Digilog Culture and the Vinyl Revival of the Early 21st Century

Few mass produced consumer goods signify authenticity to today’s purchasers so richly as a vinyl record.  As the New York Times put ibarry1t, “It is so much a cliché of early 21st century hipster life that the locavore…in Lisa Cholodenko’s film ‘The Kids Are All Right’ is defined as much by his mania for music on plastic platters as for his passion for vegetables with a biography.” 1 In advertisements, TV shows, and movies, vinyl is used as a prop to signify that its owner is possessed of good taste, an independent spirit, respect for the realm of culture and the resources to truly appreciate it. “When I can have all the music in the world in the palm of my hand,” asks Matt Wishnow, co-founder of leading indie music dealer Insound, “what does it say about me that I spend $15 to $20 for this format that is a pain to store and move and is easily damaged?” 2 Not only does vinyl represent sonic purity and physical engagement, since the 1980s it has signified a creative domain of music independent from corporate hegemony and critical of the status quo.

To a beleaguered record industry, vinyl’s iconic potency means profit. Alone among music formats in 2013, the LP record witnessed an increase in sales, up 33% against an 8.4% decline in overall music sales and a 14.5% drop in CD sales. 3 The increase marked the seventh consecutive year of a trend that has combined to multiply LP unit volume by a factor of seven. Anecdotal reports from record stores and perusal of online marketplaces imply that the market for used vinyl may be equally robust. Though overall sales are still a drop in the bucket, profit margins are high.

Despite vinyl’s steampunk cool and the fervor of many analog devotees, the vinyl revival has its basis in a thoroughly hybridized world of analog and digital sound, which I call digilog. What I mean by digilog is that rather than purely digital or analog, both the recording and the distribution of music media are both. Today’s vinyl collector has his musical cake, collecting LPs, and eats it too, via digital media. As one writer explains, “my iPod carries all of my music so I can wander San Francisco to the beat of my own soundtrack… But I love vinyl…. It’s one of the purest ways to listen to music.” 4

The extent of LP’s revival depends on a vibrant culture of legal streaming and illegal downloading or copying of digital music media that allows the vinyl collector to enjoy analog and digital as complements. The timing of LPs sales upticks corresponds exactly with the inclusion of digital media as a free bonus for LP purchasers. The internet culture of “sharity” includes communities who share homemade digitizations of LPs—even digital files, apparently, can by enhanced by vinyl’s mystique. On the flipside, CD and MP3 listeners are digilog when they listen to the vast oeuvre of music originally recorded in analog or transferred to analog in the process of production.

Perfect Sound Warriors

The compact disk, which debuted in 1982, found quick acceptance with the majority as the standard for accuracy, portability, permanence, and prestige. Only the high costs and initially limited availability of disks and titles impeded adoption. In the majority of installations, CD brought a major advance in both fidelity and convenience, embodying the highest ideals of modern technology. CD even helped advance the cause of culture, as reissue programs rescued out-of-print recordings from the dustbin. 5

Some self-appointed golden ears did loudly assert that something was lost on CD, seeing the issues as either inherent to digitization itself or merely the consequence of CD’s deficient implementation. Those determined few who complained about digital did so chiefly in abstract terms. Descriptions of CD sound mirrored the characteristics of the silver disk’s material form. An LP-loving police patrolman quoted by the New York Times in 1998 hit all the high notes, complaining of “tinny-sounding CD,” whose sonics he likened to “a sterile scientific lab” in which music emerged from “a fake quiet that almost sounds like a vacuum,” and conveyed “no emotional connection to what you hear.” As against the technological dystopia evoked by CD’s putative cold, abrasive, distant artificiality, some claimed human qualities and emotions like warmth and presence as vinyl’s domain. With LP, said the patrolman, “you feel like the band’s right in front of you sweating it out.” As rocker Neil Young characterized digital, in contrast, “the mind has been tricked, but the heart is sad.” 6 Classical and jazz loving audiophiles often asserted that digital lacked analog’s facility for evoking the sound of instruments placed in a virtual soundscape that floated free of the loudspeakers and extended beyond the boundaries of the listening room.

