Monday, January 01, 2018

The case for and against vinyl in 2018

Less is more

We live in an era of abundance*. Choice, choice and if that’s not enough choice, yet more choice. Within a couple of clicks from your smart phone’s home screen there is more music than you can listen to in your lifetime, or even in a thousand lifetimes. If that’s the case where the hell do you start? After all we mostly don’t want to listen to random music we don’t know or like we want to listen to the right music that makes us feel amazing, very often more than once.

Vinyl solves this. Build a curated, high quality record collection and it will keep giving. Every time you flick through the shelves, the (great) records there remind you of their existence. “Oh I’d forgot about that sick b-side!”

The empty search box in the Spotify app won’t ever do that for you or will that MP3 buried in a sub sub folder on your cloud backup. These records entice you to return to them again and again, guiding you to know them better and deeper, like a great piece of art that keeps on giving. If you’ve already shuffled onto the next track, you won’t hear those new depths and layers.


Then there’s the relationship with the physical. We like physical objects, to have & to hold. We build an emotional bond with that LP or rare 12” that isn’t just about how it sounds, but how it looks, weights and feels too, down to the bent corners and ruffled inner sleeve.

Ask anyone who’s cut dubs about how they smell, they’re amazing. So yes, that record you just pulled out: that’s your copy, not a YouTube upload you have conditional licensed access to share with 24.7m other viewers, but your copy. It’s a pleasure you can give to others too as a gift. If you go off it, you could even sell it and recoup your investment.

Revocable? No thanks.

There’s one line there that needs teasing out: “that’s your copy.” In their billions, people of modern society have chosen frictionless convenience over almost any other decision pathway. In music, listeners around the globe have flocked to streaming apps Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Baidu Music, Xiami or QQ Music via their smartphones. But it’s not just a change of listening habits, it’s also a change of legal relationship: when you buy a physical copy of a record (or indeed tape or CD) it’s yours in perpetuity - you will always have access to it, legally speaking. When you join Spotify, you have no legal right to hear any given song. Sure, market forces dictate that one provider will probably have the rights to your favourite song, but not necessarily. Ever noticed how hard it was to find Prince songs on YouTube before his death?

This is the relationship you have with music on Spotify, via their End User Agreement:

"We grant you a limited, non-exclusive, revocable licence to make use of the Spotify Service, and a limited, non-exclusive, revocable licence to make personal, non-commercial, entertainment use of the Content (the “Licence”). This Licence shall remain in effect until and unless terminated by you or Spotify."

The key word there is “revocable”. And quite possibly “limited” too.

So if your music listening experience is defacto tied to, say, Spotify, because it now has your payment details, preferences and historical listening data, and your favourite artist decides they don’t want to be on Spotify, then you can’t listen to their music anymore. Think this is a niche, unlikely scenario? This is exactly what happened to tens of millions of Taylor Swift fans for three years.  With a paid Spotify account, you don’t own the rights to access the particular track you like, just the service as a whole. But buy the record and “that’s your copy” forever.

For time immemorial

The history of music is written in vinyl. Late last year I interviewed Richard Russell, the founder of XL Records, for two enchanting hours at his studio in West London. In the kitchen/reception area, there was a wall of vinyl at least 4m high and 3m wide, if not more. Right there was a small slice of the history of music, recorded in vinyl.

We were there for his project “Everything is Recorded” and there were some moments where he touched on his own mortality, or at least, he’d had moments of severe illness where he reflected on it. At this point, I asked him, pointing at the huge wall of vinyl, how many of the artists who wrote those albums he thought were still alive. Not many if any at all, came the reply, and there’s the point: here we are looking at their work, celebrating it long after they were gone. It’s a permanent yet globally distributed memory of their lives - the creative, passionate parts of their lives. Yes this is a little morbid, but it’s the cold hard truth and lets be honest, deep down, no one wants to be forgotten.

Sound and struggle

There are a few other arguments for vinyl. The sound quality is one: while I do like the sound of vinyl, saying it sounds nice isn’t a new or original line of thought and in all honesty is entirely subjective. This covers it best:

“CDs reflect exactly what the artists recorded in the studio. Vinyl distorts it. Some listeners honestly feel that the defects vinyl introduces somehow make it more attractive or "warmer." But from any objective standpoint, there's no justification in calling the sound of vinyl records ‘better.’” Source.

DJing with vinyl is more exciting: for the DJ and the audience. For the audience, it’s a much more interesting visual feedback loop, seeing the DJ select, cue, nudge & crossfade a mix with a variety of hand and body gestures. Visual is perhaps an odd adjective to use in a discussion about audio but the emotional audience feedback loop of seeing the gestures match to the sounds is undeniable. See also: never trust a DJ who doesn’t dance.

