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


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.


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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