The broken record: vinyl, matter, memory and meaning

By , May 9 2012

“If the phonographic disk had self-consciousness, it could point out while replaying a song that it remembers this particular song. And what appears to us as the effect of a rather simple mechanism would, quite probably, strike the disk as a miraculous ability: memory.”– Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter

For music lovers, waxing poetic about wax is pretty hot right now. It seems like every other day I read interviews with artists or critics about their favourite records, and every other week another news item emerges to herald the rebirth of the format. The virtual archive of John Peel’s collection, overwhelming 2012 Record Store Day sales figures, and the introduction of a new independent record store chart are only the most recent indications that the appeal of vinyl has extended well beyond the narrow markets of purist DJs, obsessive collectors, and taxidermy-ensconced audiophiles. Curiously, all of this is taking place in the decades-old shadow of analogue doomsday prophecies, and amidst a music culture that appears to have adopted the online, digital tools of file-sharing and streaming as preferred methods of circulation. But on the ground, it’s a different story. If I talk to people about music they’ve downloaded, the conversation is generally confined to strict information: “I snagged this, it was OK; that was crap, I just deleted it from iTunes.” Should the topic turn to vinyls, however, a recognizable starry-eyed, child-like glaze washes over their faces, as they recount which signed, limited edition, 180-gram clear purple pressing they’ve just got their hands on.

The appeal of vinyl has extended well beyond the narrow markets of purist DJs, obsessive collectors, and taxidermy-ensconced audiophiles.



People love to talk romantically about big album art, the inserts and posters, the care that has to be taken removing the record from its sleeve, the crackle and hiss as the needle drops. When I get together with friends to listen to records, we pass the dust jacket around like a bottle in a bag (sometimes with a bottle in a bag) and discuss these things, as well as the music we’re listening to, our lives, the things that matter to us. I like these times, and the record is a central component to those experiences. But the predilection for vinyl is also criticised as an antiquated, expensive, elitist practice of compulsive hoarding, which in turn fuels dubious and artificially inflated markets dealing in rarefied artifacts of technology and media. These are fair points, which make me wonder: am I really just some crusty retronaut clinging to archaic disks, and a piece of “bourgeois furniture” to play them on? Well, yes, but only in part. I think that these romantic features we love about vinyl are not only interesting, but also important, because they’re nothing less than the things that give meaning to the music we listen to.





Over the past two decades or so, the sands of music culture have shifted in various and unexpected ways, troubling ideas surrounding, for example, fidelity, definition, or a recording’s indexical link to something lifelike. Instead, a good deal of commentary of late has couched the renewed affection for vinyl into a kind of technostalgic discourse. From art historians for slide projectors, mid-western cassette tape lovers, Brooklyn hipster type-ins, and even suggestions of retromaniacal modes of consumption, digital culture has relinquished some of its capital and caché back to the old-time thingness of things. But these wistful narratives alone don’t account for the droves of digital natives discovering more traditional technologies for the first time. And Phil England’s recent column in The Wire is one of many reminders that apparently dematerialized digital artifacts leave substantial footprints behind.

Wistful narratives of technostalgia alone don’t account for the droves of digital natives discovering more traditional technologies for the first time.



In a 2011 article entitled ‘When Materiality “Bites Back”‘, sociologist Paolo Magaudda writes: “music digitalization and the dematerialization of musical goods do not mean less materiality and do not imply a less relevant social role for material objects within consumption processes.” He suggests that the act of digitization reveals a “reconfiguration of the relationship between materiality and culture [and] leads to a renewed role played by material objects in people’s lives and activities.” That renewed role is vital to how ideas about the music we attach importance to are forged in our individual and collective imaginations, and how we ultimately engage in “shared” listening practices. It’s not that intangible files make us not think about music; it’s that physical formats, to a certain extent, encourage distinct, slower, intersubjective sorts of consideration. As it turns out, material matters after all.





The other day, I came across a dissociated retweet via a friend, from a band called Dawes, stating: “liner notes are imperative.” I found this particularly compelling, because it was just a simple little statement; no photo, no video, no link: it was a powerful four word combo which addressed the material elements that make up our ecosystems of listening; a hypertextual link… back to textuality. In the late 1980s, cultural theorist Gérard Genette dedicated a book-length study to the significance of what he termed ‘paratexts’ to literature: things like book titles, dust jacket design, epigraphs, prefaces: all the items that accompany the text, but aren’t the text themselves. To Genette, these fringe elements contain powerful cues about how the text is to be read. He claims that paratexts occupy “a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that–whether well or poorly understood and achieved–is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.” Album art, record sleeves, inserts, stickers, especially liner notes, and even the weight and colour of the pressing – all the other complementary ephemera that go along with records are music’s paratexts. And there is little question to whether or not these fringes materials contribute to more profound modes of listening.

Each time we smear our greasy fingerprints on an album cover, or scrape the stylus around a platter, we both read from, and write to, that record.



It’s true that a good number of artists include elaborate digital artwork accompanying releases, and of course there have been incalculable white labels, dubplates, and test pressings with little to no fringe facets at all [might the absence of paratext in these instances be a kind of paratext? – out-of-my-depth Ed]. But anecdotal and experiential evidence indicates that paratextual elements overwhelmingly remain the province of physical recordings: how many times have you stolen, er, legally downloaded, unlabelled – or worse, improperly labelled – mp3s? So, what makes paratexts more or less consequential depending on whether they’re virtual or tactile? A key difference rests in differing analogue and digital methods of inscription and circulation, not just for printed matter, but for the entire music object itself. The word ‘phonograph’ implies the writing, the inscribing of sound. Just as liner notes are consigned to paper, music is imprinted into the grooves of the vinyl, the “grooves of history”. If the vinyl artifact is the mediation of a memory, then by playing it we are both remembering and contributing to its contents. And each time we smear our greasy fingerprints on an album cover, or scrape the stylus around a platter, we both read from, and write to, that record, in substantive personal and social ways.

When we go online, we tend to quickly follow prescribed habits that turn “conscious craft” into “unconscious routine”.



In their 1997 article ‘Defining Phonography’, Eric Rothenbuhler and John Peters point out: “Because both the music and the wear and tear of its own life are recorded on the body of the record…playback audibilizes two histories: one of recording and one of the record.” On a similar tack, Pitchfork’s Eric Harvey recently wrote: “Listening histories are embedded into the objects themselves [creating] a sense of the ‘lived-with’ nature of an album.” The phrase “lived-with” suggests a thing that simultaneously collects, and is collected. While mp3s are, in a certain sense, just as much inscribed into the memory of hard drives, they don’t register dirty, sedimentary accumulations. Their job is to unfold the same 0s and 1s every time. Furthermore, when digital data are written over, they are precisely that: overwritten. