Thursday, 5 June 2014

Record Collecting 3: Obsolescence and Scarcity

Record collecting isn’t only about foot fetishism; it’s also about obsolescence and scarcity. As indicated in the earlier post, these factors have helped to fuel the fetishism of the vinyl record. They do nevertheless require some analysis of their own.
            Obsolescence was originally the result of advances in technology. The analogue record experienced a series of significant developments: the change from analogue to electric recording in the mid-1920s; the substitution of shellac for vinyl in the 1950s; the battle between vinyl and the CD in the 1980s and 1990s. While some consumers were quick to take on board these new technologies, others rued the transformations taking place.
            Compton Mackenzie, the first editor of the Gramophone, served as a prototype for a certain strand of record collector. In 1925 he railed (almost incomprehensibly) against electrical recording:
The exaggeration of sibilants by the new method is abominable, and there is often harshness which recalls some of the worst excesses of the past. The recording of massed strings is atrocious from an impressionistic standpoint. I don’t want to hear symphonies with an American accent. I don’t want blue-nose violins and Yankee clarinets. I don’t want the piano to sound like a free-lunch counter.
In 1949 he also questioned the introduction of the vinyl LP:
I ask readers if they want to feel that their collections of records are obsolete, if they really want to spend money on buying discs that will save them the trouble of getting up to change them, and if they really want to wait years for a repertory as good as what is now available to them? . . . The substitution of a long playing disc is not a sufficiently valuable improvement to justify the complete abandonment of present methods of reproduction.
Robert Crumb, meanwhile, found the shorter playing time of the 78 superior to the LP, ‘I don’t like to have music on as background, or listen to while I work. That’s what I like about 78s, they force you to get up every three minutes and decide what you want to listen to again. It keeps you focused’.
Mackenzie and Crumb might sound as though they like making life hard for themselves, but they also sound like lovers of vinyl. Some vinyl advocates (me included) commend the fact that the format has a shorter duration than the CD. They also valorise the fact that you have to turn the records over. Sean O’ Hagen has stated, ‘One of the many awful consequences of the invention of the CD, that curiously unlovable artefact of Eighties-style musical modernity, was that it put paid to the notion of the A-side’. Other vinyl fans have found virtue in having to fight through dust and blemishes to reach a layer of musical sound. Evan Eisenberg has written, ‘We listened harder in those [vinyl] days. Music was made doubly precious by the thicket of noise from which it had to be plucked’.
Each ‘advance’ in technology has provided an impetus for collecting. There are those who have rejected the new ways and searched for prelapsarian records instead. 
            There are other ways by which records have become scarce. Shellac discs were worn down by styli and were easily broken. In addition, in times of shellac shortages, record buyers were encouraged to return old records so that they could be pulped to help to make new ones. There were also more piecemeal advances in technology – improvements in recording techniques and advances in the constitution of records – that quickly rendered recordings out of date.
Labelling practices helped to limit the reach of recordings. In the first half of the twentieth century, genres were targeted towards particular groups of listeners. Race records, for example, were supposed to be the preserve of black Americans, while hillbilly records were aimed at a rural white audience in the southern states of America. It has been argued that some of these audiences did not look after their records. One of the early white jazz record collectors, Stephen W. Smith, complained that ‘Copies which found their way into private homes were usually not given the best of care since many of the Negroes, for their own reasons, did not care to change the needle frequently enough to save the record surface’.
The net effect of each of these practices was that many early records automatically became scarce. Discs that record companies had considered outdated or marginal nevertheless managed to attract interest beyond their expected lifespans and beyond their expected constituencies. Some of these discs also began to change hands for large sums of money. The record companies hadn’t expected this.
They did, however, cotton on to the idea. Independent companies were quickest off the mark. By the late 1970s they were artificially manufacturing ‘rare’ records. Here, Thurston Moore identified a significant change:
50s and ‘60s collectibles were created by accident. Some rare performance or unique label design would get issued without much thought and the item would get discovered later. But by the time new wave happened, people had had enough ‘historical resonance’ with records that they self-consciously created collectibles.
As John Cooper Clarke pointed out, the late 1970s was a period in which gimmicks played loud. Chiswick released a limited edition LP that played at 45 rpm (Skrewdriver’s ‘All Skrewed Up’), while the Private Stock record label released a 12 that played at the abandoned speed of 78 rpm (Robert Gordon’s ‘The Fool’). Richard Myhill’s ‘It Takes Two to Tango’ claimed to be the world’s first square-shaped single; Alan Price’s ‘Baby of Mine’ was the first in the shape of a heart; Cooper Clarke’s own ‘Gimmix! (Play Loud)’ was triangular and orange. The latter was among a rash of coloured vinyl records, reaching a peak with the 1978 Devo LP Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, which was issued in grey, red, blue, yellow and green vinyl, while black was ‘also available’. Records were also given double grooves: Cooper Clarke’s ‘Splat’ / ‘Twat’, featured parallel clean and rude versions of the same poem. What made many of these gimmicks stand out even more was that they were issued in limited edition runs.
These techniques did not pass without comment. In 1977 New Musical Express produced a special edition about the cult of collecting, which pointed out that ‘The record as artefact has become the standard ploy of the record business in 1977’. In ‘Part-time Punks’ the Television Personalities sang about the collector’s dilemma: ‘They like to buy the O Level single | Or ‘Read About Seymour’ | But they’re not pressed in red | So they buy The Lurkers instead’. The major record companies reacted with consternation (Maurice Oberstein of CBS fretted, ‘Suddenly we are not in the music business, we are back to selling plastic’) and with imitation (in 1978 the NME reported, ‘Thanks to the independents showing them the way, the major companies have now discovered a new way to sell you things you perhaps didn’t want in the first place’).
            Record Store Day is a direct inheritor of this tradition: all of its releases are limited editions. There is nevertheless a crucial difference between these records and the punk-era collectables. The late 1970’s records were meant to be heard. In fact, the aim was often to attract a mass audience; by today’s standards these ‘limited’ pressings were issued in large numbers. The idea was to sell a significant quantity of records in a short period of time, thus gaining higher chart places and increased exposure. Jake Riviera, head of Stiff Records (perhaps the most inspired late-1970’s label when it came to gimmicks) stated that he was going for either ‘stabs at the chart or collectors’ items’. Record Store Day is focused on collector’s items only. It’s not just the records that are scarce, so are their sounds. The danger with this is that if the vogue for vinyl is centred on the format’s cuteness, rather than on its ability to harness and signify music, the cycles of fashion could render it obsolete.  

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