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 £25 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 that 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.