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Rituals of Vinyl

Rituals of Vinyl

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Published by ssmithjanis
When Walter Benjiman wrote his ground breaking essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", he recognized the political imperative art combined with the evolving technologies of replication.

In this essay, cultural theorist Stephen Janis updates the Benjamin thesis, exploring the political significance of the MP3.

The paper, the basis for his ground breaking class "MP3 Culture" - dissects the MP3 as an instrument of human proclivity for control, at once embracing and reinventing Benjiman's instrumental take of duplication technology and it's affect upon art.
When Walter Benjiman wrote his ground breaking essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", he recognized the political imperative art combined with the evolving technologies of replication.

In this essay, cultural theorist Stephen Janis updates the Benjamin thesis, exploring the political significance of the MP3.

The paper, the basis for his ground breaking class "MP3 Culture" - dissects the MP3 as an instrument of human proclivity for control, at once embracing and reinventing Benjiman's instrumental take of duplication technology and it's affect upon art.

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Published by: ssmithjanis on Jun 14, 2009
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Rituals of Vinyl

Stephen Janis

t Morphius, the Baltimore-based record label and distributor where I work, the vinyl comes in waves. Not literally, in petroleum tsunamis, but in hundreds of brown boxes delivered daily by the UPS driver, loaded into the shipping department and unpacked—to be sold by me, a “store” salesman, disk pusher, the nextto-final stop for a product that fills our warehouse. In our daily shipment, we receive several hundred 45s, colored black and opaque blue. Triple gatefold, 180- and 220-gram, audiophile re-mastered albums featuring dead jazz musicians and defunct but still legendary rock bands.1 There is a box of blue heart-shaped records from a band called Lynrds Innards, and a buzz-saw-blade limited edition disk that looks sharp enough to cut through its plastic sleeve. Piles of five-, ten-, and twelve-inch disks sit in walls of vinyl stacked next to the shipping table. There’s a special 45 rpm Tiara series that comes with a Mexican Tarot card precariously glued to a silk-screened jacket. And of course there is our most vaunted item, a cultural talisman coveted, even worshiped, by the small subculture that constitutes my customer base: the limited edition picture disk, a piece of vinyl imprinted with artwork, yet playable all the same. And today, as I sit at my desk, I hold in my hands a real gem, Youth Gone Mad’s collaboration with one of the godfathers of American punk, Dee Dee Ramone. A multicolored disk with an original Dee Dee faux primitive painting imprinted on the A-side, it features some of last songs ever recorded by the counterculture icon who anchored the legendary Ramones. The music itself is downright morbid. On one cut, “Horror Hospital,” Dee Dee snarls pre-elegiacally in a clipped Queens accent, “I feel awful/ I feel awful/ I feel awful/Horror Hospital.” The song, a threechord punk basic with straightforward, pulsing guitars and turbulent



pacing, is faithfully Ramones-like, monotonous, topically truncated, and resolute in its self-conscious simplicity. But my job is not to critique the album, but to sell it, period. I fire off e-mails to Amsterdam, England, Germany, Canada, Mexico, and Japan, writing orders, confirming shipping instructions, and exploiting the obvious urgency of a limited edition: order now or miss out. I call large distributors in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. I call stores in Kentucky; Newbury, Massachusetts; and Evanston, Illinois; culturally remote locations that hardly seem meccas of potential picture disk customers. They all buy, not spectacular amounts, just enough to quickly disperse the limited edition pressing. In a few hours, my entire inventory is sold out; the only remnant of the Dee Dee Ramone shipment is a copy I stash for myself, adding to the growing pile of collectibles that have accumulated during a lifetime of working in the music business. Compact disks I pawn regularly; my vinyl collection will be pried from my cold dead hands. It seems odd, in the digital age, the era of merciless reproduction, that vinyl would still have cultural gravitas. The technical idioms of the new millennium are fundamentally seamless, non-tactile, pure ether. Yet as a result of my work, from producing vinyl records for a myriad of independent labels to selling picture disks or simply squirreling away stocks of wax in the corner of my nearly empty apartment, I’ve learned firsthand that vinyl is far from a cultural afterthought. Blazin Records, one of the many underground hip-hop ventures I’ve worked for, is an all-vinyl enterprise, having issued seventeen titles on wax without releasing a single compact disk. Maximum Rock ’n’ Roll, the flagship punk zine, explicitly requests vinyl records for review, warning that CD releases will probably be ignored. Your typical indie rock group or up-and-coming punk band will most likely have a discography listing seven-inch releases and limited edition vinyl full-lengths. To certain constituencies, vinyl is clearly a relic whose time has come. In the grand schema of the music industry, sales of vinyl records are statistically insignificant. According to Soundscan, the music industry’s sales tracking system, aggregate vinyl sales were around 1.5 million last year.2 Tallied in a category entitled “other” in Billboard Magazine’s weekly “Market Watch” column, it is a relatively insignificant total compared to the 650 million compact disks sold last year. As the numbers suggest, vinyl has been abandoned by average music consumers and the mass merchandisers that serve them, with nary a vinyl bin to be