That people invested in an established sonic technology complained about the artificiality of a new one is no surprise. Many opera fans of the 1920s, including the philosopher Theodor Adorno, objected to the increased fidelity brought by electric recording in 1925. “As the recordings become more perfect…,” believed Adorno, “the authenticity of vocal sound declines as if the singer were being distanced more and more from the apparatus.” 7 Subsequently, audiophiles defended vacuum tube amplification against transistors. More generally, technostalgia is a commonplace, as long-established technologies come to appear organic and attract warm feelings. 8 What distinguishes the current vinyl revival is that it has gone mainstream, winning a substantial number of hearts and minds to the cause.

True, MP3s have been a boon to music fans, facilitating portability and the sociability of sharing culture. Most significantly, having the entire archive of recorded sound at our fingertips (if often illegally) has changed music appreciation forever. Yet for all these gifts, a vocal minority believes MP3s rob music of its true sound. MP3, which uses models of what we hear in order to throw away parts of the sound that we don’t, has attracted the ire of listeners who find the sound inferior. 9

Even for non-audiophiles, the ubiquity and immateriality of MP3s render them less suitable for expressing a connection to music than tangible commodities. In the words of Matador Records’ Chief Financial Officer Patrick Amory, “For many of us, and certainly for many of our artists, the vinyl is the true version of the release….The size and presence of the artwork, the division into sides, the better sound quality, above all the involvement and work the listener has to put in, all make it the format of choice for people who really care about music.” 10

LPs offer the anchor of tangibility in contrast to the weightlessness of the digital slipstream, which—insidiously to its detractors—encourages ADHD via shuffle play and the click wheel and rootless wandering through disparate eras, genres, and moods. The vinyl format engenders a different relationship to music, one writer explained, “as something planned, engaged, and revisited.” Reflecting on the loss of his 170,000 track iTunes digital collection via computer crash, he asserted, “There’s no substitute for the real thing; for the sense of security; the feeling of hard, heavy permanence….” Gagnon of EMI hearkens back to John Philip Sousa’s complaints about canned music in likening LP consumption to “growing your own vegetables.” 11 In this context, the defects to which vinyl is prone—skips, ticks, distortion, speed variance, and resonance—become part of the aura vinyl can impart to recordings.

Though digital détente arrived in the early 1990s, when mainstream audiophiles reported that standards for CD sound achieved acceptability, the war has become hot again. 12 Digital’s prestige andbarry2 reputation for fidelity have been damaged by the proliferation of MP3 and by changes in mastering practices (the so-called Loudness Wars) which mean that despite their manifold distortions, LP releases are arguably more faithful to the sound mix engineered by the artists than their digital counterparts. 13 Furthermore, if MP3 is “CD-quality” as touted, then feelings about the inadequacy of MP3 sound quality attach to CD as well. And if MP3’s selective approach to the original sound is problematic, then the very basis of digital sound, sampling, is also in question, regardless of how firm its technical and psychoacoustic basis. 14

LPs analog grooves offer an escape from the discomfiture with sampling and/or discarding sound. To EMI’s Gagnon, vinyl fans adopt an “almost a back-to-nature approach.” 15 Anchored in tradition and based on a mechanical process you can see with your own eyes, LPs feel more organic than CDs or MP3s. That sense of the natural is related to understandings of analog sound reproduction, which does literally transduce an analog of the original sonic waveform recorded.

Yet the “natural” aspects of LPs manufactured from petroleum-based polyvinylchloride and of most of the sounds traced on them are absurd on their face. Yes, LPs contain physical analogs of sonic waveforms etched into their surface, but the sounds are inherently deformed by the physical characteristics of the recording and playback gear and intentionally adulterated by the artists. 16 Many of the sounds used in today’s music are born electronically or processed until their acoustic origins are unrecognizable. 17 Furthermore, most current LPs were recorded digitally and most since 1980 was transferred to digital in the process of cutting the master disks. 18 Only a miniscule percentage of LPs made today are pure analog, and all-digital recordings are nearly as uncommon. 19 The reality of sound production and reproduction in the last thirty years is neither analog nor digital but both.

