Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Record Collecting 5: Mystery

In recent interview Jack White has stated, ‘For me, vinyl is a MacGuffin. It’s something to lure you in, and at Third Man vinyl is a MacGuffin for a mechanical, romantic relationship with music’. MacGuffin is a term that Alfred Hitchcock popularised. It is a plot device that lures you in to a story, one that gets the mystery going, but it is of no overall importance.
            It’s interesting to hear Jack White talk in this way. One of the world’s leading advocates of vinyl is suggesting that, ultimately, it’s not vinyl that matters. It’s what vinyl signifies that counts. And what is that? The idea of a ‘mechanical, romantic relationship with music’ is an odd one: the romantic and the mechanic were traditionally supposed to be at odds. But I think I know what he means. Mechanisation no longer stands for the robotic and the modern, but instead for a time when things were tangible and you could engage with them. It is traditional values that are being held up here.
In the preceding blog entries about record collecting I have been focused on the idea that vinyl is collected because of what it is not. People are operating in a dialectical manner. They are collecting vinyl because it is old, not new; because it is analogue, not digital; because it is physical, not intangible; because it is independent, not corporate.
            And yet, there’s always been more to it than this. There has been a fascination with analogue records that is in excess of that for other formats. What’s more, this fascination was in place before some its rival formats existed. People didn’t need the CD to feel that the analogue was special (although the CD certainly helped). They didn’t need retromania, nostalgia, the desire for the tangible, a need for authenticity, or a search for truth to fall in love with analogue records (although these aspects have helped as well).
            Writing as early as 1934, Theordor Adorno was transfixed by a shellac record’s ‘thingness’. He was drawn towards the record’s grooves and the links that they provided ‘between music and writing’. In his 1959 novel. Absolute Beginners, Colin Maccinnes outlines his hero’s love of LP sleeves, calling them ‘the most original thing to come out in our lifetime’. Growing up in the 1960s, Stuart Maconie was fascinated by label designs:
Daft Ken Dodd bore the deep royal blue of Decca, Elvis wore the coal-black livery of pre-Seventies Orange RCA, the John Collier Theme still had its laminated sleeve featuring a giant Trilby. My favourite, though, the sight of which always quickened the pulse a little, was the very emerald green of a goalie’s jumper, the word Columbia grandly embossed in silver about the little hole.
For Roger Manning, keyboard player with Jellyfish, it was the scent of records that was intoxicating:
What really got me was the smell of the records I grew up with – maybe it was the pressing plant they used, for some reason records on the Casablanca label had a smell that blew our minds – when you smell that, it brings you right back to childhood.
Each of these writers returns us to a theme that these entries have been circling. What is it that we love most about analogue records: is it their ‘thingness’, or is it the music that they contain, or in what way is it a combination between these two elements? This dilemma is as old as sound recording itself. Writing in 1919, Rainer Maria Rilke recalled his first impressions of the phonograph:
It must have been when I was a boy at school that the phonograph was invented … At the time and all through the intervening years I believed that that independent sound, taken from us and preserved outside of us, would be unforgettable. That it turned out otherwise is the cause of my writing the present account. As will be seen, what impressed itself on my memory most deeply was not the sound from the funnel but the markings traced on the cylinder; these made a most definite impression.
Ultimately, it’s too easy to say that people are attached to vinyl records because of what they signify or how they can be articulated. There is something inherent in vinyl records themselves. What exactly this is, though, is the biggest mystery of all. 

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Gold Disc: One Million Pop Fans Can't Be Wrong?

The latest edition of the journal Civilisations, published by Univertité de Toulouse, contains a new article of mine: ‘The Gold Disc: One Million Pop Fans Can’t Be Wrong?’.
In the piece I explore the record industry’s primary sales trophy: the gold disc, as well as its later derivatives - platinum, diamond and silver discs. The gold disc has set a standard for which artists should aim. It has also been used a measure of commercial viability. And yet, despite the gold disc’s supposedly fixed targets, its standards can be deemed unfair. On the one hand, they have not remained the same: they have differed between territories and have shifted over time. On the other hand, their rigidity masks the diversity of record industry practices: they do not take into account the differing business models of record companies or the range of artist’s recording contracts. In the article I uncover some of this diversity and how the gold disc helps to obfuscate it. Despite its basis in the mass reproduction of analogue recording formats, the gold disc has continued to be awarded in the digital age. I explore ways in which the sales award has been adapted to this new environment, as well as its use as a symbol of continuity. Finally, I address the golden ideal that the sales award perpetuates and the impact this has had on artists and audiences.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Record Collecting 4: Space and Time

Record collecting isn’t only about scarcity and obsolescence; it’s also about space and time. Shellac and vinyl records – as both objects and music formats - have provided means for transportation. The sounds that records emit can carry listeners from their own confines to the location of the artists, whether that be the Metropolitan Opera or the Mississippi Delta. It can also bring the artists to them. The records themselves are both temporally and spatially marked. Their designs show evidence of where and when they were made; their analogue nature means that they wither in time, just as their owners do.
