Gary Raymond looks at the corporate ownership of vinyl’s “fashionable” status, and how the mainstream media need to find a new, inclusive, way of reporting on it.
The mainstream media is at a bit of loss when it comes to the industry of vinyl. Every year around this date, the tail end of news programmes will have a little insert report on how vinyl is getting along – are sales up? Are they down? Let’s put up a little flow chart – as usual an economic report masquerading as arts and culture. This week one of the Gompertzes (probably) has been along with a BBC crew to talk to Mike Joyce, former Smith’s drummer and ‘vinyl collector’. He has an impressive old jukebox and they gaze into the neon-trimmed oblong window and watch the mechanical arm, fairground-like, lift records on and off the turntable. Rather like watching a fish DJ. Last year I think they did the same thing with Richard Hawley. Another vinyl-friendly white middle-aged face with uber music kudos to add a bit of flesh and blood to all those pie charts and platitudes.
Vinyl sales are on the up.
Vinyl is coming back into fashion. It is that second cliché that bites. Coming back into fashion. There was a time when fashion was something created on the street and filtered upwards, or at least was snatched from the street by some innovative designer and handed back down again. But music fashion, until the 1980s, was largely an organic thing. Artists innovated and fashion came next. We just lost Bowie, if you want a perfect example. Vinyl albums were never a fashion, they were the most complete way to experience a record, to own an artistic idea put out by an artist or band, something that included music, sleeve art, notes, and maybe a physical gimmick or two – posters, photos, sandpaper. You had all these things (some of them) with cassettes, with 8-tracks, and with CDs, but the size and semi-interactive nature of a vinyl LP meant that not only was all the artwork experienced at its optimum, but a mythology began to sprout up around vinyl impossible with other formats (ever tried to listen to a message from Satan by spinning a compact disc backwards? – it’s easy actually; just play a Phil Collins CD forwards!) So, vinyl was never a fashion.
What the media mean when they say that vinyl is coming back into fashion, is that, like all fashion nowadays, the corporate world has decided to label with their own definition of kudos something that was already a commercial entity. This “fashion” is just part of the marketing strategy. And the mainstream media, by frequently running reports on it, not only play into the corporate agenda but they also sniff at those who, by insinuation, they feel have fallen for it. Because as we all know, fashion is a con, isn’t it? No self-respecting record collector would consider themselves being part of “a fashion”. (Which is what will eventually happen next: buying vinyl will become part of counter-fashion).
The truth is that being a collector of vinyl – by which I mean a connoisseur, a vinyl fetishist, not just a buyer (which is what I am) – is a club of competitive comradeship, of longterm myopia that for some can border on obsessiveness (I’m no fetishist, but even I did spend several years in the pre-Ebay days “keeping an eye out” for Another Music from a Different Kitchen by Buzzcocks, and whenever I was near a record shop I had not previously encountered, my ears would prick up and my visor came down). Fashion doesn’t come into it. Being a record collector is a club, a club in which a person can illustrate themselves, colour themselves with politics, sex, coolness, a club where owning What’s Going On, The Feeding of the 5000 and Born to Die is a statement of character. But in here is also the fact that anybody who has ever been a music fan and a teenager at the same time has bought a record they did not like in order to give an impression – to friends at school, to members of the opposite sex, to strangers in the street. Everyone has records in their collection for which ownership speaks louder than any love for the music. And anyone denying that undoubtedly has more of those albums in their collection than the average person.
And from here we get to the only non-rehashed element of the recent mainstream media filler bits about vinyl. Apparently the youth of today are sacrilegiously buying vinyl but not evening listening to it, buying it as a fashion accessory. One of the Gompertzes (probably) asks a non-white non-middle-aged man in a record shop what he does with the records he buys. The kid, so the voice over goes, most certainly “does judge an album by its cover.” Spot the excruciating condescension in the tone. This is the spot where, without any sense of irony, the report falls clearly in sympathy with the white middle-aged guy who waxes lyrical that the superiority of vinyl to any other music delivery device lies in the fact it is a fully-rounded, fully-considered piece of artwork, and then scoffs at the kid who buys this artwork just to hang on his wall. Add to this the peculiar attitude that we, the viewer, the news consumer, is supposed to be concerned about what a young man does with a product of which he has just procured ownership. We are supposed to judge him because he does what he wants with the thing he buys with the money he earns? So kids are buying records because the covers are cool. Kids are buying records because they want to project an aspect of their character that might not be true after all. Sounds like every teenager who ever bought more than one album to me.
The recent Danny Baker white-middle-aged-man-athon on BBC Four (I jape – there were a few women on the show) about the history of the LP, wheeled out the platitudes week on week, to the point where I honestly couldn’t tell if I was watching repeats of the same show. What is record collecting if not tuning in to find out what the first album Jeremy Clarkson bought was? And then chortling as four white middle-aged men sit in a circle and sneer at the fact kids downloading and streaming and hanging Sam Cooke sleeves on their walls just don’t get it anymore. We had it best. It is our music. And we have the format to prove it.
Vinyl is about snobbery. That has never gone out of fashion.