There seems to be something inherently counter about the way in which we consider the place of vinyl in the contemporary musical economy, an economy that has seen substantial change in recent years. Fleisher and Snickars have noted that, as of 2017, the streaming platform Spotify had over 100 million users, 60 million subscribers, with a company valuation of $8 billion (2017: 130). A recent estimate indicated that Spotify holds approximately 50 million tracks in its database (Business of Apps 2020), never before has so much music been accessible to by not necessarily owned by a single user at any one time, perhaps affirming the age of access over ownership predicted by Jeremy Rifkin nearly two decades earlier (Rifkin 2001).
Set against this prevailing image of musical access and superabundance, it is easy to intuit many of the ways in which engagement with the vinyl medium stands apart. Paul Winters notes that ‘young people collect vinyl records because they reject the disposability of current popular music’ (Winters 2016: 67) where ‘young people’, we might assume, are those who did not grow up with vinyl as a/the dominant means of musical consumption. Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward embed the very survival of the vinyl medium into this counter narrative, stating that ‘[v]inyl culture may have seemed abandoned and impoverished, or even downright moribund by the time the 12-inch vinyl became 40 years old. And it may have been effectively dead by the mid-1990s, were it not for the purposeful dedication and spectacular rise another musical universe – the new underground dance cultures such as house, techno and drum’n’bass. Just as the mainstream producers and consumers ditched vinyl like an antiquated toy, an urban avant-garde of club music embraces it as its medium of choice. The vitality of that culture gave vinyl the breadth of life at a critical point. They were the key tools of DJs and, through them, stayed on the radar of your generations accustomed to CDs’ (Bartmanski & Woodward 2015: 21).
This short article presents a challenged to this counter-narrative by examining ways in which the contemporary manifestation of the vinyl medium itself has become increasingly mediated by the very same data-driven musical mechanisms that against which it is often placed in relief. As article develops a notion of ‘cyborg’ vinyl to describe this contemporary situation, and goes on to consider it as an example of the wider posthumanist condition as manifest through music.
Sales figures for newly pressed vinyl provided by the British Phonographic Industry Trade Association (2017) highlight three important dates. In 1991, the then new technology of the CD first overtook vinyl to become the dominant medium of recorded music. From there, vinyl sales continued to decline until 2007. Over the following decade, vinyl sales exponentially increased, returning to c.1991 levels by 2017. In September 2020 it was widely reported (e.g. The Guardian 2020) that vinyl outsold CDs for the first time since the early nineties, a phenomenon that collectively has become known as the vinyl revival. Interestingly, the same decade that saw vinyl ‘revive’ also witnessed online music streaming become a dominant means of music delivery.
This paper is in itself neither a critical history of the vinyl format, nor the digital musical economy, both of which have been provided extensively in wider literature (e.g. Bartmanski & Woodward 2015; Milano 2003; Osborne 2010; Schoonmaker 2010; Shuker 2016; Smith 2011; Winters 2018; Yochim & Biddinger 2008). Nor is this a paper particularly about the vinyl revival per se. Moreover, this enquiry uses the resurgence of vinyl as a lens to examine narratives of the contemporary presence of physical formats within the digital age. Such narratives, this paper will argue, present a siloed caricature of the vinyl medium within our present era. Using ethnographical examination(s) of vinyl in the contemporary age as a methodology, this paper will challenge this image by illustrating ways that the vinyl medium has, as part of its revival, become increasingly mediated by digital data and folded into a wider digital economy.
As a result, understandings of this wider digital economy in regards to music and its socio-cultural and socio-political implications are particularly important to this discussion. Of the many issues that dominate the discourse surrounding this context, its wider conception of music-as-data is of particular relevance here.
Spotify, for example, generates income from advertising, using users’ data as means to target specific audiences for its clients. Maria Eriksson (et al.) describes the environment as one where ‘music has become data’ (2019: 5) and such a scenario leads Eriksson (et al.) to observe that ‘[Spotify] acts, […] not only as a music provider but also as a private data broker’ (Erikson et al. 2019: 3-4). Spotify exposits what John Cheney-Lippold’s calls the data-subject as being the primary unit of corporate interest. Here, ‘[t]he different layers of who we are online, and what who we are means, is decided for us by advertisers, marketers, and governments’ (Cheney-Lippold 2017: 7) – a notion of dataveillance – of means of surveillance through data – arises as a result.
Pelle Snickars describes user engagement with Spotify as one where ‘[u]sers of Spotify can start a radio station based on artist, song, playlist, album, or even genre. For users, Spotify Radio is a ‘lean back experience’, yet with the ability to tune recommendations with thumbs up (like), thumbs down (dislike), or by skipping a song’ (Snickars 2017: 189). Data from user input is then used to generate further recommendations. Thus, algorithmic curation is a common feature of such platforms too. Robert Prey, for example describes the resultant situation as a move away from a consumer image of the self-determining individual to one of an ongoing process of individuation (Prey 2018: 1097).
