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On the Record: The all-too likely comeback of modernity’s great fetish

In Magazine, Music by Max McKennaLeave a Comment

There is a scene in the 1997 film Men in Black where Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Agent Kay, shows his new recruit, Agent Jay (played by Will Smith), around the high-tech alien holdout of the secret government agency. “This is gonna replace CDs soon,” he says, holding up what appears to be a miniature CD. “Guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again.”

The joke here is at the expense of the music fan who for the last thirty years had had to adapt his or her collection to every new and better format (some of which were total red-herrings, like the infamous eight-track cassette). But there is some added irony for the viewer of today: a smaller CD is preposterous in a world where CDs are on the wane.

Like all science fiction movies, both comedic and serious, Men in Black is a document of one generation’s projections for the future. In the nineties, downsized technology was all the rage as people began coming around to the counterintuitive and nevertheless fascinating fact that, at least in the tech domain, bigger did not correlate with better. For ten years, CDs had been reproducing crystal-clear sound on boom boxes and little Bose stereos, making the bookcase-sized hi-fi systems of the previous generation, with all of their knobs and vacuum tubes, into veritable relics. Everyone was replacing their Walkmen with Discmen, and some with the even smaller (and, like the eight-track, short-lived) mini-disc player. But Napster came out at the turn of the century, the iPod two years after that, and the expansion of high speed Internet again two years after that. In 1997, most of us could not foresee the age of MP3s, streaming, and clouds, let alone foresee an age where you would never have to buy the White Album at all.

 

And though net sales of music are down across the board, there is one area in the physical music market where sales are actually increasing at quite a clip. Last year, sales of vinyl records went up nearly forty-five percent in dollar value, whereas CDs went down more than twenty percent. In raw numbers, of course, CDs continue to outsell vinyls nearly fiftyfold. But the same data, from the Recording Industry Association of America, shows dollar sales of LPs and EPs increasing at a rate higher than the unit sales, suggesting that a markup on the now-popular vinyl record might be the industry’s last chance to maintain the astronomical profits it once enjoyed.

The major labels are desperate. In the five years that I’ve lived in Philadelphia, I’ve seen the disappearance of Tower Records on South Street and the Sam Goodies in Cherry Hill. Just this past fall, the Borders at the heart of Broad Street, the cross-town answer to the Barnes & Noble at Rittenhouse (which doesn’t sell music, in fact) closed its doors. The labels’ desperate measures include egregious lawsuits against file-sharers and, most recently, lobbying for the widely unpopular Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

And yet, the vinyl record, thought dead in the nineties when Big Music was, arguably, at its peak, is on the rise. In Philly, the smaller mainstays like Repo Records (just a block from where Tower used to be) and AKA in Old City have held on for now, having reoriented their stocks to favor LPs. In defiance of all wisdom about the business, Rittenhouse-based Long in the Tooth opened in 2006, the first new record store to open in Center City in years. And on April 21, the unofficial holiday Record Store Day, which recruits indie artists to put out limited releases for indie record shops, is celebrating its fifth year. If Agent Kay was right about anything, it’s not that the format would shrink, but that distribution would get smaller.

So why the return of the record?

Since the advent of commercial recordings a little more than a century ago, pop music has been linked to some dream of authenticity. The common narrative for rock and roll is that it came about when white boys got their hands on the more raw blues and R&B singles. Punk and hip-hop were two attacks on the flamboyance and decadence of disco, and in the eighties and nineties, indie and alternative bands separated themselves from the mainstream. Audiophiles debate what medium offers the best fidelity while concertgoers extol the experience of live shows. And today, when we all walk about with massive libraries of free music on our person, the albums on his or her shelf increasingly define the true music collector.

But there is also a certain aura to sound in its physically-recorded form that has long fascinated (and at times troubled) us. Though the vinyl record will never enjoy the same prominence it did fifty years ago, and many people will go their entire lives without ever owning or listening to one, its comeback at once points to and mitigates this moment of crisis for the music industry and the music consumer.

II.

When I was thirteen, in the midst of my punk phase, I went into the attic and pulled out my father’s Sony turntable and boxes of his old records. I had no memory of him ever playing them. He had always had a big vacuum tube amplifier and a twin tape deck on a shelf in the living room that was stacked with hundreds of cassette tapes. Those tapes have now, in turn, moved to the attic and since been replaced, virtually one-to-one, with CDs, as though those albums have grown up and grown neater, sleeker. All those CDs are also loaded onto the home computer, where my father does most of his DJing now.

Though I often preferred the crisp made-for-CD sound of contemporary punk like Green Day and NOFX, there were some gems in those boxes that the young punk in me recognized: the first two Clash albums, the Ramones’ End of the Century, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, two albums from a band called Stiff Little Fingers, which, as I knew from Jack Black’s know-it-all record store clerk character in High Fidelity, had lain the groundwork for Green Day. I would listen to them, diligently, on the floor of my bedroom, getting in touch with those forebears in all of their crackling glory.

