The Vinyl Archive

There’s a well known arti­cle by the pho­tog­ra­pher and critic Allan Sekula which points out that from the begin­nings, photographs posed a prob­lem of archiv­ing. You’d go on vaca­tion, take some pic­tures, send them off to be devel­oped, and they’d come back in an enve­lope, or as slides. Then what? For most peo­ple, it was “put them in a shoe­box and put the shoebox under the bed/in a closet/in the attic.”

The pho­tos were an orga­ni­za­tional bur­den. What was the sub­ject? Was it “Yosemite vaca­tion, 1981?” or was it “Timmy, age 8?” Was this a pic­ture of El Cap­i­tan, or of the vaca­tion, or of mom and dad?  Lots of par­ents would set up an album for each kid. But then what do you do with a pic­ture that has Timmy and Susie in it? You need a dupli­cate, or if it’s Timmy and Susie at Yosemite, triplicate.

Sekula points out that pho­tographs were instantly use­ful to polit­i­cal authority–as a record of events, as a way to track identity, as a way to observe racial and eugeni­cal dif­fer­ences in immi­grant pop­u­la­tions. There they posed the same kind of prob­lems, on a mag­ni­fied scale–is this a forger, or an Ital­ian, or an exam­ple of atavis­tic phys­iog­nomy? How do we file this?

This was always an issue with records. They were heavy and bulky and vis­i­ble in your room: they made a record not just of a musi­cal per­for­mance, but a record of your per­sonal taste, an archive. You had to think about how to orga­nize them. Alphabet­i­cal order, sure, but really, do the Bea­t­les really belong between Bach and Art Blakey? It made more sense to organize records by genre: this is rock, this is folk, this is jazz, this is folk rock, this is fusion, this is gospel, this is contempo­rary gospel, this is tra­di­tional gospel, uh oh a con­tem­po­rary gospel artist just released a tra­di­tional gospel album.… Even­tu­ally, you’d run into the prob­lem of the bound­ary trans­gress­ing ani­mal, a record that was both or nei­ther, and really, you’d need two of that one.*

You could just shove them on a shelf in any order, and of course peo­ple did, but the vinyl archive was deeply per­sonal, a record of taste and expe­ri­ence. Barry Levin­son summed it up poignantly in this scene from Diner, in which a young mar­ried cou­ple is not hav­ing much luck fig­ur­ing out how to live with each other.

This is a moment enabled by gen­der pol­i­tics and the spe­cific form of vinyl. He’s deeply obsessed with records and their “meta­data” and she could not care less. Appro­pri­ately, the com­ments on the scene on YouTube include this:

What’s really funny about this scene is the cam­era focuses on the label of the record play­ing– a turquoise Capi­tol label that would accom­pany a Gene Vin­cent or Ten­nessee Ernie Ford Capi­tol label LP. But what is play­ing? “Hav­ing Fun” by Mem­phis Slim, recorded for Chess Records, which would have been on a black label with sil­ver lettering

Indeed.

Records always posed this prob­lem of archiv­ing and cat­e­gory mak­ing. If you had more than a dozen, they com­pelled you to come up with some kind of orga­ni­za­tional scheme, and as Levin­son points out, those orga­ni­za­tional schemes could be deeply impor­tant. Vis­it­ing someone’s house and perus­ing their record col­lec­tion told you all sorts of things about them–not just that they pre­ferred disco to clas­si­cal, or pre­ferred the obscure and the odd to the pop­u­lar, but that they had imposed a struc­ture of mean­ing on the music.

I’d be inclined to argue that the form of the record itself com­pelled this kind of orga­ni­za­tional obses­sive­ness. It’s phys­i­cal shape and size mat­tered. The care­fully cho­sen cover art, twelve inches square, rein­forced this. It the record against var­i­ous cul­tural per­sonae: earnest folkie, groovy swinger; honky tonker; jazzbo.

Jazz lovers will eas­ily recall the cover of Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess: styl­ish, racially trans­gres­sive, ambigu­ous, hip, sophisticated.

porgy

You couldn’t put this next to a coun­try and west­ern record, or an R&B record, or some folk music.

Records were care­fully cho­sen by their own­ers; they were com­modi­ties that marked out the bounds of the buyer’s self. The vinyl record needed to be ordered and clas­si­fied and stored: needed to you to place it, both phys­i­cally and men­tally, and that place­ment was a per­sonal statement.