For the DJ mixing with vinyl is exciting & deeply satisfying: even if you do get any given 16 bars in tempo matched and beat locked, there’s zero chance they will stay there indefinitely. And that’s the adrenalin wave you ride as a vinyl DJ, you literally emotionally ride each mix in a blend (sic) of fear and euphoria. Its live, it can go wrong and people will notice - turns out your mixer are connected to a massive amplifier plugged into sound system. And in that mix, that fleeing moment; you are truly alive. By contrast, when two CDJ tracks lock, it’s near numb: just doesn’t feel the same.

Perhaps the final case for vinyl is that it’s an outlier. If you read this blog, you probably understand the motives and passions around underground music. It’s supposed to be different. There is supposed to be a struggle - if it were easy and struggle free, it wouldn’t be underground culture. The struggle keeps out the jokers, part timers and those not fully committed.

Vinyl is forever Martin: recognise.

* Funnily enough I wrote a track about/called abundance this year, hear it there ^


The case against vinyl in 2018

What is the point of vinyl in 2018? To begin to answer that question, I’d ask another: “how do most people first listen to music in 2017?”

If you’re first getting into right now and you listen to music, I’d love to hear how. But if you’re generalising about people who are first getting into music in 2018 - regular, average music listeners, rather than passionate music fans who read music blogs - my hunch is the smartphone is the centre of most musical worlds, probably Android listening to YouTube and Spotify. They might also listen to music in many ways, but by volume most songs are heard like this. Again, I’m talking aggregates and averages here. Sure Spotify, radio, Insta/Snapchat clips, TV, Boiler Room, shares in FB feeds including FB live, Mixcloud, downloads, vinyl, tapes, even live are all possible - but on balance, not the main mass market way people now hear music I’d wager.

This is because, when it comes to life choices en masse, convenience wins over everything, or to re-frame it: in the event of one option having friction and the other being frictionless, most people choose the easy life. Want a friend to know how you feel: tap, tell them how you feel. Want a present to arrive tomorrow? Tap: buy on Amazon. Want to hear a tune? Tap: hear the tune. instant, now - in the moment.

“Hey Google/Siri/Alexa: play ‘Top Pop’”. It’s that. It’s that frictionless.

Is friction fun?

People who have lived through the before/after internet divide often chat about how much better it was when it was hard to find musical scenes, when there was friction to access and in my experience there definitely was friction. As an example, I remember thinking, when first walking into Metalheadz Sunday Sessions at Blue Note, that I’d finally peeled off all the layers to the underground. That there were no more hidden depths, this was the ground zero, this was where the dubs were cut and played. But it’d taken a long time to get there - walking to corner shops, reading music magazines, listening to radio, picking up on names of DJs, taping shows for track IDs, finding out what was coming out, finding it in HMV on a given day, going to more underground record shops, getting parred by the grumpy staff (“no, that’s not out yet… come back next week”), finding flyers, driving down to old street, back when Old Street was sketchy and barely had places to go out in - but I’d finally got there.

“Tap: hear the tune”, it wasn’t.

So while I think there is something in the emotional illusion that effort or friction can create (people have told me they prefer the Keysound Records we hand mail out over the ones in shops…) mostly none of us go for that. We choose the easy routes: “would you like great music or would you like great music that’s a real hassle to be involved with?” “umm…” Would all these record shops have closed down if this were not true?

So vinyl, for all it’s plus points, is friction. You can’t listen to it without expensive kit. You have to be near said kit to hear it e.g. not on the bus or the tube or in the car. You have to turn it over when it’s done. You have to… wait for it… pay for it! When buying it, you have to wait days for it to arrive to you or you have to go find one of the remaining physical stores. Not “tap: hear the tune” but “click: wait 3 days” or “get on bus, go to the shops.” If you buy enough of them, moving house is a pain in the arse. Good, loyal friends will refuse to help you move house again. And it’s finite: you can only listen to the records you own… it sounds silly saying it but think about it. On Spotify, there is more music in any genre name that you could listen to in your entire lifetime - there is always more. With physical records, that’s your lot - your time, wallet and cupboard space are limiting factors to your discover of that amazing new tune. So mostly, listeners don’t hear music by vinyl.

DJs went digital

And then there’s mixing with vinyl - which isn’t a even a mainstream pursuit. “DJing with vinyl” is probably an entire blog post in of itself, one that probably isn’t that interesting in 2018, but the tl;dr is that mixing with vinyl, even if you get past the whole “carrying heavy things to gigs” bit and the “take out of sleeve, find start of tune… put back in sleeve, find next record, oh fuck, what did the label say on it again?” bits, even past those bits mixing with vinyl is just harder. It takes longer to master and goes wrong more often. Yes, when it goes right, even moderately so, it’s more fun, but when it goes wrong - which it’s more likely to do - it’s way worse than CD DJing for the audience and the DJ. Yes you and I can name a vinyl DJ; no they aren’t the way most people DJ now.

If people tell you vinyl sales are "back," they are using a very short time scale - and often talking about classic rock represses. Source.

So there we are: listeners don’t buy or listen to vinyl in meaningful volumes; most DJs don’t DJ with it. People chat rubbish about vinyl but it’s a smokescreen: they don’t really get their wallets out anymore - with almost all recent Keysound releases the vinyl loses money and the digital makes up for it. And for those that there’s some for which it’s on par with coffee table books.

