Those Smiling Vinyl Whores

And so, as 2014 gets underway, the steadily increasing fetishisation of vinyl continues apace, as middle-aged music lovers and groovier-than-thou young hipsters embrace the format what simply will not lie down and die. It fair boils my piss, but for once something related to music that boils my piss has little or nothing to do with the “music industry”.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that where music is concerned, few are more passionate than me. Since the joys of discovering new music became evident to me, my life has been pretty much consumed by the process. You hear people talking about how their lives have been soundtracked by certain artists and may be tempted to dismiss it as hyperbole – even more so those who claim their lives have been utterly enhanced or altered by music, but have seldom if ever picked up a musical instrument. But it can happen, and I am living proof. Before I launch into my little tirade, know this: as a music fan, as someone who is keenly aware of the value and impact music can have on people (individually and collectively), I couldn’t care less what format people are listening to said music on. CD, download, vinyl, cassette, 8-track cartridge, wax cylinder… as long as the music reaches your ears, I could care less via what medium it is conveyed to its listeners.

And this, I feel, is the crux of my problem with the vinyl aficionados. There is no middle ground: either you’re for vinyl, or you’re against it; and if you’re against vinyl, if it is not the be-all and end-all of your musical experiences, then to these people you are simply not a music fan. The vinyl bores may say, “Well, no, that’s not what we’re saying at all”, but that is how you make the rest of us feel, guys. I’m the last person to rubbish anything that someone is passionate about, especially something so basically arbitrary as a musical format, but frankly I can only sit on the sidelines so long listening to guff about vinyl being “God’s Own Format”, people saying “Oh, you haven’t *lived* until you’ve heard the vinyl”, “oooh, the vinyl is soooo much better than <insert other format here>”, or looking at you in blank amazement if you dare to say anything negative about vinyl as a delivery system, or even if you say that you’re more than happy with the non-vinyl format of album x that you already own and have zero interest in forking out ยฃ25 to buy the same album again so you can hear it “properly” and actually enjoy it, instead of pretending to enjoy it on a format that clearly, absolutely, positively, can’t be as good as vinyl…

Aaaaarrgghhh. Have you vinyl lovers any idea how nauseating you sound after a while? Look, I started out listening to everything on vinyl, because all my family had was a turntable. Numerous things turned me away from vinyl: the trotting back to the player to change sides every 20 minutes or less, the surface noise, the scratches that appeared on the records over time no matter how careful you seemed to be, the endless cleaning, the sleeves, which – although they looked pretty impressive – seemed to be made out of rice paper, the massive amount of space you needed to store them… the list goes on and on. And yet now so many of these things are being fetishised as things to recommend vinyl as a format. My favourite is the idea that flipping sides every 20 minutes “makes you appreciate the music more”. Seriously, what the fuck? If flipping sides every 20 minutes makes you appreciate the music more, then frankly you’ve just not been paying attention to it all this time. I didn’t need the assistance of a needless ritual to focus my attention on the music; if you do, then perhaps you should visit your doctor and get some ADHD meds, stat.

This fetishisation of vinyl seems to be extended, over time, to being a negative commentary on anything that increases convenience where music is concerned. As far as my prog-loving mates are concerned, I blame Steven Wilson for this. In his film Insurgentes (released shortly after his album of the same name), he rails against the “convenience” of MP3 files and iPod culture, even going so far as to destroy (on-screen) several of Apples’ best-seller. Unfortunately, this attitude is entirely unhelpful, as the convenience of portable music players is only an issue if the user wants to employ the device in the ways that Wilson is so upset about. Speaking as someone who does probably the majority of his listening from portable devices these days, I don’t use my player(s) in the ways that Wilson rails against; I rarely skip tracks, and I almost invariably listen to whole albums rather than playlists or individual tracks. Without my portable player(s), I’d listen to a lot less music, and would therefore buy a lot less music. I wonder how the average musician would react to that caveat?

Wilson has it entirely wrong: technology thatย improves accessibility and convenience where music is concerned is not the enemy. Ultimately, what Wilson is railing against are listeners themselves: but the listeners he is railing against are the ones who were never likely to be big music fans, people who enjoy a good tune without consuming music in the intense way that some of us do.