Of course, not all online music consumption comes via online streaming. Much music is encountered through more participatory platforms, such as YouTube, part of what Henry Jenkins (2006) describes as part of a wider digitally-mediated participatory culture. Yet here issues surrounding algorithmic curation and the data subject remain or are even amplified. As Christine Larabie says, within such contexts ‘Internet users are ostensibly being used as ‘netslaves’, “voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited’ (Larabie 2011: 33). Kylie Jarrett identifies such participation in such digital mechanisms a manifestation of a neo-liberal political economy, where ‘[i]nteractivity […], is a technology which enables the reproduction of neoliberal regimes of power by producing subjects fit for the continuation of that system of power and its particular regimes of control’ (Jarrett 2008: 6).
CONTEMPORARY PERSPECTIVES ON VINYL RECORDS
If discourses surrounding contemporary digital music consumption focus on the critical implications of music and dataveillance, algorithmic curation, and global neo-liberal economics, the discourses around the contemporary presence of vinyl in our age focus on very different themes, including its physicality and/or objecthood; its traditions and nostalgias; its signification as a lifestyle commodity; and its practices of curation and collection.
Physicality and/or Objecthood
Bartmanski and Woodward argue that ‘[t]he objectual quality of analogue copy […] means it needs to be sourced, selected, carried, shipped and dealt with physically. It is this physicality that contributes to vinyl’s status’ (Bartmanski & Woodward 2015: 37). Paul Winters takes this objectual quality further, noting that ‘some vinyl consumers do not even own a turntable’ (Winters 2016: 46).
Such discussion also emphasises the physical nature of vinyl’s sale, focussing on independent brick and mortar record stores (e.g. Hendricks 2010; Hendricks 2016; Hracs & Jansson 2017; Schoop 2018; Sonnichsen 2016). Hendricks notes that vinyl record sales are experiencing an unprecedented explosion through such stores. (Hendricks 2016: 480). International initiatives such as Record Store Day are often accompanied by special physical-only releases for sale in physical stores only.
Traditions and Nostalgias
On wider material culture, David Miller comments that ‘[b]efore we can make things, we are ourselves grown up and mature like wood in the light of things that come down to us from previous generations. (Miller 2010: 53). Simlarly, Winters contends that ‘[f]or vinyl listeners, it is the very imperfections of the technology that help create rituals that constitute the authentic, listening subject, which they perhaps connect with a prelapsarian, more innocent time.’ (Winters 2016: 57).
Bijstervid and Dijck posit a notion of technostalgia, the entanglement of memories with a format rather than necessarily the format itself (2009: 19). As Andreas Fickers elaborates, technostalgia is ‘[m]ore than a return to the past, but rather an attempt to mediate between past and present to achieve a particular sound and effect’ (in Bijstervid and Dijck 2009: 157).
Again, such analysis is extended to the physical stores in which vinyl is often bought. Jansson and Hracs comment that independent records stores are ‘locally embedded [in] cultural scenes and wider trans-local movements. Indeed, while selling vinyl may be a smart commercial strategy, it also helps to ‘preserve’ and promote a traditional or ritualized way of listening to music associated with materiality, symbolic value and intangible experiences’ (Jansson & Hracs 2018: 1614).
The role of vinyl as a lifestyle commodity is also a feature of discussion. Such perspective is useful when examining vinyl outside of Western contexts. In relation to the Philippines, Monika Schoop observes that ‘records only started to spread in the Philippines in the 1980s, a time when the transition to the CD format was already underway’ (Schoop 2018: 12). Schoop observes its popular sale in ‘lifestyle’ stores, noting that ‘the Philippine vinyl revival is an instance of a creative use of a ‘fiction’ rather than an accurate representation of the past’ (Schoop 2018: 4).
Curation and Collection
As Hracs and Jannson outline, record store owners and clerks ‘add value by using their knowledge of the marketplace to educate consumers, helping them, for example, to understand and filter the confusing amount of information about music and vast array of product variations […]’ (Hracs & Jannsson 2017: 12).
For the individual consumer, such curational practices take the form of practices of vinyl collection, with several scholarly volumes dedicated to the subject (e.g. Milano 2003; Shuker 2016). Bartmanski and Woodward note the special place held by vinyl’s physicality in relation to collection, observing that ‘[t]here is no glory or merit to having your iPod stuffed with millions of electronically cloned files because no serious sacrifice stands behind obtaining them’ (Bartmanski & Woodward 2015: 19).