My dad never understood what drew me to play those beat up old albums when we had them all on CD, still doesn’t understand why I’ve lugged those records and that turntable from apartment to apartment. At the time I didn’t understand either. It seemed a way to carve out some more legit punk identity as a guy who appreciated damage and decay. And when I went to a punk show at my high school some months later, and the singer of one of the bands rolled a twelve-inch across the stage and commanded, “Buy vinyl,” I was glad to know I was on the right track.

Over Thanksgiving weekend last year, my grandfather faxed (yes, faxed) me an article about one of my favorite authors, James Joyce. It was Joyce, a writer and not a recording artist, who had ultimately gotten me to appreciate the weird artifact of the record, among many other aspects of life. In the “Hades” chapter of Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses, the main character, the bumbling Dubliner Leopold Bloom, imagines a new use for the just-emerging gramophone. Following a funeral service that he attends, Bloom thinks on how voice recording, like photographic visual recording, might be used to preserve the memories of everyone interred in the cemetery:

How many! All these here once walked round Dublin. Faithful departed. As you are now so once were we.

Besides how could you remember everybody? Eyes, walk, voice. Well, the voice, yes: gramophone. Have a gramophone in every grave or keep it in the house. After dinner on a Sunday. Put on poor old greatgrandfather. Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark awfullygladaseeagain hellohello amawf krpthsth. Remind you of the voice like the photograph reminds you of the face…

Here, the poor old great-grandfather Bloom imagines has made his record morbidly, with his own death in mind. His recorded repetition of “hello” suggests this is an address to an audience and not the spontaneous recording of great-grandfather in the moment. In a way, he is posing, and we can imagine his family asking the aged man to make a little speech into a microphone, for posterity’s sake. The counterpoint in this grim scene is Bloom’s comical idealism. We can extend Bloom’s logic to imagine every gravesite littered with machines, each one reproducing a different aspect of the deceased. But the cemetery, once a site for somber spiritual reflection, would become a repository for records rife with noise and skips (“Kraahraark! Hellohellohello.”), distorting the voice as only a malfunctioning machine can. The old man’s message is hopelessly jumbled and cut short.

For all of Joyce’s playful cynicism about recordings, he touches on the very real way in which they factor into memory: a recording of someone’s voice gives us something about his or her being that the written word cannot. And visa versa, of course. Given that I was getting into vinyl records the same year as legends like Joey Ramone and Joe Strummer were dying, there is a haunting Joycean quality to that time and to their popping and skipping voices which soon would be heard no more.

So I couldn’t help but be touched by the little physical record of my own grandfather coming through my parents’ computer printer last autumn. No, he didn’t write the article, but he did choose to make a physical record of it, and in those faxed pages is some record of that choice (I did, last summer, manage to record some of his voice on my computer).

Before the digital age, physicality was an undeniable element of recorded music. Gramophones had to be maintained; components were added to stereo systems to improve fidelity; and with each play, records were exposed to the dust, scratches, and wear that would eventually render them unlistenable.

Exactly three decades after Joyce, American author Ralph Ellison addressed these labors surrounding the gramophone in his seminal novel Invisible Man (1952). By then, music in the home was much more accessible than it would have been for Bloom, but still not as omnipresent as it is today. In the book’s opening chapter, the narrator (the titular invisible man) squats in a closed-off basement, sapping free electricity from Monopolated Light & Power to power 13,690 lights and a single radio-phonograph. This is an exaggeration of the conditions Ellison himself lived in: three years after Invisible Man, Ellison celebrated his techno-geekery in “Living with Music,” an essay on music appreciation that details all the tinkering he does to the amplifiers, tuners, antennae, and wires in the hi-fi sound system he installed in his apartment.

Like Ellison, the Invisible Man is interested not only in gadgetry, but also in being able to manipulate these gadgets, and he places himself in the “American tradition of tinkerers,” like Ford, Edison and Franklin. He hopes to acquire four more phonographs, and as with his light bulbs, musical electricity is enlivening: “There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole,” he says, “and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do to be so Black and Blue’—all at the same time.”

 

III.

I find in my own appreciation of records a combination of Bloom’s and the Invisible Man’s affinities, both of which are tied to the object containing the recording as much as to the recording itself. For Bloom, the degradation of records imitates our own degradation of memory, whereas for the Invisible Man, the rituals and mechanics surrounding the gramophone give us a comforting recourse for intervening in that very degradation. I don’t think many record fans are going out of their way to hear five Louis Armstrongs singing at once, which could be easily accomplished anyway with five iHomes. But there is much more tinkering and patience involved with playing LPs. Tracking down needles and cables is one half of the work; encouraging your friends not to bounce around or make any sudden movements that might make the record skip is the other. It’s an active listening experience, not the way that running with an iPod is, but the way that going to the symphony is; where, like the Invisible Man, you have to fall into a groove, so to speak.

