Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Dusty Grooves

Published in SMITHS magazine, 2010

Record collecting comes on like a sudden disease, like that cold you never saw coming that keeps you in bed for a week. I don’t know if anyone intends to start collecting records. It simply seems to be the inevitable consequence of not being able to get enough of new sounds, of simply not being able to stop with a Finders Keepers or Jazzman compilation which does all the digging and research for you. Offering an enticing glimpse into all that lies above and beyond, there is no way to resist delving into all those hybrid genres with hyphenated names: space-jazz, acid-folk, psychedelic-soul, sister-funk etc. Eventually, you will find yourself spending hours at record fairs, trawling through Ebay and reissue company websites and chatting to like-minded folk on record collector forums. Now, despite what mainstream films like ‘Ghost World’ and ‘High Fidelity’ suggest, record collectors are not boring. They tend to have a wide range of interests, are highly articulate and have an unforgiving sense of humour. They live and breathe their particular passion and are very generous when it comes to sharing information about music. They’re laidback. They like weird B-movies. Basically, they’re pretty good company.

And yet, as you immerse yourself in the culture, become acquainted with the language of record grading and categorisation, contentious issues start to arise. It is generally accepted that vinyl is superior to CD’s and any other formats. The reasons for this tend to come down pure visual and tactile appeal (record collectors love to fetishise that modular groove) and, somewhat predictably, the question of authenticity. To extol the virtues of vinyl is to speak to it as living history, as a product of formal classicism flying in the face of an incessant modernity. Essentially, it is implied that to exclusively own vinyl is to prove your commitment, investment and attachment to music itself. Because it pre-dates tapes, CD’s and all other formats, it engenders a sense of ownership or discovery of originality. It is perhaps not unfair to say that the obsession with rare records has everything to do with a sense of satisfaction and bragging rights as it does the actual music itself.

Of course, such arguments are not exactly new. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin wrote any reproduction of a work of art will always lack the original ‘presence in time and space, its unique existence of the place where it happens to be...that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’. Much later, Baudrillard defined the postmodern age as that in which the simulacrum has effectively replaced reality. The former decries reproduction; the former accepts its inevitability as ‘reality’ as we have understood it, no longer exists. It’s not hard to figure out what side most record collectors would be on. And yet, you don’t have to adopt Baudrillard’s mode of thought wholesale to offer up a counter argument. It is certainly true that records have a very particular sense of history but, as it always has done, history comes at a price. Original copies nearly always cost considerably more than reissues and reissues on CD are considerably more available than records. When it comes down to either waiting desperately for an original first pressing of excellent weird psych-folk artists like Coven or Simon Finn to show up and then paying hundreds of pounds for it or buying it a much cheaper CD copy from Amazon, I know which one my desire and bank account will go for. Perhaps there is something to be said about patience but the only way someone becomes a collector of music in the first place is because they love to listen to it. It is the listening experience and the desire for that experience that needs to come first. When all of that is placed secondary to its format, it seems that the way in which record collectors privilege vinyl is more to do with the values of collecting than the values associated with being a music lover. That is, cataloguing and assessing its monetary importance rather than sitting back and enjoying the music for what it is, in whatever format it is available in.

Let’s be clear: I’m not at all suggesting that record collectors do not care about or appreciate the music. Nor am I endorsing bad quality music, illegally bootlegged and given away for free on the internet. Nor do I have anything against vinyl. I own vinyl. I also own CD’s and MP3 copies of super rare records that I will probably never have the opportunity to own (kindly sent to me by the record’s original owners). My point only has to do with those occasional moments in record collector culture when it seems that it’s possible to lose the wood for the trees. Records are not like antique figurines or dolls, destined to collect dust inside a glass cabinet and look pretty. Yes, they do look pretty but the privilege of owning them should lie squarely in the fact that that attractive modular groove produces all manners of interesting and exciting sounds. And maybe sometimes, its lack of ‘aura’ needs to be forgiven. Beside, regardless of its format, music is always so much more than a mechanical reproduction.

© 2010 Emma Mould

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