Bartmanski,, Dominik and Ian Woodward. “Vinyl: The Analogue Medium in the Age of Digital Reproduction.” Journal of Consumer Culture 0(0), 1-24.
Recent discussions of music listening practices have given priority to the digitalisation of sound and the role of digital music players in changing the form, medium and possibly even the content of listening. While such an emphasis is warranted given the rapid uptake of digital music consumption, it is also the case that vinyl records are currently the fastest growing area of music sales. Moreover, within particular music listening circles, the vinyl record is approached as an auratic object. In this paper, we explore the vinyl’s persistence on the market and its rekindled cultural prominence. Using the frameworks of cultural sociology, combined with insights from material culture studies and cultural approaches to consumption within business studies and sociology, we explore the reasons why vinyl records have once again become highly valued objects of cultural consumption. Resisting explanations which focus solely on matters of nostalgia or fetish, we look to the concepts of iconicity, ritual, aura and the sensibility of coolness to explain the paradoxical resurgence of vinyl at the time of the digital revolution.
- The authors note that the resurgence of vinyl is a result of not only its rich history but a “relational construction” of the meaning of terms such as “old,” “obsolete,” “information” and “musical experience” (4).
- To understand the resurgence of vinyl records, the authors argue that both synchronic and diachronic analyses are necessary. For the synchronic, the authors recommend an investigation into the “cultural construction of the medium.” For the diachronic, they trace a “understanding of the social meanings” of vinyl.
- The authors note that despite the digitilization craze that characterizes new modes of music production and distribution, desire for material objects and physical experiences has not necessarily decreased. This seems rather commonsense; however, to date, there’s been almost no work offering a “systematic account of what is the cultural logic” of this change. To do this work, the authors, “use analytical resources of cultural sociology, including concepts of iconicity, narrative, and materiality, and the frameworks of material culture studies and interpretive consumer studies, to unravel and categorise the meanings behind vinyl’s enduring and still growing appeal” (5). METHOD.
- KEY CLAIM: To combat the commodity fetishism that typically characterizes discussions of resurgent technological mediums, the authors argue that they propose focusing on vinyl as “aura-laden objects connected to constellations of other non-human entities that facilitate a series of emotionally charged rituals and experiences on which various communities thrive” (5). To make this claim, the authors rely on Durkheim’s explorations into collective feelings and communal consecration: for Durkheim, collective feelings keep communities together because communities “become conscious of themselves only by settling upon external objects.”
- To understand the cultural construction of vinyl as object the authors pay close attention to two aspects of vinyl’s cultural biography: 1) the material form and aesthetic experience of the vinyl format; and 2) the specific experiences that 45s and 12″ singles provide for cultural practices of specific taste communities and urban scenes from the past that imbue “coolness” and “archaeological cultural value” (6).
- The authors highlight the role of the LP in structuring the listening experience, emphasizing the aesthetic value of the flip in relation to song sequencing. They also emphasize the materiality of vinyl, discussing in detail the large-format photography, liner notes, and weight of the object (heavy pressings). They’re also cultural objects in their value of small-pressings and audiophilia.
- “Crate digging” as “serendipitous urban archaeology” (9). This describes the material experience of finding vinyl in second-hand shops compared to the standardized purchasing experience of digital music over the internet.
- The authors highlight that vinyl’s material properties meant two things for the club scene: 1) Vinyl’s materiality allowed DJs to manipulate the medium visually/manually and allowed for fairly quick uptake of simple tech skills needed to get into DJing; 2) The high-fidelity nature of vinyl recordings allowed DJs to have a super high-quality archive of cultural contributions from times past. Taken together this allowed DJs to become prosumers or productive consumers and reusers of cultural content (10).
- Special attention is given to DJ Shadow and Amon Tobin for their work in bricolage as early DJ-vinyl nexus. This is in the section on the nature of the vinyl single as structuring material medium/object for production of particular kinds of culture( 13).
- The authors reject traditional sociological accounts of the commodity as “material container of economically-driven processes of alienation, exploitation, and disenchantment, or a status-based, aesthetic symbol of exclusivity and cultural superiority” instead, theorizing vinyl-as-commodity as material containers of social meanings . . . . “objects that have social trajectories whereby their meanings for different groups of consumers change over time and space” (15). So, the authors are arguing that objects themselves aren’t simply containers of ideology but actually are things-in-themselves. Materialist argument, for sure.
- A nice summation on the move away from objects as merely commodities to objects as something more than commodity traditionally defined:
- The authors rely on Ricoeur’s theory of text (layers of meanings accrue to texts over time, creating semiotic spirals that exceed the ostensible functions of an object and create iconic signifiers) to describe the special significance that records occupy for particular cultural communities (16).
- The authors revise Benjamin’s notion of “aura” to explain how objects like vinyl become iconic signifiers. They revise Benjamin by replacing “uniqueness” with “relative rarity” and rearticulate aura as “relational and multidimensional” rather than merely “intrinsic” (17).
- The authors also note that vinyl’s putative ability to offer sound that is more intimate, warmer, more authentic, and more charismatic (17) are qualities that differentiates it as an object, making the listening experience a ritual of a sort.
- The LP format is largely responsible for the development of different kinds of records – notably “concept records” and other designed-for-LP productions like Kind of Blue.
- SWEET QUOTE: “The vinyl record is a powerful cultural object because of its semiotic mutability; its ability to materialize a flexible range of meanings for its various audiences, with each pointing to a basic culture structure which is anchored by notions of heritage, authenticity, and coolness. . . . . [it is important and resurgent because it] concretizes and points to various meaningful, powerful historical and cultural representations and narratives, and because it offers particular materiality afforded qualities of engagement” (20).
- There’s a section in this piece where the authors discuss, the unique “cultural vehicles for genre classification” that exist in second hand record shops. Occasionally, these venues rely on label and style related ordering instead of the conventional alphabetic organization typical of almost all digital music buying experiences. I wonder if there are some interesting analogs between these “post-categorical” classification schemes and the kinds of folksonomic categorization schemes found in digital piracy archives or any participatory archives on the web. Something to look into/explore in more depth for sure. (Pg. 10).
- Some great discussion of the transformation of commodity from container to real object on 15-16. I like this move away from discourse and ideology toward value of objects themselves.