The Future Belongs to Analog Loyalists

Despite these realities, the LP remains a cultural icon. Part of the reason is that in the 1980s, LP became the symbol of independent culture and its values, unlike discarded sound media. To independent labels and their fans in the 1980s, CD represented a corporate attempt to put technological imperatives ahead of the craft of music-making and the profit of corporations over a richly varied ecology of non-corporate production and distribution. Where LP was a boon to independent labels in the 1950s, the high expense of manufacturing CDs and of maintaining dual inventory strained the resources of independent labels, stores, and bands. As the New York Times noted in 1994, “there is a surprisingly widespread conviction that the LP was done in before its time by the mainstream music business.” 20 The economic critique of CD gained fuel in the late 1990s when manufacturing prices plummeted but retail prices continued to rise. Through the 1990s, LP typically underpriced CD, making it the music junkie’s choice. 21

As major labels pillaged the musical underground in the wake of grunge in the early 1990s, vinyl took on greater cultural symbolism. One of the figureheads of the independent scene, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, explained, “Vinyl has become the domain of the independent, low-economy, record-making kid…a real art underground.” 22 Many underground classics remained vinyl-only, adding allure to the medium. More directly, the vibrant hip hop culture which rose from the underground and exploded into popular consciousness in the 1980s and early 1990s made the mastery of the LP catalog and the physical manipulation of LP discs a realm of the heroic artist. 23 Thus alongside its audiophile appeal, vinyl had the mystique of lo-fi DIY opposition culture.

Many musicians of the CD era signaled their allegiance to vinyl by offering incentives to those who bought it—early release dates, bonus tracks, elaborate alternate artwork, even the occasional vinyl-only record. But it took years for labels to hit upon the winning formula for reversing vinyl’s decline: digilog.

The first band to offer a digital copy of their music along with vinyl, Shellac, epitomized both the anti-corporate and audiophile critiques of CD. Founded in 1992, their members brought reputations for intelligence and integrity from the punk/underground demi-monde of the 1980s. 24 Through its two- decade history, Shellac has done things overtly in their own way, abstaining from the recording/touring treadmill, signaling that every musical utterance they offer is art for art’s sake. 25 Their music unabashedly subjects listeners to abrasive sounds and arbitrarily extended tension-building repeats and silences, often subverting such release as they do belatedly offer. As a 2006 record review in hipster bible Pitchfork Media explained, Shellac’s image as “the last real band standing,” earned by cutting out the promotional “bullshit,” had won them a “built-in audience” to whom reviews were “irrelevant.” 26 As underground heroes, their support of vinyl has carried great authority.

Guitarist and main vocalist Steve Albini won a similar reputation for integrity in his career as a recording engineer/producer. In fact, he is known most widely not for his own music but for recording chart toppers Nirvana and an army of cult artists. 27 His recordings are hallmarks of rock recording both for his distinctive attempts to represent the unadorned sound of a band in a room and for his all-analog signal path. 28 Albini has made himself an anti-digital spokeman, titling a 1987 compilation CD by his former band Big Black as The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape (Homestead 043CD) and emblazoning “the future belongs to analog loyalists. Fuck digital,” on the back cover of the CD edition of the band’s 1987 album Songs About Fucking (Touch & Go 24 CD). By framing the issue partially in terms of loyalty, Albini makes the opposition of analog to digital something more than mere pragmatism. In the lore of 1980s underground music, heroic Davids like Big Black stood up to the corporate Goliath with only obsolescent vinyl records, outmoded 8-track analog studios, decrepit vans, and photocopied fanzines as weapons. 29

Albini’s feelings about digital media were foundational to his band Shellac, named after the material used in the first mass produced sound medium. Liner notes to Shellac releases include unusual details such as “recorded electrically,” “pressed on 165 grams of dye blackened vinyl,” and “Mastered entirely in the analog domain, directly to metal on a Neumann VMS 84 lathe.” On various records, the band has offered fans a lengthy list of microphones used, details about the tape machines (one with “10,054 hours on the clock,”) the fluxivity specification of the tape and the bias level chosen (and why), a photo print of Albini’s studio with 70 item legend indicating the contents, and even the type of letterpress used to print the album jackets. A Shellac record announces to its owner that matter matters.

Shellac’s support of vinyl for their fourth LP, released in 2000, didn’t exclude or penalize the CD listener so much as give the LP buyer access to the digital largesse now taken for granted. 1000 Hurts (Touch & Go 211, 2000) strikes its purchaser with lavishly executed cleverness and obsession with form. 30 The cover art evokes Ampex master tape. 31 Housed in a half-inch deep box of the type used for 12-inch tape reels, or reserved for multi-record opera sets, the cover mocks monuments to dinosaur rock seriousness like Bruce Springsteen’s Live 1975-1985 and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.