The physicality of music is what music buyers, especially young buyers, are seeking and now getting, more and more these days. In Philadelphia, despite the shuttering of music giants Tower Records and Borders, vinyl records are not scarce. On the 2000 block of Sansom Street, you will find Long in the Tooth. It’s a block full of modestly-marked specialty businesses: Fat Jack’s Comic shop, a supply store for brewing beer at home, the Helium Comedy Club, the Roxy Theater, a ballet slipper store, classical guitar repair service, and the delightfully anachronistic Academy of Social Dance. Given how strikingly abandoned the adjacent 1900 block is (basically an alley behind a few boarded up apartment buildings and vacant lots), this block could be a musty stronghold of shops from an earlier Philadelphia. But it’s really an up-and-coming and vibrant spot, where dining moguls Stephen Starr and Jose Garces have each opened restaurants, and where shops like Long in the Tooth—opened just a little over five years ago and peddling an outmoded commodity—are slipping in among the relics.

“I love this block,” Nick, co-proprietor of Long in the Tooth, told me. “I’m a Philly native so it made sense to open in Center City.”

A friendly guy who, despite a long black beard, doesn’t look older than thirty-five, Nick spends a lot of his time in the shop going over inventory. He talked to me from behind the store’s makeshift counter, surrounded by crates of used records yet to be priced and put out. Half the store sells used books, CDs, and memorabilia, while the other is dedicated to vinyl. New pressings (both recent albums and classic reissues) are shelved in the center, encircled by tightly packed boxes of tattered secondhand LPs through which customers browse while standing on overturned egg-crates. Collectible gems like first presses and mint-condition rarities are displayed high on the wall and can carry hefty price tags. (I once bought there, quite appropriately, an old LP put out by the James Joyce Society which contained, on the second side, one of the few recordings of Joyce’s voice, reading the last passages of the ALP chapter in Finnegans Wake.)

Nick notes that ever since he opened, right at the cusp of the vinyl trend, the market for used records has gotten more competitive. Yard sales used to be a goldmine, but now by the time he gets to one it has been picked over and the prized finds have already been posted to eBay.

Even though new pressings are selling better than ever, there is still a collecting mania that drives the vinyl market. Indeed, the single biggest day for business for Long in the Tooth is Record Store Day, a semi-official commercial holiday held on April 21 when music fans flock to independent vendors to stock up on limited edition singles allegedly available only that day. The last Record Store Day, 2011, was bigger than Nick could have expected, and despite the rain there were lines of people who had come from all over the tri-state area. “It’s like Christmas,” he said. “One guy had driven for hours just to be here.”

Founded in 2007, Record Store Day is, according to their official site, “the one day that all of the independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music.” Over 1700 stores now participate, and Record Store Day has strict criteria as to what kind of retailer qualifies as independent. It is becoming de rigueur for indie artists to put together RSD releases, and such artists as Jack White, Damon Albarn, and Regina Spektor all have blurbs on the RSD site.

Nick is gearing up for another rush. But he also noted that Record Store Day is inherently flawed. The bigger it gets, the more “limited edition” records he orders. When he winds up with extras and tries to sell them at a later date, some people can feel gypped. These editions weren’t so limited at all.

“Sometimes fans gravitate to a particular Record Store Day release and those are the ones that fly out the door for record stores,” Michael Kurz, co-founder and current co-manager of RSD, told me via email. “There are others that don’t. Most of the store owners understand all of this and know that they are going to sell out of some things, while others won’t sell as quickly.”

Kurz sees RSD as providing a service to independent vendors and their local communities, and the unique, high-quality pieces that come out that day draw attention to those artists and those shops. Given that the average production run of an RSD piece is 3000, they are still relatively “limited,” even if there are some leftover the next day.

And yet, the intentional scarcity that RSD creates cannot but be part and parcel of the record trend. Today, when music is free and infinitely reproducible, stressing the limitedness of a recording is a way of making owning music special again.

Indeed, both Nick and Kurz trace the renewed interest in vinyl back to the physical presence it articulates.

“They just want to own it,” Nick said of the young music buyers who frequent his shop on the weekends. “We get high school kids all the time. A lot of them didn’t grow up buying CDs. I have an eighteen-year-old working for me who never bought CDs and he loves records.”

Kurz agrees that there’s a “generational thing” at work, and it might have to do as much with music consumers as with producers.

“The renewed interest in vinyl is due to the artists being in love with it and demanding that their art be experienced in this format,” he said. “The sound is warmer and the listener focuses more on the music.”

I’m partly in that camp. For my dad, who grew up with LPs, digital music provides emancipation from the work of playing and maintaining records. But for me, and I hope for many other record fans, the pleasure lies in that very work.

We don’t run the risk anymore of losing the recorded voice. But what we may lose is its importance. If the collecting mania continues, and we get more preoccupied with owning records than with listening to them, then we still lose the ritual of putting them on, of being carried away to a time and place like Bloom or the narrator of Invisible Man. Hopefully, as the vinyl trend continues, music buyers will get away from the notion of collecting. A record that is never played, that is treated purely as a collectible or commodity, that is kept from its natural process of decay, is not musical at all. Music happens in time. It comes to us and gets away from us, just as certain songs pop into our head one morning, follow us all day, and inexplicably leave the next. As with the great-grandfather’s voice in Bloom’s view of the graveyard, we have to recognize that nothing is permanent, not even this vinyl trend. And there is, nevertheless, some beauty in that.

Max McKennaOn the Record: The all-too likely comeback of modernity’s great fetish

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