I love an LP, but spare me the Vinyl Snob that goes like a broken record | Barbara Ellen
MMy name is Barbara and I have been a vinyl abuser. In my youth, I did unspeakable and shameful things to records. I would leave them out of their covers. I left them on the ground and walked on them; sometimes dance to it. I would balance wine glasses, ashtrays and nail polish jars in it. If a track started skipping, I stuck a penny (or three) on the stylus. When the records were trashed, I bought them back.
This is how I emerged from years of music journalism with several destroyed copies of Jesus and Mary Chain’s dark lands and a collection of scratched and dirty records worth about 20 pence. While other music hacks sit on vinyl goldmines, what remains of my collection will one day have to be disposed of by toxic waste experts wearing biohazard suits. What an idiot. Again, while the lady was singing, I regret nothing. My vinyl may not be worth anything, but feelings and memories are priceless.
I remembered my vinyl atrocities ahead of yesterday’s 15th annual Record Store Day, a global event to support and celebrate independent record stores, where artists release special editions that you can only buy in record stores. This year, Taylor Swift is the special ambassador and there are hundreds of special releases featuring artists from U2 to Cypress Hill, Blur to Stevie Nicks.
Although some have issues with Record Store Day, such as major labels hijacking it, it’s generally seen as a good thing: keeping a crucial branch of the music ecosystem alive. Amen to that. However, there is an elitist side to vinyl culture, a nerd shadow world encapsulated in various online advice for Record Store Day: Be prepared…Arrive early…Meet other vinyl enthusiasts…Plan ahead. advance the weather. Oh my, you think Record Store Day might be full of wonderful things, but it’s also a mass global gathering of Vinyl Bores.
It’s a recurring question: should a musical format matter that a lot – more than the music itself? How do vinyl heads become vinyl bores? First of all, you have to applaud the tenacity: the years spent with each format change, from CDs to streaming, including some that you will have forgotten. Mini-discs, anyone? Please note that Vinyl Bores are a separate species from Vinyl Heads, most of whom are just as likely to build a Spotify list as they are to rave about rare albums. There are even people who can talk about historic studio listening techniques/ways and the myriad sounds/moods/nuances they produce, without making you want to rip your ears off and feed them to a dog.
Vinyl Bores/Snobs are a breed apart: they don’t tolerate any other format and view other listening styles as cultural philistinism. You may have encountered one or two. They treat their records like priceless pieces at Sotheby’s. They store them in plastic bags and clean them with small rags. They swing them between their palms. They place them on turntables as if performing a sacred ritual. There may be an anxious inspection of the stylus – has a tiny speck of dust managed to settle?
When the music is (finally) allowed, it’s hard to hear it through the inevitable highly technical premium sound tutorial that seems as long as Bob Dylan’s career.
What life-sapping madness is this? When I was a music journalist, I was about as much interested in the mechanics of formats as in the workings of a kettle. It was the music that mattered and it could have come in a cereal packet for whatever I was interested in. Vinyl fetishism struck me as fuddy-duddy and oddly gender-specific: something mostly guys did. I thought the music should be visceral, not collectible, hence the vinyl abuse (my excuse anyway). To this day, I wonder: why do some people allow a format – the way the music is conveyed – to overwhelm the love of the music itself?
Since the music has been rendered anti-physical, I understand the vinyl argument better. Not only does Spotify have a dastardly form of treating artists crummyly, but at times it feels like a huge auditory, soulless discount supermarket. I mourn the loss of the cover and the dying concept of “the album” at a time when the tracks are scattered to the winds.
And sometimes it’s good to remember that listening to music can be an activity, not just “background noise.” I can see how vinyl could look like a grassroots rebellion against commercialism: sticking it to The Man, creating a cottage industry of sound that Spotify can’t put on its mitts.
That said, isn’t vinyl itself an established and highly lucrative wing of the industry? A few years ago it outsold CDs. Negatively speaking, the focus on heritage acts may represent cultural stagnation. Then there’s consumer spending: a decent piece of kit alone – turntables and speakers – is far from cheap. Vinyl is also not portable or always accessible; file storage must be difficult for skint tenants.
Worse, there is the permanent sense of snobbery, of elitism, a posture of authenticity that too often gives the impression of singing. Do Vinyl Snobs think they are superior to other music fans? I think many of them do. There’s this feeling of, “We may both like music, we may even like the same artists, but are you listening to them ‘correctly’?”. What emerges is a fetishism of format that boils down to the dull and dated concept of “good” and “bad” taste, when one of the most powerful aspects of music is that it is democratic: the vote of all is equal.
Somehow, where is the fire? For some people, on record store day — and every other day — the human soul is round, made of black plastic, and has a little hole in the middle. which is great. It doesn’t make you better than me.