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. 

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