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. 

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