As can been seen, little to no attention is paid in such discussion to the kinds of issues being considered in relation to the largely data-driven music consumption at large. The historicity materiality and of the medium, and the focus on its physical sites of sale, it seems to be silently implied that vinyl consumption is somehow protected from a the wider digital or neo-liberal agenda through such facets as its nostalgic practices heralding of a ‘more innocent time’ (ibid.) to the embodied knowledges of independent record store clerks.
It should be noted that there exists some acknowledgment of preliterary entwinements of vinyl with the wider digital within its discourse. Hracs and Jansson, for example, note how, ‘[i]n addition to older consumers trying to resurrect nostalgic experiences of record collecting, young people – in their teens and early 20s – are buying vinyl instead of or in conjunction with digital formats’ (Hracs & Jansson 2017: 10), a fact that has been empirically verified (Lee et al. 2020). Winters notes that ‘the return of analog music and vinyl records among YouTube and other social media are to a great degree changing notions of ‘context’ and ‘expertise’’(Winters 2016: 156). But, in actuality, the existence of such comments serve only as the exception(s) that prove the rule. Such discussion stops short of considering any influence of data profiling and algorithm within this space.
Let us move to further challenge this siloed image of vinyl by exploring three indicative case studies which demonstrate much deeper entwinements with the data-driven neo-liberal global economy introduced previously.
THE DIGITAL MEDIATION OF VINYL: THREE CASE STUDIES
Discogs serves as an important sales broker both for individuals and for small independent retailers, charging a 6-8% commission on each transaction conducted. Some studies (e.g. Carnes 2010) show that up to 25% of sales from independent record stores are generated through the Discogs platform.
Discogs hosts a Market Price History function, which algorithmically tracks sales of vinyl through its system and uses this information to value the various pressings and releases held in its database.
The prevalence of Discogs amongst the vinyl-buying community means that is Market Price History algorithms thus holds a huge degree of power over the wider, seemingly offline, marketplace. As Richard Carnes points out, individual ‘[s]ellers are also competing in a market where buyers can find out the price of a record elsewhere by just glancing down a single list’ (Carnes 2010: online). In essence, Discog’s price monitoring algorithms are impacting vinyl prices in bricks and mortar stores, following a wider pattern of online pricing influence in physical retail.
As noted by Hartnett, users are encouraged to register items in their collections with Discogs to create a profile, using the platform’s own bespoke categorisation system. The data profile emergent from this can then be used to algorithmically recommend items to the user in the marketplace – the vinyl Discog users are finding and buying not only bypasses the human processes of digging in human-curated physical stores but is instead algorithmically controlled in this context. The vinyl consumer too, then, is a data subject.
2. 1980s Japanese Ambient Electronica
Writing in The Vinyl Factory, Oli Warwick considers the 2017 vinyl re-release of Japanese ambient electronica artist Midori Takada’s 1983 album, Through the Looking Glass (Red Seal, 1983) on the WRWTFWW (We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want) label. He comments that ‘Through The Looking Glass was plucked from relative obscurity through a series of internet incidents, eventually resulting in a full album rip on YouTube that had amassed around two million plays before it was taken down. After a sizeable buzz, the album was finally reissued [in 2017]’ (Warwick 2017: online).
In the same article, Warwick also outlines a more elaborate path to re-release taken by Japanese electronica band Mirah’s 1983 release Utaka No Hibi [Utaka’s Crack], vinyl rips of which were popularised through embeddings from YouTube on the blogs of well-known DJs, before being re-released in 2017 on the newly founded Empire of Signs label – a label founded specifically for such Japanese electronica.
As Mjøs notes in specific relation to music, there is ‘a long history of algorithmic curation in social media’ (Mjøs 2013: 79). YouTube is no exception – and is particularly renowned for its use of algorithmic recommendations in the presentation of suggested content to its users. The context of this case study suggests that YouTube’s algorithms played a role in (1) renewing interest in particular vinyl releases, (2) renewing interest in an entire genre, and (3) the founding of a new vinyl-led label specifically for that genre. Ultimately, the subsequent re-pressing of physical copies of these albums arose through and not in spite of encounters with the mechanisms of the wider digital economy.
3. The 33rpm Video
The ‘33rpm video’ is a popular form of YouTube content, a format where users upload vinyl rips of 7-inch 45rpm singles played back at 33rpm, slowing the tempo of the original track and lowering its pitch (something any child who has access to vinyl has surely experimented with), presenting those singles that YouTuber channel-curators feel are particularly successful at the slower speed and lower key. Such videos almost always feature film of the spinning turntable, often including the needle drop, the crackling lead-in, and the rise and retraction of the cartridge arm at the end.
Such content coheres with the importance noted previously regarding the physicality and objecthood of the vinyl medium, especially when presented visually as a disc hypnotically spinning on a turntable. But within the context of the 33rpm video such facets of vinyl are being engaged with almost exclusively via digital mediation. One might conclude that, in engaging with this kind of online content, audiences are engaging with the physicality of vinyl without – to extend Winter’s earlier words – necessarily owning a turntable, or for that matter, any records.