Here’s a youtube clip of a per­son explain­ing his record col­lec­tion–because other record col­lec­tors had asked him to:

This looks pretty obvi­ously like gen­dered behav­ior; where women might occa­sion­ally pull the fam­ily snap­shots out from under the bed and orga­nize them into mean­ing­ful photo albums, this kind of obses­sive record-organizing seems to be mostly a guy thing.

But the photo album and the obses­sive record-categorizing stem from the same impulse, the desire to make con­sump­tion more mean­ing­ful. When you take com­modi­ties and re-organize them, re-purpose them, you’re try­ing to give them mean­ing. Maybe you’re sim­ply rein­forc­ing the mean­ing assigned by who­ever is sell­ing the com­mod­ity, and insist­ing that Ray Charles is a R&B singer, regard­less of what he thinks, or jazz must be thought of in the way thePorgy and Bess cover demands. Or maybe you orga­nized the records because you liked draw­ing up aes­thetic tax­onomies and chains of “influence.”

But the act of orga­niz­ing is an act of think­ing about what the com­modi­ties mean and how they should be under­stood. Vinyl buy­ers wanted to impose tax­onomies on their records, or rein­force exist­ing cat­e­gories, and they’d use the phys­i­cal objects to map out the dif­fer­ences between indi­vid­ual per­form­ers and dif­fer­ent kinds of music.

At the same time, record-organizing looks like what Max Weber described as the ratio­nal­iza­tion of life. Weber argued the late nine­teenth cen­tury. Mod­ern meth­ods of infor­ma­tion stor­age and retrieval that makes pos­si­ble larger sys­tems of manage­ment. If you go to the Build­ing Museum in DC, you can see how some­one tried to man­age mil­lions of pen­sion records before the inven­tion of the ver­ti­cal fil­ing cab­i­net. It’s a not quite mod­ern building.

In his essay on pho­tog­ra­phy Sekula points out how pho­tographs served the state’s need to orga­nize and clas­sify its citizens–police records, pass­port pho­tos, pub­lic health pro­grams with a eugeni­cal bent. File cab­i­nets full of pho­tographs were both a tool of the state and an orga­ni­za­tional dilemna.

We can see traces of the state all over that Miles Davis album cover: the woman flir­ta­tiously touch­ing his trum­pet speaks to role assigned to women as muse, not cre­ator. Her racially ambigu­ous char­ac­ter speaks to the cul­ture of seg­re­ga­tion. The music itself was enmeshed in cul­tural pol­i­tics, a jazz ver­sion of an opera based on south­ern African Amer­i­can folk themes by George Gersh­win, the New York-born son of Jew­ish immi­grants. Choos­ing that record, and plac­ing it in the jazz category, both rein­forced the com­mer­cial mean­ing of jazz and placed the buyer in some degree of oppo­si­tion to pre­vail­ing racial norms and cat­e­gories the state acted to reinforce.

But dig­i­tal media just com­pletely elim­i­nates these problems/complications//pleasures. A sin­gle dig­i­tal file takes up no phys­i­cal space: it doesn’t need to be displayed–in fact really can’t be dis­played, if it’s not on a cd–and doesn’t invite perusal. You can tag an mp3 file as what­ever you want, as mul­ti­ple gen­res, because it doesn’t have to occupy phys­i­cal space; it can be simul­ta­ne­ously country/jazz/rock. There’s no need to cat­e­go­rize it in a fixed way, because it doesn’t have much of phys­i­cal exis­tence. The whole tire­some oblig­a­tion of the archive is dis­cour­aged or elim­i­nated, and so to the con­scious nego­ti­a­tion with the state’s needs and demands. It’s been auto­mated. Instead of actively work­ing to clas­sify the object, the mp3 can come to the lis­tener as part of an algo­rith­mic  matrix of per­sonal pref­er­ence, mapped by Pan­dora or Amazon.

One com­par­i­son might be to time and time­keep­ers. When stan­dard­ized time didn’t exist, peo­ple needed pub­lic clocks to track time, being on time, track­ing the time, was a con­scious effort and a rela­tion­ship with a phys­i­cal object, the watch. Today thor­oughly stan­dard­ized time is every­where, and auto­mated. Watches are now like vinyl records; unnec­es­sary, nostal­gic hip­ster sta­tus objects.

