In the new millennium, it seemed as though independent record shops’ retreat from the centre of London – chased out by local taxes, online retail, digital DJ technology and digital file sharing – would be permanent. No more would Saturday afternoons include record-shopping trips through a succession of specialist shops, bumping into the same familiar faces along the way.
Crucially, the vinyl record shop was a physical place, where music was not only sold as a commodity but also discussed as a material object by fans, producers and DJs. Back home with one’s purchases, there was nothing quite like listening to a new acquisition on the hi-fi: hearing an analogue material record can be an event. In our digital age of accelerated information overload, where digital music files facilitate distracted listening, returning to vinyl as a medium could well save our musical sanity. In particular, a 12-inch vinyl record, cut at 33rpm, seems to have a presence, producing a tactile vibration that fills the room and demands to be listened to.
In our digital age of distracted listening, returning to vinyl as a medium could well save our musical sanity
It is for this reason that so many electronic dance DJs have held on to vinyl. DJ theorists Mark Katz, Bernardo A. Attias and Mark J. Butler have recently pointed to the tactile, haptic quality of the vinyl record in the practice of DJing, whether as a turntablist competitor or a dance DJ. As a residual medium in the digital age, the 12-inch record lives on; not only as analogue recording but also as a digitally coded human interface, and via its iconic graphic traces in DJ software on the computer screen.
Approaching vinyl as both material object and cultural icon, Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward focus their object-centred ethnography on the many fans and users of vinyl, including collectors, DJs, technicians and shopkeepers. Identifying a broad range of independent shops in New York, London, Tokyo, Moscow, Melbourne, Brisbane, Tokyo, Bogotá and especially Berlin, they point to the recent revival of the vinyl record shop that has accompanied a modest, but encouraging, growth in sales of the format.
Ignoring chain stores, they identify three types of shops in their investigation of the dynamic processes that produce the vinyl-scapes that, arguably, “narrate the city”. First, the second-hand shops, home to archives of pop, rock, jazz and soul, offer an archaeological “crate-digging” experience. Second, shops for DJs in electronic dance music act as gatekeepers, curating a certain musical aesthetic. Third, lifestyle shops increasingly offer small selections of vinyl along with books, clothes and other objects, or even as part of a cafe. In this way, vinyl is contextualised and recontextualised.
Other recent books, such as Richard Osborne’s Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record (2012), attest to the timeliness of this study and its contribution to the scholarly research in a range of globally dispersed places that has spoken to the complexity of vinyl as medium, thing, commodity and totem. Surprisingly, however, Bartmanski and Woodward’s discussion of handling vinyl does not fully engage with DJ performance, while the book’s exclusive focus on the analogue record means that “the digital age” of the title appears almost as an absence.
Nevertheless, their study is a passionate ode to the analogue record, and testament to how vinyl embodies the content it mediates, with each record’s unique journey etched into the material. As the authors note, vinyl offers a multisensory experience as a tactile and visual object; it is an alternative to the hegemony of what Sir Nigel Thrift refers to as the register of screens.
Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age
By Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward
Bloomsbury, 240pp, £50.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780857856180, 56616 and 57316 (e-book)
Published 18 December 2014