Focussing on one such video, in 2010 YouTube user Tom Berry uploaded a 33rpm video of Dolly Parton’s 1973 release Jolene (Victor, 1973). Bolstered by duplication on Facebook’s own video platform (and a further embedding of the video in a 2017 post by entertainment website BoredPanda.com), the video went viral and has now attracted over 10 million views. User comments predominantly feature how effective the song is when presented at the altered speed.
The success of the video also prompted a number of live acts to post ‘covers’ of the 33rpm version of the single, reproducing the slow tempo and lower key of the song in live performance.
It is also interesting to note that internet covers database secondhandsongs.com (which provides lists of commercially available cover versions of original songs) lists 55 cover versions of Jolene from the period 1973-2009 – a rate of c.1.5 cover-releases per year. In comparison, the period 2010-2020 yields 65 cover versions of the song, c.6 cover-releases per year. An apparent increase. Whilst such observations do not present concrete conclusions (and are complicated by, for example, a highly commercially successful cover of the song released by The White Stripes in 2004), one might hypothesise as to whether an algorithmically curated digital vinyl experience has fed back into the creativity of the mainstream music industry here.
Such facets cohere with what Jenkins describes as a convergence culture, meaning ‘the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behaviour of media audiences […]’ (Jenkins 2008: 2). Convergence culture is innately discursive between personal and corporate domains, it is ‘both a top-down corporate-driven process a bottom-up user-driven process’ (Jenkins 2008: 19). Through this, then, Vinyl, it would appear, is not immune to this kind of neo-liberal or corporate discursivity.
Through such examples this paper proposes that far from being immune to the issues surrounding the digital world, vinyl is increasingly embedded within it. Of course, much further research is still needed. If the claims made here are true, then, for example, we would also expect to see a mirroring of tropes in other resurgent physical formats, such as the cassette. But, this paper contends, if the vinyl revival – indeed the convergence culture of the music industry at large – is to be fully understood, physical formats must be more included within discourses of the digital economy. Generally, it seems that vinyl has escaped such enquiry due to its overtly material and physical caricature, shielding it from a digitised gaze.
One might consider the emergent situation in relation to Donna Haraway’s arguments for the abandonment of the independent notions of nature and culture in favour of a singular natureculture (Haraway 2013). Haraway considered the nature/culture dualism as a process of anthropocentric othering which generates a bifurcation where all that really exists is entanglement.
In a similar way, wider literature problematises the digital/material bifurcation on which many methodological assumptions on which our predicament is based. As Radhika Gajjala (et al.) succinctly summarises, “[d]ividing the ‘‘digital’’ from the ‘‘material’’ into discrete, mutually exclusive categories is fairly difficult’ (Gajjala et al. 2017: 276). Kyle Devine reminds us that through the clicking of mice and the swiping of touchscreens, ‘[d]igital music consumption is both physical and tactile’ (Devine 2019: 132). He further invites us to consider that, in these terms, whilst the economy of music consumption has generally moved towards abstraction in recent years, the ecology of music has not (Devine 2019: 30). Conversely, the material has a digital face. As Vili Lehdonvirta points out, ‘[i]n many online arenas, material possessions and consumption styles are flaunted openly’ (Lehdonvirta 2010: 885). Maintaining such material/digital distinctions in musicological consideration of format seems a possible root of the oversight of the space revealed here.
Following Haraway, it is interesting that many contemporary scholars of materialism adopt a similar de-anthropocentrised perspective. ‘Matter is no longer imagined […] as a massive, opaque plenitude but is recognized instead as indeterminate, constantly forming and reforming in unexpected ways. One could conclude accordingly that matter “becomes” rather than matter “is”’ (Coole & Frost 2010: 10). Here, understandings of matter are extended beyond simple anthropocentric notions of that which humans can sense to encompass ‘the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents […]’ (Bennett 2010 p.viii).
As introduced previously, vinyl is continually discussed with a human face. As a tactile tangible object, embedded with traditions, rituals, and lifestyle signifiers. In essence, it is presented as an emblem of human hylomorphism. Yet seen through these kinds of de-anthropocentricised lenses – and illustrated by the kinds of contemporary encounters with vinyl entangled with data-mediation mentioned above – if vinyl is an emblem, it is at the very least a cyborg, ‘that is to say, as creatures of mixity or vectors of posthuman relationality’ (Braidotti 2013: 73). As a data-mediated material form – as a cybord – vinyl instead begins to emerge in the contemporary era as a multidimensional metaphor for the posthuman condition, of the dissolution of a territorialised anthropocentrism, and of a porousness between the human and the non.
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