So let’s have less of the tedious format-worship, please. I’m pleased that vinyl still exists for the people who find listening to music in other ways unsatisfying, but frankly for the rest of us it’s akin to a musical form of the Chinese Tea Ritual: at the end of the day, you’re still drinking tea, however much you dress it up in ritual and pretend that it’s something more than it is. Rather than play into the hands of the labels desperate attempts to artificially extend the life of physical formats that should by all accounts have died off years ago, let’s focus instead on what is truly important: the music itself.

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5 Responses to Those Smiling Vinyl Whores

  1. Mike Rengel says:

    *Timidly raises hand* My name is Mike, and I’m a vinyl fan. Got my turntable, got a big, well-curated collection of records, both new release and vintage. I love the unique audio quality (different from, but not better/worse than digital, just different), I love the tactile joy of the Physical Artifact, I love the big honkin’ cover art and gatefolds, and I love the collecting/hunting for gems aspect of it. That said, is it the “only format that matters, anyone else be damned”? Absolutely not. I mean, I buy a lot of LPs. But I also buy some CDs still, and I have a monthly eMusic subscription, which gets me $35 worth of MP3 downloads per month (about 6 albums, on average). And I have a paid Spotify subscription. So in my mind, and in my world, there’s room, and a time and a place, for all of it.

    I *do* get what you’re saying, and there definitely do exist too many folks who put the format ahead of the music itself. If you’re a vinyl fashionista (ooo er), but you don’t know jack about music, or don’t even listen to the things? That’s pointless and sad. I know a few of those poseurs. The music is what matters. But I do personally put real stock in the “thing”. I also have zero time for anti-digital, anti-technology reactionaries. Steven Wilson, get off your effing high horse. There is room in this world, time in our musical lives for *both* the analog and the digital. Or just one or the other, if that’s truly your bag! There is no *one true format*. It’s all various modes of achieving the same end goal — enriching our lives with the gift that is music.

    I apologize in advance, I don’t mean to step on toes. I totally get your point, Dave. And I’ve encountered far too many of the format warriors you’re describing. I just don’t want you to think we’re all that rigid. At least here in my corner of the verse, I know far more vinyl fans like myself than those that make us both (rightfully) shudder.

    • HippyDave says:

      Hahaha! I will admit, I edited this blog post for language and nuance rather heavily after writing it – partly because I realised I was a bit Basil Fawlty when I wrote it, and partly because I know that some very good friends of mine – like yourself – are vinyl supporters. But the point you make is true of you, and Neil, and Bruce, and numerous of my other friends: you see the value in vinyl, but you don’t close yourself off to other formats and you see value in those too, and are prepared to keep an open mind. In other words, for you guys it’s not a fashion statement, and it’s not the end of the audio world. So rest easy, you guys are not the people I’m pissing and moaning about ;-).

      But yeah: format warriors. What a shower of bastards. (He says, realising dimly in the pit of his stomach that as a crusader for all things lossless, he is, in his own way, also a format warrior…!)

      • Mike Rengel says:

        And I wasn’t quite sure how to say what I had to say without sounding like I was giving you shit for your POV! ‘Cause I’m not, and I hope I didn’t come off that way! I absolutely understand what you’re getting at, ’cause I’ve met those blowhards myself. When vinyl (or any format) becomes fetish property first and musical delivery system second, that’s when the wheels have come off the carriage. And I’ll be the first to admit, I absolutely love the aesthetics of vinyl. But if that’s *all* it was? I wouldn’t spend my money on it. It’s just part of the experience and of what I enjoy about the format. But man, at the same time? I think it’s bloody *brilliant* that most new LPs come with MP3 download code vouchers now. Best of both worlds! I adore having the record at home for slow-times active listening and sleeve poring-over. But I also make constant use of having the digital version to throw on my iPhone for the gym, for work, etc., and to throw in my iTunes / burn to CD if I decide to. Like I was saying — there’s room and a time/place for analog and digital. Mostly, it’s about the tunes, though, and whatever system satisfies our particular listening styles/needs. Vinyl and downloads need not be mutually exclusive.

        Lossless digital is a universe I know barely anything about TBH – I get the point but I haven’t messed around with it much / don’t demand it when I download. Which I’m sure makes you think “how can he listen to those 128kbps AACs?!” Ha. Much in the way many people look at vinyl and go “why would I pay extra for hisses?” ๐Ÿ™‚ That said – I would be shocked if at some point there wasn’t more of a lossless awakening, in that bands/labels/etc. will realize that it’s dumb *not* to give people what they want. Because there is a market for it, and feeding it will grow the market. Just how making more things available on LP not just satisfied the small, vocal core supporters, but enabled the format’s resurgence to fully blossom.