found in Best Buy, Musicland, or Wal-Mart. Adding to its marginality is the relatively small minority of well-known artists (primarily hip-hop and so-called alternative) who issue their latest releases on wax. Vinyl seems commercially irrelevant, an afterthought of the download era, a relatively quaint remembrance of things past with no bearing on the state of the music industry or on present popular culture. But vinyl’s overall market share does not reflect its growing relevance to the underground. As the number of compact disks purchased in the U.S. market has steadily declined, eroded by the by free downloads and rampant piracy, vinyl sales have actually risen. In the past three years, during the calamitous epoch of compact disk attrition, vinyl has posted single- and double-digit Soundscan gains, up a compelling 18.1 percent in 2003. The retailers to which I regularly sell order vinyl in greater quantities than compact disks. And the number of audiophile re-issues of seminal works in jazz, hip-hop, and rock equals that of the industry’s halcyon days of CD conversion, when vast catalogs were transferred to the digital medium of the future, and resold to music fans at a profit. Reports of the the resurgence of vinyl don’t surprise me, working at an enterprise like Morphius. It is evident in an endless stream of seven-inch EP disks, twelve-inch picture disks, and full-length albums that lay stacked atop my desk. We carry hundreds of titles from famous bands such as Black Flag to the not-so-famous-but-emerging Double Dagger. Our in-house groups—the Fuses, Slow Jets, and the Miss—have all released seven-inch disks, utilizing the form in a variety of creative ways: split singles (with songs from one band on one side and another band on the opposite), silk-screened jackets, numbered series, and most spectacularly, the improbable seven-inch picture disk. Vinyl is a marginalized format to some degree, but it also engenders intergenerational passion that resists unencumbered file sharing and rampant downloading. Adding to the peculiarity of vinyl’s staying power are qualities that make it naturally antithetical to the modalities of the digital age. It is costly to produce, expensive to replicate, and burdened by a manufacturing process that is prolonged and prone to error. Unlike compact disks, which can be duplicated on a rudimentary PC, or produced in bulk at relatively low cost, vinyl works within the procedural realities of “real time,” an anachronistic concept that involves weeks or months from finished master to product.



To reproduce a recording on vinyl requires the creation of acetate, a plastic reference master that looks like a record and can also be played. The acetate is “cut” on a large, motorized lathe that literally carves the grooves as the mastering engineer plays back the recorded material, fine-tuning the sound with outboard equalization and compression. Once the acetate is finished, a metal “stamper” is formed from the acetate grooves, an actual die cut machine part that is used to press the records out of pure, liquid vinyl. This process is labor-intensive and time consuming. Add a printed jacket, picture disk impression, or specialized shapes, and the costs can be prohibitive. Higher production costs translate into higher prices at the cash register. For example, the triple-disk set of BBC recordings from T Rex, or Morphius’ 180-gram vinyl series of Sun Ra’s seminal album, Heliocentric, cost significantly more than the average full-length compact disk. Picture disks can run up to twenty dollars apiece or even more online. A triple gatefold of a live Oasis recording hits the street at roughly thirty-five dollars. Given higher production costs and an exacting replication process, vinyl fails the postmodern marketing test of accessibility and fluidity of distribution. But vinyl still sells, and, as indicated by Soundscan, has grown in popularity. It appears that, at least to a small, yet resilient sub-culture, vinyl is a working paradox—un-downloadable and difficult to burn, share, or otherwise deflower with technology—impractical, but still viable. Yet this quasi-resurrection from the format graveyard seems not only poorly timed, but inherently illogical. What relevance does vinyl have in the age of the online celestial jukebox—what does it offer, as a vehicle for art and music, that the compact disk or the MP3 do not? In comparing these technologies, the MP3 seems to have the advantage of being more in sync with contemporary expectations. The MP3 can be instantaneously downloaded and uploaded from halfway around the world; vinyl must be transported by truck, plane, or boat. A vinyl record is a permanent frieze of a musical performance, the song sequence and sound quality made immutable by the strictures of the manufacturing process. A set of MP3s placed on a hard drive can be re-sequenced, remixed, processed, and otherwise dissected with inexpensive software and widely available plug-ins. Obviously vinyl has different technical properties than an MP3—differences that are defined by the potentials of each distinct technology, representing a schism that determines how the art is crafted, distributed, and ultimately experienced.