            Record collecting was originally focused on space but it has become more interested in time. The playing of records was once marketed as a means of geographical transplantation. In the early 1900s the advertising of companies such as Victor and the Gramophone Company was focused on the idea that, by purchasing records, you were inviting the artists who had made them into your home. It was suggested that, if you played the finest records, it was the equivalent of entertaining elite guests. Consequently, their marketing was focused on the output of operatic ‘celebrities’, such as the early recording star Enrico Caruso. These records were demarcated with special ‘Red Seal’ labels so that your more quotidian visitors could, at a glance, see the standard of musical company that you had been keeping. It has been suggested that the displaying of these records took on more importance than the playing of them. Louis Barfe has stated, ‘Later collectors noted the preponderance of mint single-sided Red Seals and were led to conclude that they were rarely if ever played’.
            Consumers weren’t necessarily encouraged to keep hold of their records, however. Prior to the First World War the attention among gramophone enthusiasts was as much on the advancement of sound recording technology as it was on the musical contents of the cylinders and discs: this was an era of upgrades. Neither producers nor purchasers believed that record collecting would be a worthwhile practice. Why hoard records if they were only going to degrade or if a new one would sound better? As late as 1923, the classical music journal Gramophone was noting that there is ‘no need to be too careful of the life of records, you can wear them out and get the latest’.
This neglect of records nevertheless helped to make them collectable. They became scarce and valuable, something to hunt down. Time was also waiting in the wings. In their search for older records, collectors were able to transport themselves (or the people who had made the original discs) temporally as well as spatially. Both factors were of importance to early jazz record collectors. Melody Maker reported in 1933:
It is apparent that quite a number of dance-music students jealously guard their collections of early ‘hot-jazz’ records as much as they do their more contemporaneous ‘New Rhythm’ styles, and, as a fellow fanatic, I can well understand their hobby … The collection of old-time records is a fascinating one; I personally get as much thrill from the capture of an original ‘Dixieland’ disc as a philatelist does from some scarce foreign stamp – and I might say that there are so many like me that the price is soaring, and even a very worn-out affair costs more than the latest Ellington. (Butterworth 1933: 183)
Many of these ‘hot jazz’ records were being re-issued, often with more accurate label information than on the first issue, but collectors still went in search of the original releases, even if scratched and worn. Stephen W. Smith commented on the practice of some of the earliest American jazz collectors: ‘There are those who will have nothing but the original label, and who will turn down a clean copy of a record in preference to one in bad condition because the latter has what is known to be an earlier label’ (1939: 289–90).
There were acoustic justifications for such behaviour: Smith argued that in the dubbing of jazz reissues the high and low frequencies of the original recordings were usually lost. There were also extramusical reasons for searching out the first issue: it could locate the purchaser there, at the point of origin. In response to the mass reproduction of records there was a desire amongst some collectors to escape the ‘commercial’ and find the ‘authentic’. The record posed the problem, but it also provided the solution. What better than if non-commercial music – rendered so by both its origins and its age – was housed on a ‘non-commercial’ disc? Forget the major-label reissue (which came out when everyone was buying this music) find the original release on the obscure label, whose original audience was the 'race' or country market (transporting you back to the record’s pre-mainstream days).
According to Smith, America’s first collectors of jazz records came from the Princeton and Yale universities. Similarly, in England, Melody Maker could point out ‘How the Varsities Pioneered Jazz’. These enthusiasts wished to travel cross-culturally in space as well as time. Smith states that:
Many of the collectors’ items were originally issued purely for Negro consumption and consequently were sold only in sections of the country which had a demand for them. 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.
Here we witness one of the stereotypes of the record collector. The white, middle-class male who is immersing himself in music that another culture has neglected, both physically and temporally. It remains to be asked: why this class and why this gender?