Opening the package brought a surprise. The anti-CD band included a CD copy of their album in the box, a lagniappe for analog loyalists, and a pie in the face of those who had forsaken vinyl. In one package, Shellac invited comparisons of all the major sound media—shellac records, analog tape, vinyl, and compact disk. Though the CD-only version of 1000 Hurts was lavish in its own right, also partaking of the tape box metaphor, it did so in miniature, and for the same list price as the heftier vinyl version. 32 The band appeared to be saying, “it’s foolish to buy compact disks. CDs are so crappy and cheap they should be a giveaway to LP buyers. If the convenience of CD for your Discman or car, would sway you from analog loyalism, well here you go.” 33 Unannounced, unheralded, and unbeknownst even to its purchasers until they opened the LP, the band and its label Touch & Go offered the first digilog release. 34

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While downloading and LP ownership are often portrayed as opposites and threats to each other, the reality is digilog synergy, as LP sellers have implicitly acknowledged. Mail order houses have put digital icing on the analog cake, allowing customers to download MP3s for the LPs they purchase immediately, without waiting for their order to arrive by post, opening the package, and typing a long url and download code. If they wished, they could even keep their keepsakes sealed and listen to the files instead. Noting a spike in LP sales, indie Insound first offered this perk in 2008. 35 Amazon went one better in 2013, adding permanent cloud streaming for many LPs they sell. Legal music subscription services like Spotify, Rdio, Xbox Music, Google Play and forerunners Rhapsody and emusic can also serve as a digital complement to vinyl ownership. Likewise, internet piracy can allow fans to download MP3s and save vinyl for those special moments, should they decide an album deserves a space in their physical collection and the honor of undistracted listening.

The Honesty Box

As in the 1930s, when the phonograph industry suffered under competition from free music via radio and new competition from sound cinema, the 2000s recording industry saw visions of its own demise due to downloading and new media. In the 1930s, hardcore fans and collectors offered a consistent market that the industry learned to exploit with subscription series of multidisc sets—including canonical Bach recordings by cellist Pablo Casals and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Likewise, as digital downloads make music consumers think twice about opening their wallets, the industry has learned that vinyl can be positioned as the medium with which committed fans memorialize their personal canon. In the age of the digital slipstream, the industry has offered fans lavish, heavyweight, multiformat—often digilog—sets that push prices to heretofore unknown levels.

This trend towards the digilog box set has been overshadowed by downloading and streaming. In 2007, as vinyl sales rose 33%, Prince garnered attention by giving away his latest CD in a London newspaper, auguring a business plan in which recordings were free and revenue derived from live performance. Next, the popular and critically acclaimed UK band Radiohead allowed fans to set their own price—including nil—for a download of their newest album, In Rainbows. In a pointed commentary on piracy, the band called the space where one entered the amount to pay the “honesty box.” In the firestorm of controversy raised by Radiohead’s gambit, many wondered how the recording industry could survive if musicians were giving away the product of their labors for free, while others praised the forward looking nod to sharing culture and the circumvention of corporate distribution.

For all that, the honesty box was a mixed bag. In three months, a million people used it to download In Rainbows, generating nearly $3 million dollars for the band, an excellent take by any standard. 36 Nonetheless, a majority of them paid nothing, and 2.3 million others downloaded the music illegally in under a month. 37 After a mere three months, the album became available on iTunes in anticipation of a New Year’s release on CD and LP. The hype helped push CD sales for In Rainbows to 1.75 million, a 75% increase over their prior two albums. 38 The honesty box may also have helped reap the benefits that traditionally accrue from song plugging (that is, when people become familiar with a tune, they want to hear it more). Overall, it has had little lasting effect.

More influential, it turned out, was the other offer on Radiohead’s website in October, 2007. While the barry4listener could pay for MP3s according to budget and conscience, to obtain a physical edition would cost a wallet-lightening 40 pounds/$80, nearly unprecedented for a new release. Dubbed the “Discbox,” the digilog box set included a CD of the album, a CD of bonus tracks, an LP version spread over two discs at 45 RPM for enhanced fidelity (to the digital masters), and a hard-bound book of images. Impressively, confirmed sales of the Discbox exceeded 100,000 copies, more than doubling the take from the “Honesty Box” donations. 39

In the wake of the Discbox, the U.S. branch of Radiohead’s former label, Capitol, finally got the idea that Americans might purchase vinyl copies of the band’s multiplatinum, critically acclaimed back catalog, which they issued for the first time domestically as part of a larger “Back to Black” series that included download coupons. 40 In 2008, the Radiohead oeuvre became fully digilog.