This may be one rea­son why music sales have declined. The record imposed or enabled the “value added” of mak­ing categories. The cat­e­gories were deeply mean­ing­ful both per­son­ally and polit­i­cally, as Barry Levin­son pointed out so well. They spoke to who you were in rela­tion to the real­i­ties pol­i­tics imposed. The mp3 more or less makes that process point­less, and it makes the stakes much lower.

 

*I feel like I need to pro­claim that I don’t own any records and don’t have a turntable and don’t want one. If they sound better I don’t care. While I loved the record cov­ers, stor­ing and main­tain­ing record albums was a pain in the neck. And I don’t want to tan­gle with genre for­ma­tion. This isn’t a nos­tal­gic post, just an effort to fig­ure out what the dif­fer­ence in differ­ent tech­nolo­gies means.

 

This piece is cross-posted from The Aporetic with permission from the author.

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2 Comments to The Vinyl Archive

  1. John H says:

    “Vinyl buy­ers wanted to impose tax­onomies on their records, or rein­force exist­ing cat­e­gories, and they’d use the phys­i­cal objects to map out the dif­fer­ences between indi­vid­ual per­form­ers and dif­fer­ent kinds of music.”

    This has changed radically over the years, and most modern collectors I know are much less concerned about categorisation than their predecessors. For many younger collectors the very converse of your argument is true – vinyl is now a way to escape the rigid categorisation that the digital world imposes on us. Vinyl is the format for storing Miles Davis next to a coun­try and west­ern record, or an R&B record, or some folk music. The generation of collector that you’re referring to are often deemed to be of the type described in the documentary “Vinyl” – that is to say, vinyl-collecting as a manifestation of mental illness. They are no longer the sole representatives of the format, rather a warning sign to the young collector to discourage him or her from the sorts of behaviours that you have tried to argue are inherent with the format. They’re not – after 30 years of collecting I’ve got a slimmer collection now than ever before, and it doesn’t require sorting because I only buy my favourite albums on vinyl.

    I think you’ve radically misunderstood why vinyl persists and increases in sales year on year, and you’ve done this by mischaracterisation of the market and the objects in question. In your hurry to generalise you’ve missed how much derivation and noise is apparent in the marketplace. Your description fails to account for the Soulie’s box of 50 45’s, tucked in the corner out of view and worth thousands; a beat diggers obsession with Christian funk or a young kid that is tired of nothing but a sea of “free” MP3’s as a musical inheritance, devoid of identity, value and information (record sleeve usually contain far more information than MP3 tags do!). Some people just want to stick on a long player and indulge themselves in a listening experience free from Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, etc. There are many factors driving the slow vinyl revival that you haven’t accounted for and don’t understand, judging by your use of the phrase “unnec­es­sary, nostal­gic hip­ster sta­tus objects”. As such you’ve managed to come up with 2 straw men – an autistic-spectrum/OCD collector that couldn’t put Miles next to Country, and “hipsters” (I don’t really understand this term, it’s not broadly used here in the UK).

    Vinyl is a way to meet people that are deeply interested in music, a talking point with friends; tactile, enduring and a chance to engage with music with little recourse to logic or digital technology. It’s more human, in as much as it’s a series of non-linearities with such peculiar interactions that no digital system has successfully reproduced them all and passed ABX listening tests, even as a visual analogy (thanks to modern dynamics it’s far easier to see musical transitions on a vinyl record than on Soundcloud). Vinyl holds value in a way that the subsequent formats haven’t achieved. I bought all of my Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd vinyl albums for under £1 each ($1.70 USD) about 15 years ago – I’ve got no idea what they’re worth now but it’s clearly a lot more than what I paid for them. Similarly I bought 2 modern records by a small band last year for $4 each, they now sell for $80 a go. Every MP3 I have ever purchased is worth the same amount – nothing (and I’ve got a lot of them, their storage is more grief than any amount of vinyl – have you run a large NAS for several years?!).

    I think your article is a justification for the fact you’ve bought into a system that makes music cheaper to reproduce and categorise at the cost of the quality of the experience. That’s a personal choice and you’ve made your personal categorisation issues apparent, but we’re all very different people and we don’t all feel the need to stick things into boxes all the time!

  2. My Dad has a alltel phone that has a MIDI voice ringtone. Every ringtone i find is a MIDI with musical instruments in it. Is there a way i can make my own, including the vocals included in the song? I’d love feedback. Please And Thanks! =).

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