        BTW – I hope that at least some portion of what I’m writing today makes even some sort of sense. It’s a very “end of the working week” loopy brain kinda day around here. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. HippyDave says:

    Oh, it does mate, absolutely. It’s no more indecipherable than my digital scribblings anyhow ๐Ÿ˜‰ . And don’t worry, I didn’t take your response as in any way vituperative. I knew this one was potentially a hot potato when I put it up, but sometimes you just have to say what you feel, y’know?

    I think what this boils down to, for me, is that it’s absolutely fine for folks to enjoy a Thing, even to evangelise about it to others (and Goat knows I’ve done my share of that over the years), but when the line between evangelising and hectoring is crossed, that’s where I lose patience. I just want to shake these people and say, “Look, I know you enjoy vinyl; it is Not For Me. I lost patience with its shortcomings years ago. I embrace change, I embrace convenience, I embrace a format that means I listen to more music, more regularly, and in more versatile ways than I ever have before. You should feel free to go and enjoy your vinyl, but don’t tell me it’s x, y and z and criticise my choice because it’s not how you want to do things.” Endless evangelising about formats completely overshadows the conversations that music lovers *should* be having, IMO, which is about the music, not the delivery medium, which is ultimately entirely incidental to the music itself. But hey, I know I’m preaching to the choir here from what you’ve already written ๐Ÿ™‚ .

    As to your other point (about downloads being supplied alongside physical formats, and the adoption of lossless downloads): yes. This is what providers (be they musicians, labels or sales websites like Amazon and iTunes) need to offer: choice. There’ll always be a market for physical formats, but I can foresee a time – and it’ll soon be with us – where it is the exception (for special editions, Kickstarter benefits and the like) rather than the rule. So it’s in the interests of the providers to get ahead of the game offer choice: something Kickstarter offers by its nature, and sites like Bandcamp provide – music paid for, and then delivered in the format that the customer wants it in. The inflexibility of many providers baffles and irritates me. Still, I hear that HD Tracks will be opening a UK-based webstore shortly. It’ll be interesting to see how it does ๐Ÿ™‚ .

    • Mike Rengel says:

      Oh, trust me, you’re fine! I was merely concerned that my responses were coming off as combative. You know me, I will perpetually worry about the difficulty in conveying tone / inflection online.

      That said: bingo. You’ve nailed it. It’s about choice in the marketplace! I’ve been known to get actively *angry* when a new LP I’ve just shelled out $25 for doesn’t include a download code. And it’s doubly flummoxing on the digital side of things. How hard is it to offer standard-resolution MP3s *and* lossless (or even more options alongside those)? At least with vinyl, there’s a real cost in producing the physical thing. But with digital files? It’s not as if it costs money to encode a FLAC. Does it? Why not do up all the varieties and give buyers the option? I don’t get it. I also tend to agree that sooner rather than later, any form of physical media will become a specialty option. I don’t believe for a split second any futurist who says “books / records / newspapers will disappear completely”. There will always be a segment of population who prefers a Thing, a Tactile Experience. But digital music, e-readers, etc. are the majority wave of the future and to deny that is being shortsighted, IMO. Books and records will become artisan products, even more so than they are now. And everyone will be happy / get what they want. Choice! It reminds me of TNG/DS9 era Trek, actually. Ha! Most stuff gets read/listened to on PADDs / through the main computer, even as early in the timeline as Enterprise now that I think about it. But despite the dominance of digital media, Picard’s there in his ready room reading dead tree books. Jake gets a pen and paper for some of his stories. It’s a niche market but not the default.

      Nobody should ever give anyone else a hard time for favoring/not favoring a particular format! What a waste of energy, eh? I get a special satisfaction from vinyl. But if someone else doesn’t? Fair enough! I’ll certainly not stop going on and on about how much I enjoy it. ๐Ÿ™‚ But I’m not going to look down my nose at you if you can’t be bothered, let alone lecture or call you a philistine, etc. That’s not only mean, and against the spirit of community that I believe music fandom can and does offer if you do it right, but it’s a waste of time. That’s time we could be debating the merits of a new album by a favorite group, or sharing our latest discoveries.

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