Theorist Walter Benjamin dissected a similar technological divergence almost seventy years ago in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”3 which explored the difference between the original and the copy. Duplication technology, according to Benjamin, interpolated a unique performance with simultaneity, exporting The audience that buys these elements into a medium that a vinyl record in a jacket embodied both. A Puccini opera desires an object-relation to recorded in Rome is played in a living art, whereas the audience room in Bakersfield, Ohio, ten years downloading the formless later, still immediate in the grooves MP3s prefers convenience of the 78 rpm record. An actor’s perand control. formance—cropped by camera, etched on film, and then viewed halfway around the world—is dislodged from the temporality of the actual, live performance. The image projected on the screen or the voice of a singer recreated via the cone of a speaker is simultaneously preserved and duplicated, fracturing the coherent time sense of the performance as it occurred. Benjamin believed mechanical reproduction had political implications: that the advantage of transporting ideas mechanically, particularly via film, created a rhetorical tool of extraordinary influence. The ability to reach a diverse mass audience had radical social and cultural consequences. Mechanical reproduction offered a relatively seamless link to communicate with a larger and previously inaccessible audience. Film could be used as a vehicle for exposing political atrocities or, conversely, as means of social or political control. Yet it is the primary distinction of original versus copy that defined Benjamin’s argument and allowed him to correctly anticipate the new imperative of a politicized art. Updating Benjamin’s dichotomy to understand the contemporary relevance of vinyl requires a different terminology, applicable to distinctions of the digital age. For example, the idea of form is useful, as it provides a contrast between the ephemeral and the concrete, the file and the disk. Likewise, the idea of speed works by comparing the relative properties of vinyl and MP3 to disseminate ideas, which go from “fast” to “spontaneous.” Each comparison nets a cultural face value that is easily translated into a shorthand for understanding the particular medium’s relevance to the audience. In the case of form for example, the audience that buys a vinyl record in a jacket desires an object-relation to art, whereas the audience



downloading the formless MP3s prefers convenience and control. Thus the audience creates a “culture of use,” that is to say, different preferences for record jacket or file, picture disk or iPod, which accumulate into customs or “rituals” of interaction. The implications of a culture of use are better understood if the origins of Benjamin’s argument are traced backwards. The social schisms that followed the democratization of art in Benjamin’s milieu were notable for an unprecedented acceleration of rapid and dominant cultural change. The weaving of a style, song, star, and politician into the fabric of now was accomplished with inimitable speed and prowess. Hitler’s rise was arguably accelerated by the surreally hostile film Triumph of the Will; likewise in the United States did the cultural homogenization that quickly preceded the war evolve into the uniquely American suburban, modular æsthetic. Change was facilitated by the reproduction of ideas, the transmitting of duplicate images, the sonic assuaging of masses of people in the name of politics, art, and religion. Now, as technology, replicative or otherwise, has gravitated toward allowing more distinct control by the individual, we see an effect on the audience’s relationship to art. Just as the MIDI studio and sound synthesis eclipse the need for separate musicians in the creation of distinct sounds, MP3 technology puts the power of distribution and replication in the hands of the individual—a process that once included manufacturing craftsmen, wholesaler/distributors, and small retailers: physical links imbued with practices of interpersonal communication.4 These physical links are bypassed by the MP3’s fluid technology, and thus it has altered the culture of use that surrounds the music, much like the piece of vinyl originally severed the direct connection between audience and artist. And as Benjamin concluded, this change is evidenced by the politics of the art itself. The MP3 marks a political shift not only in the process of disseminating art, but in the act of consuming it. The formless MP3 not only dictates less control for an artist over his or her work, but articulates the value of possession as a fluid transaction between anonymous creator and anonymous consumer. This implies a change in the nature of art from an unbending set of physical modalities to a mutable, alterable set of indirect relationships. The relationship between the music and the listener, the image and the viewer, is no longer bound in the texture of the object; it is now mediated by the dictates of the technological freedom to rip, share, and download.5 The links and or nodes that constituted the physical relaying of the music from record label to



