The Vinyl Aura

Music in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Text by Stephen Pietrzykowski

Illustrations by Sohrab Golsorkhi

When future generations look back on the music of the second decade of the new millennium, how will they remember it? Given the current fascination for nostalgia that pervades our culture, the question is not as straightforward as it would appear. From the eyes-half-open somnambulism of Washed Out and Toro Y Moi to the urban ghost worlds of Burial and Zomby, the failed android dreams of Oneohtrix Point Never, the technological anachronisms of James Ferraro and the cultural detritus of Ariel Pink, the more celebrated artists of our time are all drawing upon and contributing to a huge sonic palimpsest. Music with disparate aesthetics and intentions appears united by a collective conceptual foregrounding of the past. And it is not without its critics. Observing this phenomenon, Simon Reynolds' recent Retromania was an attack on the absence of futurism in the current pop landscape. For Reynolds, the future has been abandoned in favour of a tapestry of citation, quotation, pastiche and parody. Curiously, this tendency to reanimate and fetishise the past hasn't remained the preserve of the music itself.

While Björk was readying innovative ways in which to present her latest album and even Sting was declaring that future albums would only be released as apps, others remained resolutely unmoved by new developments in music technology. The end of 2011 saw BBC 6 Music declare December "vinyl month", itself a nod towards this year's renewed commercial desire for vinyl. Indeed, 2011 saw a reported 40 per cent increase in vinyl sales - an astonishing growth given the supposed death throes of music retail and that vinyl itself has long been regarded by the music industry as obsolete. It is a figure made more noteworthy by the fact that it doesn't account for a second-hand market where rare records continue to trade hands for increasingly stratospheric sums of money.

Unlike past developments in recorded formats where new replaced the old, MP3s, USB sticks and apps haven't made vinyl, tape or even CDs redundant - they have just repositioned the consumer's relationship to them. Having recently opened Kristina Records, a vinyl-only record shop in Dalston, Jack Rollo is better positioned than most to comment on the re-emergence of the LP. "The vinyl market is the only part of the physical music sales industry that is still growing," Rollo wryly notes. "Music as a business is slipping out of the hands of major labels and chain stores, and being taken over by real enthusiasts putting out beautifully packaged limited edition product by adventurous artists. And vinyl is at the forefront of this trend." Long regarded as an archaic and flawed format, vinyl has defiantly grown in popularity despite the emergence of new techno-logies designed to provide the functions that vinyl lacks - durability, infallibility, timelessness, portability. Ironic then, that the various qualities that vinyl lacks are the very things that are ushering it back to relevance.

The fetish for vinyl hasn't been exclusive to an older age group, who are either failing to embrace the future or reliving their youth. Sean Forbes at Rough Trade East observes: "We still have a lot of 40-50-year-olds who have always bought vinyl and continue to do so, but we also get the younger people who think vinyl is a cool thing." There is compelling evidence elsewhere that the vinyl market hinges on a youthful demographic. Originally founded as MP3 blogs by young, technologically savvy music enthusiasts (and I choose the adjective carefully - these bloggers are curators and collectors), Transparent, Gorilla Vs. Bear, Double Denim and No Pain In Pop, among several others, have all developed into imprints. They are releasing the music they write about as physical objects and in the process, generating consistent and identifiable aesthetics that rely on the production of vinyl. As far as a song can reach when posted online, there remains a need to ossify its value in a physical form. In short, the same fetishes persist for old and young. If vinyl was declared extinct, then last year was most certainly witness to its unanticipated revival, a zombiefication of pop's living dead.

But for what reason? On the surface, the cultural value of vinyl appears to represent a longing for a moment when music wasn't super-abundant and immaculately presented in a sanitised form. Collectors, sentimentalists and audiophiles declare their preferences for vinyl, fetishising the crackles and hisses as these "flaws" come to engender the reality of imperfection. Perversely, the entropy of vinyl's fidelity becomes the expression of a record's value. The fetishisation of vinyl is based on the presumption that analogue audio  is closer to "real life". Audio degradation is evidence of vinyl's place within the world of things, rather than abstract notions. You cannot touch a MP3 digital file, but vinyl is tangible, physical, a cultural objet d'art. Objet d'art being the appropriate term - vinyl is no longer the canvas but the artwork itself. Hence the multitude of coloured variations and elaborate packaging that now enters the market. This is by no means a new tendency, but it is one that has grown in frequency the less people find themselves needing to pay for music in order to hear it.