A publisher I met recently explained physical book sales are still strong because bookshelves are a reflection of your identity, so people buy more books than they read, just to have them on their shelves. Every music producer wants their first work pressed to vinyl because the history of vinyl is written it, and with that comes an illusion of credibility and status, but they are confusing their needs with their audiences’. They’re supplying something that there is dwindling demand for, even before Brexit hiked up the prices.

Vinyl is over Martin, get with the program.

Oh and while you're here!

My weightless LP "Those Moments:" is available on vinyl or digital:

For the record, I'd just like to add a shout here to all the staff at Cargo Distribution who continue to support Keysound's vinyl output. I hope this blog post/thought experiment is seen for what it is. Big up!


James said...

My 2 cents: I just don't think that it's cool anymore.

I think the thought of collecting things like records is seen as more anoraky now than it ever has. Having a big collection of vinyl was cool before the digital era when that meant that you were big into music, now a big collection of vinyl looks more like you are big into collecting obsolete media formats to show off.

In the twilight years for vinyl I think soundsystem culture and dance music culture meant that collecting records was still for young people and working class people but now after it has died and had its resurgence it seems like it's main purpose is servicing middle aged, middle class people's need for trad rock nostalgia.

When I was a teenager I couldn't imagine anything cooler than a huge record collection spanning genres and decades. Now that I have it, it seems incredibly dorky. Oh well, I still love vinyl, although I could be doing to get rid of some of it.

(The moving argument is the most convincing one, my vinyl collection has doubled since the last time I moved and the thought of moving again gives me anxiety.)

Pain Displacement said...

You still on that dancing DJs shit too? Been dealing with that for 15 years. Some sounds are subversive, not just some fuzzy 2step but straight up abrasive. Some sounds cater to basement goblins like me. We don't dance but we know our shit.

Also, it's not about then and now, because there was a time in between too. Sort of a post scarcity utopia even, fuck your time and fuck now, I had an era too.

In the early 00s all that pretentious label curation was a gesture of good will, it wasn't needed, it was a map but also an obstacle. We still had friction, we still had to socialize on Soulseek and ftp sites to get what we wanted, but we could have everything and we could dig deeper into impossible sounds and inaccessible scenes. That Blue Note shit is cool, I missed all that, but it's not the only way to make something interesting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time on this write-up. All good points.

For me it's pretty simple. If a label does not produce physical media they have conceded that their music is disposable and doesn't care that each song's unique pattern of 1s and 0s will likely get lost in the vast current of digital media. Is that fair to a "signed" artist? If vinyl sales are offered and are not good enough that should solicit questions about quality control, A&R, and the marketing process. The way I like to look at vinyl/CD is as an unforgiving quality control mechanism. There used to be a significant front end investment to release music. That helped weed out weaker labels and artists. While I applaud the way that digital has broken down the timeline between production and release, quality control standards have been flushed down the toilet.

And the music realm is completely self destructive right now. Unfiltered, it moves too fast due to the amount of this disposable material out there. Good music is frequently overlooked because it gets lost in a massive digital haystack. Part of the appeal of d&b was a pipeline for dubplates to be tested for quality before ever even being considered for release. Hearing something desirable but unattainable created a somewhat measurable level of demand.

Another issue is that electronic/dance music has been overspecialized into sub-sub-sub scenes of 10-15 people due to this odd need to compartmentalize and over-categorize. On the d&b side I feel like Metalheadz is the lone tent out there big and diverse enough to satisfy most fans without compromising its ethos. Hospital comes close in the size of their tent, but skews toward commercialism far too often. And I struggle to understand how they make money with each 30 song mega-compilation and many great songs get lost in a deluge of pedestrian shit on that label. Probably not the best example!

For me the most satisfying thing about the digital era is Bandcamp. It's a perfect tool to enable artists to become self-sufficient. The artist can dictate the price of his or her tunes. The artist can use the same portal to sell merchandise or physical media if desired. Buy a record, get a digital copy! Only sell physical if you want! The artist chooses the level of risk/exposure. Yes, some artists don't have the desire to self promote or want to piggyback off the reputation of a label. That is fine. I just love the fact that it's a perfect avenue for artists to use to empower themselves if desired. A label though should be putting out something tangible. If not, it is an affront to the artists and to the world of music.


One of the "case against" point could be the right-there-in-the-open fact that most vinyl LPs come with download codes, suggesting that in practice people listen digitally. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of vinyl albums that were played just once, and quite a few that were never actually removed from the shrink wrap.

I suspect a lot of the vinyl mania is driven by gestural reasons - liking having something conspicuous to display in their homes. Or there's a sort of deference to a time when (it's felt) music mattered more and that was bound up with the physical husk it came in. Or perhaps for older types it reminds them of a time when they were doing all hard work of chasing things down in record stores, the graft, the hunt, the thrill of finding something, so there's a sort of nod to an earlier self.