How many purchased the Discbox or its copycats specifically for the vinyl is difficult to judge. In Radiohead’s case, $80 just to hear a bonus cd destined to be uploaded to fan sites minutes after release seems like a lot. But then, paying anything at all for the download-only option defied rationality. One fan, who had covered his dorm room with band posters, said paradoxically of In Rainbows that he “wouldn’t take it for free” although he hadn’t in fact paid for any of the five Radiohead albums already in his digital library. To pay (in his case $2) was “symbolic,” he said, “like cheering loud at their concerts.” 41 Purchasers of the Discbox paid more and thus symbolized more—particularly since they received something tangible in return.

Tangibility offers its own pleasures, not least of which is a sense of superiority as a music fan. Insound’s Wishnow states many view LPs as branded merchandise, like T-shirts and posters, a way to display their status as cognoscenti. 42 Furthermore, collectibles like the Discbox, and, in truth, any new LP pressing, could serve as a store of value, which was not the case for downloads and seemingly unlikely with CD. The appearance of still sealed copies of the Discbox and countless other out-of-print LPs auctioned by individuals on eBay, often at prices far exceeding the original cost, appears to represent hoarding and speculation by fans who have taken note of the how expensive out of print LPs can be.

In an age where digital files offered a distilled form of music devoid of additives, many fans appear to agree with a vinyl fan Isaac Hudson, who told a reporter “I think music products should be more than just music.” 43 Helped along by Radiohead’s Discbox triumph, the industry has taken note that hardcore fans will pay a hefty fare to possess scarce, luxurious packages of music from their favorite artists. Furthermore, they have learned that those who remain committed to buying music in physical form often desire vinyl. While a handful of established big-time artists, like Nine Inch Nails, have offered albums for free download, many more have seen their new works and/or back catalog exploited in super deluxe editions listing for $40, $75, even $150 or higher, often combining vinyl, CD, and sometimes DVD. Classic titles from the likes of the Rolling Stones and David Bowie are receiving the “Super Deluxe” digilog Discbox-style treatment, pushing the price upwards of $150 for LP/CD/DVD/Book boxes. As a case in point, Led Zeppelin sets in the same configuration are due in June 2014 at a price of $140.

Discboxiacs

For the majority of listening, the convenience and sonic qualities of CD and MP3 have triumphed, but the result has not been, as most expected, zero-sum. LP no longer means accessibility as it did when LPs were cheap, but vinyl’s aura of authenticity and its feel of guerrilla action has only increased with scarcity. Sales figures show that music fans are converging on a digilog world in which a promiscuous digital cornucopia complements the puritanical regime of vinyl and its fixed materiality. 44 In an age in which musical sounds, in all their ephemerality, can be conjured with the merest of efforts, many are choosing the most difficult medium—at least for home listening. The digilog LP satisfies the desires for authenticity, embodiment, engagement, and memorialization without sacrificing convenience. Indie labels led the way in marketing LPs together with MP3s so that buyers could have their cake and eat it too, that is to have an LP to possess and enjoy at home while maintaining a diet of MP3s on their phones, tablets, and computers.

The success of super deluxe multiformat set demonstrates in extremis the power of people’s desire to have their cake. Seeing dollar signs and asserting their place in the canon, even indies are adopting the Discbox format. In January 2014, Touch & Go announced that they were releasing a commemorative edition of Spiderland (Touch & Go 64), the 1991 LP by post-rock godfathers Slint. 45 The album attracted little notice when released, but has deeply influenced a generation of punk musicians seeking to add range and sophistication to their work without sacrificing intensity. 46 Indeed Albini’s Shellac, like a regiment of other bands, took cues from Slint’s loud-soft dynamics, sonic barry5minimalism, rhythmic flexibility, lyrical pathos, and stark, pristine audio. 47 In other words, in the catalog of underground rock music, Spiderland was an obvious choice for exploitation.