distributor, to distributor to record store, have been compressed into a simple transaction, theoretically between the creator and the listener, more often simply an instantaneous expropriation from one hard drive to another, a transfer of electrons and ephemera. In short, the MP3, as a political tool, represents the exchange of information, music or otherwise, without the filters of the aforementioned community of exchange. In the simplest terms, this represents the end of politics as a communal art, and presupposes the age of pure individualism, what, for lack of a better term, can otherwise be characterized as neo-modern. Individualism is perfectly synchronous with the MP3, and will perhaps find its form in the music best adapted to it. Danger Mouse, as an example, has taken the truly unique utilization of MP3/digital-based composition, called “mashing,” and created a worldwide phenomena with The Grey Album, which was, literally, a sonic fusion of the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album. Aside from the legal controversies, the work itself has none of the strange overlapping irony of one of Danger Mouse’s most accomplished predecessors, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (JAMS), a sampler outfit that took advantage of the nascent technology of the late 1980s. Their song titled “Whitney Joins the Jams,” Mu Mu’s bastardization of Whitney Houston’s song “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” featured two drunken cockneys chiding Whitney, like soccer fans on a binge, over a heavy four-on-the-floor house beat—a legendary expropriation of other people’s material that ended in a court-ordered recall and destruction of every single copy of the record. Danger Mouse, unlike JAMS, does not add his own voice to the mix; he simply stitches together bits and pieces from each record; the result is a more melodically rich Jay-Z with lush backing track, a bizarre, mercurial blend of languorous guitar chords and clipped, frenetic hip-hop vocals. Danger Mouse’s work evidences the real power of MP3 culture, which lies not in identity or voicing, but in pure anonymous control, art stitched together at the digital seams, spread around the world on the Internet via a single hard-drive, and arriving at a sort of invisible fame, dodging legal bullets like an unwieldy shadow. Perhaps in homage to Benjamin, we could call this the “cult of the individual,” although this “individual” is purged of all the characteristic traits that personify the late-model corporeal version. The digital individual has an almost divine power, immersed in what amounts to a magical world of omniscient access, uniting disparate artists and blending their work into a single, sonic form. The power of this metaphor has



already been prefigured by other types of individual expropriation: digital photography, Photoshop alterations, and other manipulations of visual culture. This is where vinyl finds its place: in the domain of the communal, the physically linked, and with those predisposed to the mystery of tactile boundaries. Benjamin might have called it the “cult of the original”—his take on the function of religiosity in early twentieth century cultural life—in the sense that art functioned as a singular presence in the context of religious rituals. But as we have witnessed, our secular culture ritualizes many activities with its secular tools, like advertising, branding, and nostalgic imprints; prophylactic holidays create markers necessary to replace religion’s nomenclature. Whatever the usefulness of rituals, the ongoing improvement of replication technology has simply left behind markers that are both associated with and primary to the artistic eras they represent. What was once the cult of the original is now better understood as the “cult of the obsolete.” The cult of the obsolete is much more attuned to the underlying social significance of the consequences of technological change. Sign up to record collectors’ e-mail group Killed By Death, a loose association of fans of early eighties punk music, and you will be immersed in all the vagaries of valuations, for example the mid-eighties post-punk macabre outfit the Misfits versus the progenitor of the British DIY (“do it yourself ”) scene, the Desperate Bicycles. The disputes focus primarily on the value of the object, the relative values of a pristine Desperate Bicycles seven-inch disk versus a somewhat damaged Misfits twelveinch. A messy re-ordering of musical history sorted out through a simple, unilateral group affirmation: the eBay auction. In that postcapitalist supermarket you will find the ultimate declaration of value when the Misfits’ twelve-inch sells for $2500, and a Desperate Bicycles original seven-inch (with sleeve) for a paltry $45. The cult of the obsolete creates a hierarchy of subjective valuations affirmed by a community through the pricing of the object. Even though the Misfits exceed the Desperate Bicycles in price, both artists’ musical legacies are preserved by a common form, suggesting that content in conjunction with the object dictates the valuation of the music as a communal expression of dissent, disgust, and resentment. Vinyl, and its cult of the obsolete, is also a migrating type of neotraditionalism. It is a talisman for those who require context and continuity, a patina of time that is both linear and tangible, a communal sense of art via the audience, which can be touched, appreciated, and



