Book Review – “Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age” by Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward

I took a number of sociology classes in college (three of which were Deviance, Criminology, and Juvenile Delinquency, if that gives you any indication as to how my brain works…) and that discipline always fascinated me, mostly because it uses such broad strokes to attempt to describe society, cultures, and the factors that drive behavior.  My actual major was psychology, which surely contributed to both my interest in the “big picture” sociology tries to provide as well as giving me an understanding about how groups and individuals are both related and totally different at the same time.

I find articles and books written from a sociological perspective to be both interesting and challenging.  Interesting because it can be like herding cats, taking a broad swath of individual experiences and trying to fit them in to a box that more or less contains and explains them.  Challenging because it can be hard to grasp.  It’s easy to read a case study of a specific individual and use that to explain some aspect of their behavior, like the person who abuses alcohol or drugs in an attempt to dampen or escape some personal trauma or loss, or the collector/hoarder who surrounds themselves with physical objects as a way of providing a sense of stability and control in their lives.  But sociologists can’t rely on the individual, they need to look at lots of individuals and how they exist with this nebulous thing called “society” that is challenging to define and grasp, like trying to hold a big handful of dry sand.  You have to get out of the mindset of “yeah, but that isn’t always why people do X… I used to know this one guy who…”  Look, there are exceptions to everything.  Psychology concerns itself with the individual, and often the exceptions; sociology is trying to give us the view from above, looking at the group as a whole.  Micro versus macro.  Yin and yang.

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Which brings me to Vinyl:  The Analogue Record in the Digital Age, the new (Feb. 2015) book by sociologists (and record fans) Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward.  I figured this would be a challenging read, and it was.  Sociology uses its own language (has a sociologist ever done an overview of the subculture that is sociology?  That might cause a black hole to form.), and for the untrained (like me) that can make for some slow going as you try to wrap your mind around what they’re saying.  But if you’re willing to put in some effort, there is some interesting stuff here.

Bartmanski and Woodward aren’t focused on specific subcultures per se in Vinyl – this isn’t book specifically about record collectors or the fetishization of objects, though both are undercurrents within the narrative.  Instead they’re more concerned with the relatively recent re-birth of vinyl, a medium that was at least two generations obsolete but is making a strong come-back, and what that tells us about ourselves.  The DJ and techno scene, particularly as it exists in Berlin, serves as a backdrop of sorts, though the authors do range around a bit, particularly in discussing the vinyl culture in Japan, including visits to some of the very same Disk Union stores I visited in Tokyo last year – the same time as their visits.  Could I have been standing next to one of them while flipping through vinyl in Shibuya?  Maybe.  And certainly telling, given that the social aspect of the record store is one of the topics they touch upon.

I find myself thinking about my relationship to vinyl more often than I probably should.  Why did I decide to get back into this medium after having sold off my record collection two decades ago?  Why not stick with CDs, or even more logically go full technology and learn to love the mp3?  CDs and mp3s are more practical from a space standpoint, and digital downloads are certainly faster – you get delivery of the music you want immediately.  Hell, why not pay to subscribe to a streaming service and just toss all the physical media? That would be way cheaper.  I have friends who have pursued all these routes – Chris still owns every single CD he ever bought; Tristen went down the mp3 road; and Ken is all about Spotify.  I can’t argue against any of these well-reasoned and logical decisions.  So why the hell did I want to get back into a format that was so overtaken by technology that it was almost dead?  Cassettes certainly hurt vinyl.  While no one in their right mind would ever say that a cassette sounded better than a record, they had the huge advantage of being portable so you could play them in your car or Walkman, and prior to the rise of the CD I probably split my music purchases as 60% tape and 40% vinyl.  The CD obliterated the cassette completely and totally (though it is making a minor comeback of sorts), with the exception of using blank tapes to record CDs, and just about ran vinyl out of town.  And then the mp3 came in and stomped all over everyone, leaving CDs hanging on for dear life and vinyl covered in dust.

But vinyl came back.

The authors bring it all full circle in the 12-page Epilogue that closes out the 177 page book (177 pages of text, 204 total ages if you include citations/biblio/index), and if you’re willing to take it on faith that they did their due diligence and research (trust me, they did), this is where to go if you’re a non-sociology minded reader.

