Straight off the bat, for the record, I love Danny Baker as a radio broadcaster; his Saturday morning show on Radio 5 live beautifully demonstrates his story-telling skills, his appreciation of the mythology of the mundanity of everyday life, his understanding of how the format of radio works, and his extensive charm and humanity. It’s funny, and fun, and moving, and I love it.
But last night I watched the first part of his Great Album Showdown on BBC4 and it pretty much infuriated me from start to finish.
I could blame Jeremy Clarkson, one of the anointed foursome discussing what makes a great ‘rock’ LP, but by this point his persona as a caricature of a grumpy old man stuck in the 70s is beyond the worth of criticising. He is who he is, and if you take him seriously, in either direction, you’re an idiot too. I could blame Kate Mossman, for her bizarre assertion that glam and punk were opposites, which is a strange bit of garbled received wisdom that was rightly shot down by the other three (received wisdom being the enemy of criticism and thought in general). I could blame Baker himself, for his unwittingly throwaway sexist remark about not expecting “a woman” to like a particular record (presumably let alone a young, pretty one). Stephen Street, a self-confessed pop fan rather than a rock fan, and the final member of the four, looked uncomfortable, squirmed in his seat when Clarkson anointed Supertramp as the greatest thing ever, and seemed annoyed with the rockism ambushing him from all sides. He was the only one I could really identify with.
So instead, I’ll blame vinyl.
But of course, I’m not really blaming vinyl as a material, or even as an inferior vehicle for the delivery of recorded music (CD has a wider dynamic range when used properly, etcetera); I’m blaming it as a signifier, as a loaded totem of rockist bullshit.
Every time someone eulogies vinyl, they seem to necessarily slag CDs at the same time, and in the process of doing that they’re voiding the cultural experiences and values of a large swathe of music fans.
Because there are lots of people around my age for whom CD was the format through which they experienced music; certainly in our house there are a couple of thousand CDs and barely a hundred pieces of vinyl. Even my brothers, 9 and 11 years older than me, who’ve both been in bands and worked in record shops and so on, have shelves stuffed with CDs rather than crates full of vinyl. We don’t love music any less than the likes of Clarkson and Baker and Mossman, but you wouldn’t think so from last night’s program, or the seemingly endless vinyl-fetishists waxing lyrical about their favoured delivery method online or in print for what seems like the last decade.
Physically, to me, vinyl is an awkward, ungainly thing, difficult to hold in 12” form, easily scratched and made dirty, literally degrading every time you play it (by scraping a needle over a delicate material!), easily warped if not stored with great care. I dislike having to break a mood to change sides, the awkwardness of trying to access a specific song.
In terms of the sound, the warmth that so many people describe vinyl as enjoying just sounds like surface noise to me most of the time, a veil through which detail often has to struggle to emerge. I know a well-maintained vinyl collection and record player can sound superlative, but I prefer the sound of a good CD player; and it’s easier to look after, too. (I use a Rega Apollo for preference; noted for its warmth and detail, if you’re concerned about that type of thing.)
Vinyl’s also expensive and hard to find these days compared to CDs, and in my music-buying history, the last 20 years, has always been thus. Aside from the choice 12” decorations displayed in Urban Outfitters, I literally can’t buy any new vinyl in the city where I live. There is a secondhand shop, catering to old music obsessives and ignoring those after the thrill of the new and the now, but the secondhand market for original pressings and other collectors’ items baffles and disgusts me; scarcity and exclusivity are the two favourite assets of free-market economics and capitalist frenzy. If it’s rare; it’s worth more. Last night Danny Baker mentioned that one LP he had was worth well over £1,000. If you place more onus on the fiscal worth of your music’s format than the emotional and aesthetic worth of your music’s affect, then we’re talking at cross purposes from the very start. I used to deliberately buy debut vinyl singles by indie bands in the 90s and sell them on, circa debut album success and higher profile, for big profits, because it enabled me to buy, and enjoy, more music. The most I’ve ever paid for an album is £36, for the 4CD box set of Zaireeka.