So rather than being replaced, vinyl has only increased in value as new and intangible formats such as the MP3 have emerged. The reproduction of music in digital form results in a depletion of what we may call the auratic value of music, and so consumers long for older, more real formats to find traces of a sense of value. Central to this is its physicality because, without the process of digitisation to recast it, the fetish for vinyl would be less compelling as it relies on a sense of relative value. It seems that vinyl cannot be authentic unless it is seemingly outdated and superfluous, only desirable when it is no longer useful at all. As Forbes notes with a raised eyebrow, the young fans who buy vinyl at Rough Trade "[probably] never play the vinyl as they keep it in mint condition and just listen to the download".

Physical forms are deemed more authentic than their non-physical counterparts because vinyl is seen as the displaced embodiment of a pure, authentic moment. The origins of this valuation are tied to the historical positioning of vinyl and its centrality to earlier authentic music genres - indie, punk, hip hop, dance et al. Vinyl doesn't hold the same function in all of these music cultures. In hip hop, for example, certain records were functional as much as they were emblematic of status, helping DJs create otherwise inaccessible sounds. Within punk, the low cost of producing seven-inch singles explains their abundance. Since then, it is these perceived "real" moments that become the site of meaning. Vinyl is the ghostly form of music's past, the historicity of its grooves a spectral embodiment of an authentic dead moment.

There is a contradiction in this consecration of vinyl, however. The various developments that allow for the mechanical reproduction of music in vinyl form would have been seen as an inauthentic manifestation of a music that had previously only existed as a performance art. For example, blues music as a pre-technological oral tradition, a generational legacy. Prior to the mechanical reproduction of music, sound itself was the fetish. This would suggest that there is no pure object form, and the value of vinyl is merely a cipher, recalling the French idiom applied by post-structuralist Jacques Derrida, "midi a quatorze heures" (noon at two o'clock). "It is true that looking for 'noon' is not just any madness and it is not just looking for just any moment; perhaps it is to dream, at whatever time and always too late (at two o'clock it is already too late), of an origin without shadow."

Vinyl is this "origin without shadow." The production was never pure in the first instance, being a commercial form, ultimately. Vinyl is, in this sense, simulacrum.

What this vinyl fetish really shows is a transposing of value systems, in which art in the age of mechanical reproduction shifts to art in the age of digital reproduction. And notions of value and worth accord with how the music in question is mediated and consumed. Whereas sound itself was originally the fetish, sound quality, alongside materiality, becomes the new site of meaning. The veneration of analogue fidelity is ironic, since it degrades over time and extended use. In second-hand record shops for example, mint LPs are worth more money than used copies. But an album can only be mint if it hasn't been played, since the very act of use degrades it. You always hurt the ones you love. This means that vinyl cannot be preferred for its actual sound, but for what it might sound like. Its inherent imperfections act as its value, embodying a longing for the real world of decay.

Witnessed here is a slippage of aura in which value is conferred on objects once considered as mass-produced. The fetishisation of vinyl is retroactive and historically contingent. Vinyl becomes what Slavoj Žižek sees as the "dead image that miraculously comes alive". It is a haunted form, dependent on the ideological construction of a particular history of independent music.

This fetish for older technological forms tells us as much about the protagonists  as the qualities of the sound itself. As a symbol of our culture now, vinyl  feels highly appropriate. Its entropy, paradoxically, ensures its timeless value.

It falls apart, degrades and is delicate to the touch. It connotes the real, not the digital world of superabundance in which everything is available all of the time, right away, and then dismissed as never present or unnecessary. Our longing for vinyl is an expression of our own mortality - no one wants to live forever, because life means nothing if it is infinite. The value of life is contingent to its end. It is only in the fallible moments of existence that we really know we are alive. Dust in scratched grooves marks the passage of time, that things have happened, that a past has occurred. And in a digital world where there is only a tomorrow that might never come and everything is manufactured with a pre-determined shelf-life, vinyl is the reassuring evidence that something was once real. Vinyl ages and degrades, but survives, until suddenly, it doesn't. Just like we do. "Our musical past is constantly being unearthed and recontextualised by collectors, musicians and critics. And what was once deeply unfashionable becomes valued again," says Kristina's Jack Rollo. "The internet has sped this process up hugely. The knowledge it took people of my generation years to acquire is now available to everyone, which makes the whole thing even more exciting, generating a constant flux of new scenes and ideas. Old records will always be important as they hold the DNA of new records." And records also hold the imprint of our collective and individual identities, a physical cultural map that digital ones and zeros can never embody because they cannot be seen, or held, or taken to heart. When the future no longer seems as good as it once did, it is unsurprising that we might gravitate towards the comfort of what we know to be real.

When future generations look back on today what they then might see is something not unlike themselves. §

  • The Vinyl Aura