We feel confronted on a daily basis with too much too fast.  Inflation of files, updates, apps and incessant flow of evanescent images may desensitize rather than inspire if left uncontrolled on our omnipresent screens.  (p. 165)

We all have so much coming at us so fast today, often we can’t give more than a cursory glance to any of it.  Emails go unread.  Facebook updates by friends and family quickly scrolled through.  Tweets from people we “follow” but in many ways still ignore.  It’s too much a lot of the time.

We can become desensitized to music as well.  Consider the process of acquiring music.  It used to be you had to actually go somewhere, a store, to make your purchase.  You had to make an effort to go there and undertake a physical exchange – you handed over either cash or a credit card and got back a physical object.  Today your credit card info can be saved on iTunes.  Want to hear “Knockin’ At Your Back Door” by Deep Purple (“Sweet Lucy was a dancer, but none of us would chance her, because she was a samurai…” so good!)?  Walk over to your computer and for 99 cents you’ll have it on your hard drive in about 30 seconds.  But yet it doesn’t feel like you bought something.  You never noticed the transaction (handing over your credit card), and you just have a row of information on your screen in your iTunes library to show for it.  For those of us who came of age before the digital era, that’s disconcerting.  And the value proposition has changed – there’s no longer a tangible object that might hold onto at least a fraction of its economic value.  It’s ones and zeros.

The authors credit much of vinyl’s survival as a medium to the DJ and dance scene, and there is certainly some truth to this, one suspects particularly in Berlin where so much of their research was based.  But that was survival.  It’s resurgence is more tied to the issues identified before.  Vinyl is a way of slowing down the pace of technology, both in terms of change and the pure volume of stuff coming at us.

It is about reintroducing elements of the ‘sacred’ moments and objects to one’s mundane routines… We have tried to show how vinyl’s many affordances may make our engagement with music more focused and culturally ‘sustainable’, and thus more meaningful.  (p. 166)

Vinyl makes you work for it.  It’s not easy to skip around from track to track, which in the case of the LP makes you more likely to listen to entire sides of music.  Plus there is the physical aspect of taking the record out of the sleeve, putting it on the turntable, dropping the tonearm… and if you listen to singles, you’re doing that every three minutes or so.  Even when the side is done, unlike a CD that you’ll just leave in the player until you get around to ejecting it, perhaps days later, the record keeps spinning – you have to make a point of lifting that tonearm off and stopping the motion.

Bartmanski and Woodward don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on record collecting, though it is a thread that weaves its way throughout their study, both in the behaviors and motivations of the collectors as well as how labels choose what to release and in what quantities to create demand.  In the Epilogue they address the fetishistic aspects of vinyl, whether these be the pure collectibility of the object or as it relates to the retro aspect of the record and, perhaps even more importantly, how it is utilized, be that in a club setting or at home as a way to slow down and more deeply connect with the music.  A sociological overview of record collecting itself could easily fill another book, though frankly would be much less interesting.

When I spent an afternoon with musician and music historian Dr. Gunni in Reykjavik back in 2013, we’d both just finished reading Simon Reynolds’ 2011 book Retromania:  Pop Culture’s Addiction to It’s Own Past.  Ironically that book got me even more excited about vinyl… just as it convinced Gunni that it was time to get rid of most of his records (which luckily for me gave me the chance to pick up some tough-to-find Icelandic punk classics!). I’m still not sure which of us made the right decision, though logically I realize there is no right or wrong here.  I’ve certainly spent not insignificant amounts of money on vinyl and have put a lot of my free time into it (like this blog…), and our free time truly is the most valuable “commodity” of all.  But I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it and met more than a few people who are now friends.  Yin and yang.

Let me leave it to the authors to have the last word today.

Behind vinyl there is a kind of love.  On its surface, we find beats and signs of culture as it affords and shapes one of the most beautiful things there is – musical experience.  (p. 177)

Oh, and in case you’re interested in what I was listening to while I was writing this, it was Arabian Horse by Gusgus.  On my iPod…. 🙂

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