But the discbox format is a bit ironic. Since indie labels such as Touch & Go specifically have prided themselves for offering value, it comes as a bit of a shock that at $150, Slint’s 3 LP, 2 CD, 1 DVD plus book overprices Led Zeppelin, those monsters of rock–and Time-Warner’s bottom line. 48 Just as perturbing is the inclusion of CDs. Like their mentor Albini, in 1991 Slint took a stand for the dying LP, awkwardly instructing CD purchasers of Spiderland, via a typewritten banner superimposed on the back cover, “This record is meant to be listened to on vinyl.” 49

barry6Though that statement seemed to be an exercise in futility in 1991, today’s vinyl revival owes much to the credibility of musicians like Slint and their espousal of vinyl. Due in part to their influence, collectors demand classic albums be memorialized on vinyl. But even analog ideologues like Slint accommodate to the digilog reality: not digital or analog, but both.

Notes:

  1. Guy Trebay, “Getting Set to Spin,” The New York Times, September 22, 2010.
  2. Alex Williams, “Another Spin for Vinyl,” The New York Times, August 29, 2008.
  3. Felix Richter, “The LP is Back!” Slate, January 6th, 2014.
  4. Kayley Kravitz, “The Case for Vinyl,” Huffington Post, September 25, 2012.
  5. Examples include the late-1930s recordings of bluesman Robert Johnson, the 1960s psychedelic folk of Skip Spence, and the weird, old America of the Anthology of American Folk Music (a collection of commercially released 78s recorded from 1927 to 1932 originally rescued for the LP buyer in 1952).
  6. Michael Fremer, “Fans Flock to Vinyl In the Era of CD’s,” The New York Times, May 7, 1998. Of note, Fremer was and remains the leading voice in favor of LP in the world of audiophile journalism.
  7. Writing in 1927, two years after the debut of electrical recording, Adorno added: “The incidental noises, which have disappeared, nevertheless survive in the more shrill tone of the instruments and the singing.” See his “The Curves of the Needle,” trans. Thomas Y. Levin, October, Vo. 55 (Winter, 1990), p. 48.
  8. See Eric Barry, “Mono in the Stereo Age” in Paul Theberge, Kyle Devine and Tom Everrett (eds.), Living Stereo: History, Culture, Multichannel Sound (London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2014) for a discussion of the ways nostalgia for old technology has interacted with feelings about sound and fidelity.
  9. Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2012).
  10. Eliot Van Buskirk, “Vinyl May Be Final Nail in CD’s Coffin,” Wired, October 29, 2007.
  11. Williams.
  12. Early CD was critiqued in retrospect for a) poor first generation equipment both for recording and playback, b) failure to use the correct master tapes for CD issues, and c) a learning curve on the part of engineers.
  13. Though CD offers unprecedented dynamic range, it has ironically enabled an escalation of the industry’s perpetual quest for loudness, resulting in the reduction of the effective dynamic range (the difference between the average and peak volumes) of most CDs to the lowest levels in history—including acoustically recorded Edison cylinders. Subjectively, the soft parts are now loud and the loud parts only marginally louder—with distortion now substituting for dynamic shifts in volume. See Mike O’Malley, “Why Music Sales are Down,” and Andy Matuschak, “A Surprising Advantage of Vinyl,” both in this blog, http://americanhistorynow.org/2014/02/10/why-music-sales-are-down/and http://americanhistorynow.org/2014/02/27/52/.
  14. For those who are even aware of them, so-called “hi-rez” digital formats, such as those offered on HDtracks.com, offer another solutions due to higher sampling rates than CD—while also devaluing CD sound.
  15. Williams.
  16. The magnetic characteristics of the recording tape, tape heads, cutterhead, phono cartridge, and speaker magnets, the electronic distortions of the cutting amplifier and playback amplifier, and the physical characteristics and resonances of the cutting lathe, turntable, cartridge, and speakers all deform the waveforms on the master tape. Furthermore, in recording, deliberate alterations by the artists like compression, echo and reverb, panning, frequency equalization, distortion boxes, speed alteration, and more recently, auto-tune, make fidelity something of a red-herring.
  17. Some of vinyl’s biggest supporters are those in the world of dance and electronic music, who claim vinyl has better bass and captures more of the complexity of the distorted sounds on which the music is based.
