I finally got round listening to the second LP from my newly purchased (second-hand) copy of London Calling and, as I had hoped, it was much cleaner. Obviously whoever owned it before didn’t often play it all the way through, which isn’t too surprising as I know I’m a lot more familiar with the songs in the first half. And when I went back and properly cleaned the first LP (which I really should have done to start with, for the sake of my stylus if nothing else), it did noticeably help.
The thought had occurred to me, however, that record hiss is probably one of the most primary signifiers of vinyl’s physicality - not to over-romanticise it. In fact it’s not something I’ve encountered much or at all, simply because I don’t have that many ‘old’ second-hand records - the only one of similar vintage is a copy of The Undertones, or Patti Smith’s Easter, neither of which seem much overplayed in the way London Calling probably invites naturally. It’s interesting to experience nonetheless, from the strongly audible crackling as soon as the needle hits the record (instead of the normal muted stutter) to the soft fuzz surrounding the opening chords of ‘London Calling’ (which however is quickly overpowered by its booming rhythm) or to hear the quiet beginnings of ‘Jimmy Jazz’ suddenly filled with extraneous noise. It may all be an illusion, but I frequently find that vinyl makes me listen to music with more depth and attention.
This quote, which seems to imply that overpriced CDs caused the invention of MP3s*, came across my dash a while ago with a sizeable conversation around it that I was going to join with the above criticism, but then never got around to completing the post. Now someone has asked me about my thoughts on the topic in general, I’ll wade in again.
Simply put, we’d all (at least on the consumer side) like vinyl to be less expensive, but as long as it’s sold by capitalists and we keep buying it at inflated prices, the price will keep climbing. And throwing around the accusation of ‘greed’ when your site and article is about record collecting is a bit… disingenuous, I suppose. Personally I don’t think of myself as a record collector in any kind of meaningful sense, although that is apparently what all vinyl buyers are now - any more than I am a ‘book collector’ simply because I buy (physical) books and like nice editions. With vinyl the use value is paramount, although the use I get out of them is (visually) aesthetic and kinaesthetic as much as aural, and also includes what is I guess technically the exchange value of contributing to the artist.
I think the real significant difference between CDs then, and vinyl now, is that while CDs represented the default music format for most, and thus the price was what the wider market could bear, vinyl is obviously (and will remain) a smaller and self-selecting market, a subset with a different reference point for ‘fair’ prices. If labels price themselves out of a wider group of consumers, without too much disposable income but with a moderate interest in vinyl, in favour of a more affluent and dedicated bunch of fans willing to pay high prices, it may not be bad business strategy in the short term (and since when does capitalism really think about anything else?). This is a good and more reasonable piece on the dangers of a speculative collectors’ bubble crowding out more ordinary fans:
"The vinyl marketplace is probably permanently contracted, but rather than over-serving the superfan, it should pivot toward super-serving the casual fan. Anyone should be able to walk into any record store in the world and buy a standard vinyl copy of Nevermind for a reasonable price, rather than confronting the 180 gram pressing or the deluxe quadruple LP that fishes for their cash from a lofty wall display. In its attempts to scrape profits out of a niche, the business has squeezed its output out of the bins entirely.”
There’s the ‘should’ word in there of course, and I think a distinction should be made about whether one is making a business case in warning against the collapse of speculative bubble, or arguing for broader access to vinyl as a cultural good. The two probably do converge, nevertheless, and logically there could be a good opportunity for producers to grow the market with reasonably-priced offers (if the gain is greater than artificially creating and curating a niche market); but each argument is based on different values and assumptions which ought to be examined. You can’t have your cake and eat it: you can’t have cheap vinyl and have them be genuine limited editions of popular artists. Which, to be fair, we know and we don’t want the latter if we want the former: but as long as there are sufficient people with the resources and inclination to buy the expensive stuff, it will continue that way.**
'Overpriced' vinyl is a consequence of its status as a fetish object, rather than a mass consumer good; even the high prices of CDs were a function of their status as luxuries, with no equivalent substitution goods (until mp3s…). To bring vinyl or CDs down to an accessible and 'reasonable' price, as in the Dischord Records example used, requires or required stepping outside of capitalism and the pursuit of profit to some extent. Recasting that as a moral obligation within a commercial industry, to somehow service fans with low-cost vinyl because it will make them culturally superior, if not financially poorer, is ultimately just bunk. Yet the discourse seems to be not 'fuck capitalism' (allowing people to make their own choices about accessing culture) but 'vinyl needs to grow' (as if the culture industry will heed the aspirations of a minority who seem content in propping up their own niche status).
Of course, current recording artists have an interest, both financial and artistic, in making their records accessible, so I don’t see as much issue with inflation at the low- to mid-levels. Above that, artists have the recognition and the backing to put out an expensive record that channels money back to themselves and their labels (who are paying for more extensive distribution and marketing, of course) so greed, essentially, becomes a possibility. Likewise, and especially, for back catalogue reissues - which are just a way of trading on reputation to maximise a niche value. It may have to change if it is to remain sustainable, and it ought to change if it is to be fair, but those are different aims.
*I’m not saying it had no effect on spurring technological development in filesharing or that it didn’t (rather obviously) exacerbate the scale of the subsequent collapse in revenues, but if CDs had been more moderately priced, would Napster never have happened? Of course not - and thereafter the issue was not so much the price of music but whether it had any monetary value at all.
**One potential, theoretical upset to this extraction of value from record collectors, similar to the effect of mp3s on the CD market, would be if 3D-printed records became a genuine alternative. It still seems some way off before there is the resolution required to produce a passable copy, and in machines cheap and small enough for home use, but let’s just say it will happen: then the physical object can be made (through an entirely digital process, incidentally) by the end user, and the means of production of the niche good (only, presumably - and legally - the digital file from which it is produced, and we know how that works) is no longer in control of the labels. It wouldn’t appeal to everyone of course, and there would probably still be the attraction of a known imprint, as well as genuine analogue resolution - but the prices to be commanded wouldn’t be as high, and thus the bottom would fall out of the speculative market for good.