In terms of the wider mythology and affection which surrounds vinyl, the stories people tell about it beyond, y’know, actually listening to it, well; all the things people enthuse about having done with LPs – read the lyrics while listening, studied the artwork, pored over the production credits, even skinned up a joint or chopped out a line on them – people have also done with CDs. These experiences are every bit as valid and meaningful and powerful as their wax analogues, and dismissing them – whether deliberately or as a side-effect of the display of your own preferences – is unpleasant and unnecessary.
Because the discourse which so often surrounds vinyl can often and easily be alienating and elitist and gatekeeperish. Vinyl fans will dismiss CDs as soulless, but the 12” LP evolved directly as a capitalist tool of record companies to increase profits by coercing music fans into paying money for songs they may not necessarily want.
Chris Molanphy gave a presentation at the 2011 EMP conference about the history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and how it, well, charted the (US) music industry’s tempestuous relationship with the single and the tactics it’s used to make us buy albums (and the way it’s marginalized black and female performers by ghettoizing the genres they often work in as ‘singles’ genres, thus keeping big album profits by and large for white men). I wasn’t at the conference but yesterday Chris kindly sent me a PDF of his slides and notes; it’s fascinating reading. I’ve asked him to put it online permanently for posterity, and if he does, I’ll link it.
My conclusion from Chris’ work is that much of rock mythology is a lie, concocted, like most lies since the industrial revolution (and probably since the dawn of human history), in order to make people part with something in order to benefit the liar. The music industry wants us to worship the LP rather than the single in order to draw more money out of us, and the esteem within which vinyl is held is a part of this mythology. The side effect of this, of course, is a whole heap of wonderful albums that we love, but the application of even the slightest bit of Marxist cultural theory should make us question the ontology of the music that we love; the means of production influences the means of consumption, and vice versa. It’s partly this questioning that makes me favour the CD as my musical carrier of choice. The CD just fits best, for me, right now. And has done for 20 years.
(I got my first CD player 20 years ago this May, for the record; for my 14th birthday.)
The CD has its issues as well, of course – it’s encouraged hideous mastering practices, and made incalculable profits for a greedy industry in the 90s, the fallout of which is being felt now. (Interestingly CD sales, and thus profits, start falling at about the time CD mastering starts going off-the-scale into idiocy, which is also when downloading begins to get a foothold; there’s a PhD’s worth of research and pontification here.)
I asked people on twitter, unrelatedly, just before the program started last night, to tell me one thing that made them love a particular song; I got a dozen and more responses, and none of them mentioned the format it was on. Lyrics, melodies, sounds, specific bits of arrangements, emotions; all mentioned. But no one mentioned vinyl, or CD, or MP3, or Ogg Vorbis or wax cylinder or 8-track or cassingle or anything else. It was the music they were bothered about, not the delivery system.
So I think what irritated me most about last night’s show, and the vinyl revival in general, is the idea and myth of rock music, this hoary, old, patriarchal dog that refuses to die. Vinyl, in its totemic form, is a symbol of that. The people programming the media now – the executives and controllers and senior presenters – are in their 50s and 60s; vinyl is their format, rock is their era, and they wont let us forget about it. But their experiences are not everyone else’s. They’re certainly not mine. If rock was ever about change and energy and youth and the future, it needs to get over its past.
So, essentially, I’m irritated by the vinyl revival, if we’re calling it that, because I often feel like my experience as a music fan is being written off as invalid because it wasn’t mediated with vinyl. I resent being made to feel as if I don’t like music as much as someone else because I was born at a time when the ‘wrong’ format was in vogue. The format itself is fine, and beautiful, and can sound wonderful, and if you prefer it as your carrier for music, all power to your elbow. But don’t diminish my experiences to do so.
Purely by chance, Sony have announced that they’ll cease production of their final minidisc player in March, news of which lead me to this old ILM thread from 2003 pitching minidisc against MP3 (minidisc seems to come out best!), wherein Jonesey drops some science about why CDs actually are better than vinyl on a technical level, busting myths about sampling-rates and so on.