  18. The pitch (width) of the grooves must be adjusted according to the loudness of the signal if the LP is to achieve typical playing times. Once, this was accomplished by adding a second, so-called “preview” head to the tape deck, so that the engineer could adjust the pitch in accordance with the upcoming signal. Since the 1970s, the standard practice has been for the analog signal to be transferred to digital and delayed. The signal is analyzed to facilitate automated analysis and a computer adjusts the pitch of the grooves, which are actually cut from the delayed digital signal converted back to analog. See http://www.sonicscoop.com/tag/neumann-vms-80/Vinyl Comeback Prompts Sterling’s New All-Analog Vinyl Mastering: Part I June 16, 2009 by Janice Brown. Sterling reports that fewer than 10 albums a month come in on analog reels. G/Z in Czechoslovakia, one of the world’s largest mastering and manufacturing operations, reports they receive less than ten per year.
  19. Through the 1980s, even music recorded digitally was almost always transferred to analog because the mixing desks and electronic processing available were analog. The rise of computer workstations and software emulators of analog effects since the mid-1990s made it possible to do complicated recordings that are all digital. Nonetheless, certain analog boxes like reverb units, compressors, and mixing boards remain highly prized for their sonic signatures. To use them signals are often transferred to analog, processed, and transferred back to digital.
  20. Trip Gabriel, “Not So Fast With the Last Rites: The Vinyl Underground Lives,” The New York Times, July 24, 1994. The argument, not elaborated in the article, runs as such. First the major labels stopped accepting returns for vinyl, forcing retailers to absorb the cost of defective manufacturing, which nudged them from carrying LPs. Then they just stopped manufacturing vinyl altogether. Even underground stalwarts, hip-hop artists, and older acts with strong constituencies of LP-loving fans saw domestic release on CD and cassette only. Sometimes, expensive, difficult to source import-only vinyl could be found, or a very small run of LPs were available domestically, which often skyrocketed in price to $50 because they were not repressed. Some of the artists affected include established acts like U2, Pink Floyd, Neil Young and Lou Reed, hip hop standard bearers Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, NWA, and De La Soul, and alternative best-sellers Dinosaur, Jr., Sugar, Nirvana, and even Pearl Jam.
  21. Even before Napster popularized “sharity” in the music world in the late 1990s, cassettes and the great LP dump the late 1980s/early 1990s enabled music fans to hear a much broader variety of music at low cost than ever before in history. The ubiquitous cassette tape allowed easy, inexpensive trading of music with friends and/or collector acquaintances for a cost under $1 per album. The record industry recognized the threat, emblazoning “Home Taping is Killing Music” and other anti-piracy slogans on the packaging of LPs. Meanwhile, in stores, clean but non-collectible LP copies of virtually the entire catalog of music were available for $3-$6 for in-demand titles and $1 or less for less desirable pieces while used CDs ran $6-$10. Anyone known to still play and collect LPs would often entertain offers from friends and acquaintances looking to free up shelf space by giving away their records. Records appeared for free in the street and in the trash and at very low prices at thrift stores, garage sales, estate sales, and flea markets.
  22. Gabriel.
  23. See Mark Katz, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (Oxford University Press, 2012), Chapter 8 discusses the foundational place of vinyl in hip-hop and DJ culture, including an interesting digilog phenomena, the replacement of regular records with special LPs that can be manipulated in order to control the playback of digital files in ways that emulate traditional DJ practice.
  24. Drummer Todd Trainer played with Minneapolis’ post-punkers Breaking Circus and Rifle Sport. Bassist Bob Weston played with Boston’s Volcano Suns. And most prominently, guitarist Steve Albini fronted Big Black and Rapeman.
  25. Shellac’s allegiance to ideals of artistic integrity and transcendence of pecuniary motivation is perfectly represented by the band’s third full-length release, the LP-only The Futurist (No Label, 1997), which was never marketed but instead distributed gratis to 779 friends and associates whose names were listed on the jacket. The move functioned as a clever turnabout of the record industry practice of sending free promotional copies of albums to faceless members of the press, which the band disdained.
  26. Jason Crock, “Shellac: Excellent Italian Greyhound,” Pitchfork.com, June 7, 2007.
  27. His big-name credits include The Pixies, PJ Harvey, Bush, and Page/Plant, but he built his reputation on lesser-knowns like The Jesus Lizard, The Wedding Present, Superchunk, Tar, Slint, Will Oldham/Palace, Silkworm, and Joanna Newsom.
  28. Fremer.
  29. See, for instance, Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life (New York: Little, Brown), 2001.
  30. The cleverness extends to the audio. As a prelude to song lyrics which paint multiple tableaux of pain, the album opens with a pun on “hurts,” when a narrator in the style of a laboratory calibration tape tells the listener to “set reproducer for reference level, 1000 Hertz.”
