That is not to say I’m sentimental about vinyl. I buy CDs and I download (legally) at the highest resolution I can obtain. Digital music in digital formats – of course, why not? The tiny niche market for current releases pressed on vinyl is such an obvious dead end that it just depresses me to hear about. But even back in the ‘80s, the notion that everyone should replace all vinyl with CDs was such blatant snake oil that I still can’t believe how many did just that, even though keeping a working turntable now is no snap and movers curse me when they lift the record boxes. And you know what? Ask any archivist what the only durable format for audio is. Not most durable: only. All digital formats – discs and hard drives, both – fail eventually. Digital failure doesn’t mean increased background noise; it means unplayable music. So, all of our non-vinyl music will have to migrate ahead of that obsolescence. Or we can just buy it again. (Right?) For me (and probably you), it's a bit late to turn back now so it's a contradiction I'm resigned to. Neo boutique vinyl is too expensive, anyway.
The one aspect of vinyl records that I am oddly sentimental about is what CDs made go away and now miss: the difficulty of reproducing their contents. That’s what made them fetish objects (cf. Webster's: "a material object regarded with superstitious or obsessive devotion"), and not all the groovy art on the LP covers. “Analog” means what it says: analogy. Etching a master recording for vinyl pressing means making a model of what was on the original recording, whereas a digital format is a reproduction of the original signal and nothing but. Whether analog gives you a smoother, warmer and more complete sound than the super-approximation of digital is neither here nor there, really. It was more significant that you couldn’t copy what was on vinyl records (by taping or whatever) without getting an inferior signal and you still can’t. Accordingly, I doubt anyone in the record industry ever regarded home taping as a serious threat twenty or thirty years ago. Vinyl was like Walter Benjamin turned on his head: a privileged reproduction in the age of mechanical originals. The content of vinyl records was coextensive with what they were as physical objects.[see ill-advised footnote]
Unlike vinyl recoords, CDs are not privileged reproductions in any essential way, except legally. They are conduits for digital sound files that you can extrude and reproduce intact. The fetish aspect parallels the commercial dilemma, although the dilemma is very old news now. For as long as CDs were viewed as a bright, convenient and capacious alternative to vinyl records, their attraction and massive salability were assured. But CDs are not fetish objects, because their content is readily separable from its container. No matter how groovy the art in the booklet and inlay card, their audio content is what’s privileged and – if you’re so inclined, and millions are – it’s a spirit you can exorcise from its host with a few keystrokes.
I still buy CDs, like I said. I have to, given some of my tastes (pervert!) (uh…nerd!), my professional belief that artists need to be paid, and the plain fact that I’m not inclined to put 700 MB of .wav file on a damn hard drive for everything I own. (You aren’t either, but you don’t care.) Recorded music is essential for me and it’s not going away commercially. But it is not the goopy lens of youth that causes me to regard CDs and vinyl records very differently, and that goes double for their respective commercial prospects past and present. If the fetish aspect of salable recorded music product units is eroding (or gone), we have to assume it is now elsewhere (or about to show itself) and that proper re-contextualization of this aspect will mean a new CASH COW. For somebody. After all that pimple misery…
Aside from the cautionary tale of Reality D. Blipcrotch, a lunatic signed to Jefferson Airplane’s vanity label in the early ‘70s who expected the RCA engineers to rig a marijuana leaf to pop out of his record (literally) at the end of side one, my favorite extreme illustrations of vinyl object-ness are these:
- “Record Without A Cover” (1985) by Christian Marclay, a fantastic conceptualist who used to do live sound collages with four (and more) turntables simultaneously. “Record” was one of them (and very good listening it is), but it was exactly as advertised. The scratches and pops from the records used were as relevant as their ostensible “content.” Moreover, storing “Record” without any protective covering (as it instructs you to do, etched into the flipside along with the credits) would simply add more content to the thing. It certainly has to my copy.
- “Sonic Destroyer”/“G-Force” by Underground Resistance (d/b/a X‑101). These secretive Detroit techno guys were vinyl-fetishists to a fault (Mad Mike Banks, especially), but I’m particularly fond of this 12”. Side A has no take-up or take-off grooves and three disconnected bands, the last of which does things with a Roland 303 even more punishing than CJ Bolland’s “Horsepower.” Side B runs in reverse from the center to the rim.
- “Mentok I” by LFO (Warp 1991). There’s a great story in Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash (Generation Ecstasy in the US) describing how these guys got an enormous bass sound on their 12” by convincing the mastering engineer to turn the filters off on the cutting lathe. This could have easily caused the lathe to burn out, but it didn’t, apparently. I only have the track on CD (came with UK edition of Simon’s book, in fact), but even there the bass is such that your ass will follow whether your mind is free or not.
[Back up there...]