From the jovial sexism of Afflatus writing in Sound Wave in the 1920s (‘has the gramophone enthusiast any room or time in his life for a wife?’) to the gloom of High Fidelity (‘men, always young men’), record collecting has consistently been portrayed as being a male activity. This has been backed by empirical research. At least 95 per cent of those who volunteered to take part in the film Vinyl, Alan Zwieg’s 2000 study of record collecting, were men. The respondents to Roy Shuker’s 2004 survey were also largely male. He discovered that both males and females viewed record collecting as being primarily a masculine hobby:
Most [64 out of 67] of my respondents, especially the males, drawing on personal observation, argued that record collecting is largely a male activity. Conversely, the majority of women collectors [7 out of 11] are conscious of being a visible minority.
And yet, when it comes to collecting in general, Frederick Baekeland has argued that ‘Girls are more likely than boys to collect at all ages’. In his study of the gendered aspects of record collecting, Will Straw indicated that ‘were one presented with statistical evidence that the typical record collector was female, one could easily invoke a set of stereotypically feminine attributes to explain why this was the case’. Straw, therefore, struggles to find an explanation for the gender bias. His own conclusion is that it reflects a masculine need to order the world: ‘the most satisfying (albeit under-theorised) explanation of the masculine collector’s urge is that it lays a template of symbolic differentiation over a potentially infinite range of object domains’. In Straw’s opinion the male collector is a ‘nerd’: his expertise fails the ideal of masculinity because it isacquired through deliberate labour of a bookish or archival variety’. However, he can counter this behaviour with ‘hipness’ if his collection is cultivated with the air of instinctuality’.
Straw argues that another way in which the record collector can attain hipness is through a desire to ‘refuse the mainstream’. Elsewhere Matthew Bannister argues that ‘To resist the passive consumer/fan tag, male record collectors often adopt a bohemian, anti-commercial stance, typically by “valorising the obscure” and transgressive’. This chimes with the jazz collectors, introduced by Smith above. For those middle-class enthusiasts, black American jazz was both obscure and transgressive. Smith’s text indicates that the origin of at least one strand of record collecting lies in cross-cultural immersion, in the need for an ‘other’. This helps to explain its gender bias: such immersion allows the nerd to unveil the hipster within. This is largely a male preoccupation, as Simon Frith has pointed out:
To understand why and how the worlds of jazz (and rock) are young men’s worlds, we have to understand what it means to grow up male and middle-class; to understand the urge to ‘authenticity’ we have to understand the strange fear of being ‘inauthentic’. In this world, American music – black American music – stands for a simple idea: that everything real is happening elsewhere.
I would add that, equally pertinent, is the idea that everything real has happened elsewhere. Music can provide a link to this past. The original record can go further still: it is an artefact that has been retrieved from this domain. As the cartoonist and collector Robert Crumb pointed out: ‘Somebody of that era bought it and listened to it, and that record carries that aura from whoever else had handled and appreciated that object’. It is the record label that offers proof. It is no coincidence that many American independent labels have retained strong regional associations (Sun in Memphis; Chess in Chicago; Philadelphia International – a label name that neatly combines localism and globalism – in Philadelphia). Through these labels elsewhere can enter the home.
            Vinyl continues to be one of the totems of authenticity. There are modern collectors who focus on the music of particular regions and from particular times. It is the case, however, that vinyl now more broadly now symbolizes the past. It is a relic from a time when people did things differently. The past, as everyone knows, is a foreign country. It is also one whose vast spread tends to blot out any other regional boundaries.
            This is the source of John Harris’s complaints about Record Store Day. He argues that the event is a ‘benefit for a struggling musical genre’, one that uses vinyl as its appropriate emblem. The format, in his reckoning, is a rallying point for those who wish to keep faith with outdated, guitar-driven rock music. He also suggests that:
Record Store Day may be a collective rejection of what technology has done to music, but it is not immune from its effects: indeed, in the panoply of specially reissued records that puts the Sex Pistols next to the Grateful Dead, there is a very modern sense of music being completely uprooted from its original context.
He depicts old and new record collectors and old and new vinyl records all lost in a haze of nostalgia. The contemporary record collector doesn’t care where their vinyl records have come from, what’s important is that they have come from the past. In this scenario, space is no longer the place. Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in time. 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014


Can songwriting set popular music free? Well, it depends upon what it is being set free from and who is calling for its liberation.
