaps taking over). There is also a question of just what it is that we’re collecting when we collect records: is it music, is it a format, and in what ways is it a bit of both?
Across a few blog entries I’m going to propose some different ways of looking at record collecting. I want to start by looking again at articulation and by trying to unpack the complex statement made by Spencer Hickman, the organiser of Record Store Day in the UK. He raised the following complaint about this year’s event: ‘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’.
            It’s hard to get to the bottom of this. Hickman could be arguing that record stores are about more than the music they sell. They are also hubs for people to get together; they offer a community service. He could be suggesting that not all of this year’s Record Store Day releases contained appropriate music. They are luring in One Direction and Herbert von Karajan fans, whereas an independent record store should be the preserve of Butthole Surfers and Gaye Bykers on Acid. He could be suggesting that records have a life of their own. As well as being the bearers of music, they are objects in their own right. This year’s Record Store Day could have attracted people who are interested in vinyl per se, rather than caring about the music it contains. 
            This duality of the analogue record has been a long-standing interest of mine. Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record is, in part, an attempt to analyze the relationship between the format and its music. This is the reason why I co-opted Stuart Hall’s theory of articulation. Hall stressed two uses of the word ‘articulate’: it can mean to speak forth and it can mean to join two items together. He argued, ‘An articulation is thus the form of connection that can make a unity of two different elements, under certain conditions’. For Hall, this unity has to be forged and it has to be argued for.
            This is what the indie community did with the vinyl record. They wished to unify this format with their own musical and economic cause. They did so in a structuralist manner. In his theory of linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure argues that ‘signs’ gain their meanings from their contrasts with other signs. For indie record labels and musicians the vinyl record was a sign, one that gained its meaning because it was everything that the compact disc was not. Vinyl was (or became through their agency) organic, hand-crafted, lo-fi, DIY. The format articulated the music and the music articulated the format.
            Hall argues that articulations can become disengaged and that different connections can be made. My previous blog entry was an attempt to look at some of the newer vinyl articulations that this year’s Record Store Day highlighted. Whereas indie record labels utilized the format to provide contrasts with the CD, independent record shops are advocating the format because of the alternatives it provides to the MP3. This is the whole ethos of Record Store Day: to encourage physical punters to buy physical records.
            As I stated, there is a potential danger in this. Record Store Day is perhaps too strongly focused on vinyl, rather than on music. In fact, it celebrates the way in which analogue records can restrict access to sound. Spencer Hickman has discovered that the effects of this are pernicious. In the first instance, the focus on records rather than music has allowed some unwelcome genres and record labels to enter the shops. Secondly, it has opened the shop doors to a group of punters who might be articulating the vinyl record in a different manner to either independent record labels or independent record stores.
            This is where I raised the spectre of the cup cake. It is possible that there is a new breed of vinyl collectors who articulate the format as a ‘kitsch frippery’. They like it because it represents quaint, old-fashioned values. If this really is the case, then it’s not surprising that Hickman is worried about the records taking over the stores.