found in the object. This cult employs rituals like unlocking the secrets of a double gatefold, marking the inner label of a seven-inch with one’s name, and examining these objects later in search of memory’s frisson. In a sense its members are bold contrarians; in another, pallid sentimentalists. Whether grasping at Whether grasping at straws and finding straws and finding comfort comfort in a world that no longer exists, in a world that no longer or waving off the dsytopian future of exists, or waving off the a Brave New World with a Pink Turds dsytopian future of a Brave picture disk, the ultimate goal is, either New World with a Pink way, to re-orient social relations to the Turds picture disk, the ulti- way things were. In opposition to this cult of the mate goal is, either way, to obsolete, there is, of course, the cult of re-orient social relations to the individual, which uses the MP3 as the way things were. currency for barter. If we extend the underlying principle of the technology, that is, that it magnifies the imperatives of the people that use it, the MP3 becomes another distinct marker in the evolution of human values. Nothing governs the soul like form, at least in a world in which the soul is confronted by corporeal being. The city, an urban sculpture, is more likely to lend itself to this idea, but it is easy to understand that the digital world has form as well, albeit not constituted in a way we are used to. If a digital highway is built with electrons, then we can conclude that the cultural symbols of this hidden architecture are fluid representations of power. The speed of light is not really attuned to our sensibilities, as Jean Baudrillard noted, but we are accustomed to its power. As the mysterious innards of our machines grow smaller, our sense of empowerment grows inversely proportionate. This is the triumph of the individual, elucidated on a keyboard; our fingers claw for the words, but we find the mettle in clicks of the mouse. The distinction between original and duplicate, the cult of the original versus the politics of copy, can be thought of differently through the lenses of digital technology. Both forms—the vinyl record or the MP3—represent markers or representations of human values in the process of change in relation to art. To recondition our æsthetics, we must first be prepared in some way to accept the consequences of change. Just as the entryways of buildings seek to re-orient our senses in preparation for bolder architectural statement, so does the form of certain technologies prepare our perceptual instinct to accept the realities



of new types of relations. The MP3 is a loose entry feature that presupposes that the individual is empowered to render a personalized, cut-and-paste culture. In Species of Spaces and other Pieces, Georges Perec elliptically studied the defining limits of objects, the import of a bed or the wall in his apartment, for instance, to comprehend how form defines our customs and habits.6 In one passage, he sought the extra room, the space without function, “neither the usable nor the unused, but the useless.” As I contemplate the sagging industrial shelves stocked with hundreds of vinyl albums in an aging Baltimore ex-mansion, I think I’ve found what Perec meant. The extra room, the spare shelf, the triple gatefold matte finish jacket: as Perec pointed out, the spare room was the defining space, the entree to the void that defined all other rooms. Vinyl has the “spare-room” quality, the replication void that defines by its limitations the powerful properties of the MP3. Neither usable nor unused, it continues to have a role in the dissemination of art, by virtue of the obsolescence of its technology and the obvious distinctiveness of its form.
ENDNOTES: 1 “Triple gatefold” is similar to a tri-fold compact disk booklet, with three attached panels that open to display artwork, lyrics, or both. The standard weight of commercial vinyl is between 115 and 130 grams of vinyl per disk. 180- to 220-gram disks are considered “audiophile” quality due to their increased durability and deeper grooves. Many re-issues of jazz, rock, and/or punk classics are 180- to 220-gram disks. Soundscan™ is a point-of-purchase sales tracking service that generates the information used to calculate all of Billboard magazine’s sales charts. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1937. Available at <http://bid.berkeley.edu/bidclass/readings/benjamin.html> and numerous other Web locations. MIDI is the “Musical Instrument Digital Interface” standard, which, along with readily-available synthesizers, revolutionized music by facilitating production in home studios in addition to commercial recording facilities. “Ripping” refers to capturing audio from commercial CDs to computer files which can then be compressed into MP3s and, for example, easily distributed on the Internet. Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, John Sturrock, trans., John Sturrock, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1997).

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