  31. It also evokes the cover art of the Grateful Dead series of live recordings, Dick’s Picks, which was rendered in two dimensions, in CD jewel boxes.
  32. Manufacturing costs have now pushed the list price of the vinyl version higher than the CD-only release, and where in 1994 an indie like Matador priced LPs for $7 and CDs for $11, now LPs are $14-18 and CDs $12. Premium LP pressings can run higher.
  33. Five years later, Albini explained that while vinyl sounds “infinitely better” than consumer digital, “from a convenience point of view, for people who want to play music in a boombox or in the car, or at work or something, CDs are great. The iPod is the same. It doesn’t sound great, but it’s wonderful for providing background music for people while they do other things.”
  34. Despite extensive searching, I never saw the free CD mentioned in any review at the time, whether in fanzine, glossy, or newspaper. In the days before social media, Shellac’s gift could be kept under wraps.
  35. Michael D. Ayers, “Insound Beefs Up Indie Vinyl Offerings,” Billboard, November 12, 2008.
  36. Web statistics company ComScore estimated that “a ‘significant percentage’” of the 1.2 million visitors to Radiohead’s site downloaded the album, though the band rejected the estimates in a statement. Jon Pareles, “Pay What You Want for This Article,” New York Times, December 9, 2007. However, a band press release a year later claimed total sales of 3 million, including 1.75m CDs, leaving 1.25m shared amongst downloads from their own site, downloads from iTunes, and standard edition vinyl, making the ComScore estimates of about a million downloads direct from Radiohead appear to be at least in the ballpark. See “Radiohead’s In Rainbows Sales Data Revealed,” by Live Music Beth, October 20, 2008,http://www.stateofmindmusic.com/entry/446/Radiohead’s-In-Rainbows-Sales-Data-Revealed/
  37. “Did Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ Honesty Box Actually Damage The Music Industry?” NME Blog, October 15, 2012.
  38. Radiohead’s efforts were not so anti-corporate as they seemed. Their AOL-Time Warner affiliated publisher was heavily involved in the circumvention of traditional distribution, and profited greatly. “Warner Chappell reveals Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ pot of gold,” Music Ally, October 15th, 2008.
  39. Discbox sales from “Did Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ Honesty Box Actually Damage The Music Industry?,” NME Blog, Posted 15 Oct 12.
  40. The Back to Black series found its way into non-traditional retailers of vinyl such as Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Urban Outfitters, and Costco. Reportedly, regional big box retailer Fred Meyer only realized the marketability of vinyl when a clerical error caused some titles to be delivered on LP instead of CD. “Music on vinyl making a comeback.” The New York Times, June 9, 2008.
  41. Melena Ryzik, “Radiohead Fans, Guided by Conscience (and Budget),” The New York Times, October 4, 2007.
  42. Williams.
  43. “Music on vinyl making a comeback.”
  44. Sophie Maissoneuve, adopting a term from museum studies, notes how classical music fans in the 1920s pioneered the treatment of records as a patrimony, that is a canon linked to notions of history and identity, both a heritage and something to be enjoyed, something collective and personal, something both material and spritual. Music’s commodification “stimulated the desire to choose, classify, preserve musical works.” While the digital realm enables the choosing, classification, and preservation in which fans revel, including in some cases owning the digital masters from which LPs are cut, it lacks in the materiality which the vinyl pressing provides and the aura of the aesthetic event that it seems to enable. Sophie Maisonneuve, “Between history and commodity: The production of a musical patrimony through the record in the 1920s-1930s,” Poetics 29 (2001): 89-108.
  45. For the moment, the entire box set is streaming at http://www.npr.org/2014/04/06/297723543/first-listen-slint-spiderland-remastered.
  46. A student of mine and Slint-inspired musician who is now a music journalist explained to me in 1999, when he was a college sophomore, that “every generation discovers Slint”—just eight years after their masterpiece was released.
  47. Some of those influenced by Slint include June of 44, Seam, Codeine, Rodan, The Rachels, Karate, The Shipping News, Drive Like Jehu, Unwound, Hoover, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Ros. Slint’s members went on to post-rock standard-bearers like Tortoise, The For Carnation, and Papa M.
  48. Joe Carducci, The Rock and the Pop Narcotic, 2nd edition (Los Angeles: 2.3.61: 1995).
  49. Albini didn’t record Spiderland but was anonymously credited on Slint’s debut LP Tweez (Jennifer Hartman Records, 1989) as “engineered by some fuckin derd niffer.”

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