            If it is people from the outside who are making these demands, then the answer to popular music’s problems should not be found in their complaints about songwriting. As I explored in the previous entry, some ‘high’ cultural theorists are overly focused on the compositional process. They look at pop songs and see standardization everywhere. They argue that hit records create ‘response-mechanisms wholly antagonistic to the ideal of individuality in a free, liberal society’. What these theorists tend to miss is that popular music is about more than its tunes. It doesn’t need to ape the ‘total’ compositional methods of classical music to have revolutionary potential. The best response to these theorists is not to answer their complaints about songwriting with songwriting, but to look instead at the areas in which popular music excels. It is the life force of popular music that can be radical and redemptive. It is here, in the human performance that gets captured in the grooves, that you can find the ‘magic that can set you free’. You can find anarchy and attitude, solace and soul. This is the democratic process that the best pop records enact. If the music were to prioritize composition in the way that cultural snobs demand, then popular music’s own particular magic would dissolve. In the order of things, it would forever play second fiddle to classical music, the composed form par excellence.
            But lets forget about outsiders for a minute. What does a focus on songwriting look like from within popular music? What difference can it make to people who are actually making and consuming this form? Here, there is a potential for composition to be democratizing. Conversely, there is a potential for the ‘life force’ of popular music to be tyrannical. Far from being a magic that can set you free, the prioritizing of ‘feel’, ‘soul’ and ‘attitude’ can distort our perceptions of the music. It gives kudos to musicians who have a supposed ‘authenticity’. It places a focus on the lives of the artists rather than quality of the work. It also favours men. Keeping it real or being true to the streets are by and large masculine pursuits. They should not be the standards by which all popular music is judged.
            A turn to songwriting can open things up. When someone like Noel Gallagher centres his greatness on his songwriting ability, it is invitation to be measured against Bjorn and Benny, rather than Brown and Squire. If fans are told to focus on the ‘song’, they can forget about authenticity for a while. They no longer have to suffer the ‘perfect pop’ of Big Star or Teenage Fanclub and can listen to genuinely perfect pop instead, including records that actually made the charts. Putting songwriting first helps to give female artists a greater chance. If we ignore the poets, seers and sages who have become the Romantic pin-ups of popular music’s history and instead concentrate upon composition, the gender biases of popular music and artistic genius can start to dissolve. In this order of things, Carole King has as much validity as Jim Morrison. It is no coincidence that female musicians are having increased success now that popular music has a greater focus on songwriting. After years of boys showing off about their noise, the music is regaining a sense of composure.
            This is not to say that girls can’t make a great noise too, but because the phallic grind of popular music has become encoded as male, the noise of girls has to be thought out in a different manner. In order to create the gushing thrust of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, Led Zeppelin didn’t have to write much. They merely had to take Muddy Waters’ ‘You Need Love’ by way of the Small Faces ‘You Need Loving’ and play and produce the riff with a power it had not previously known. In order to create their female rock music, the Slits had to think about the semiotics of each chord and each beat.  The group’s guitarist, Viv Albertine has stated, ‘The four of us constantly questioned everything. Each note had to be as exciting as the one before it and no clichés’. With her ‘mosquito’ tone, she aimed to replace ‘the old, oppressive patriarchal way that guitars sound’. Warpaint, a contemporary female four-piece, have also expressed a determination to write in a textural rather than climactic fashion. They want to avoid the punchlines that are common in both the music and comedy of men.
            And so where does this leave us in our search for popular music and liberty? Will we find emancipation in the grain of the voice or in the structure of the music? I’m going to equivocate. The thing is, I like both Led Zeppelin and the Slits, and I have found moments of freedom in records by each of these bands. Popular music can be a standardizing and reactionary force; it can also be challenging and cathartic. And these polarized tendencies can be found in both the structure and the grain. The songwriting process can reinforce the edicts of capitalism in both its musical and economic aims; it can also force us to think twice about societal norms. The concepts of soul and groove can become clichéd and can reinforce racial stereotypes; they can also bring out untapped emotions and encourage listeners to search across cultural divides. Authenticity can be a bind and a distraction, but some role-model artists can encourage people to think twice about how they live their lives.
A record can be transformative because it does exactly what the artist intends it too. Alternatively, a record can be revolutionary because audience members reinterpret it in a radical way. That reinterpretation doesn’t have to be ironic either; it can be more earnest than the author’s original intentions. Moreover, the divide between the artistic and the re-interpreted doesn’t have to be made along rock and pop lines, with the 'untouchable' works of art falling in the former category and the reworked works of art falling in the latter. In fact, records from any genre can be used in different ways: audiences can find what they want in them – or what they hate in them – by accepting or rejecting the composers’ intentions. Ultimately, the reductive and redemptive aspects of popular music work in accordance with everything else about this popular form: we takes our choice.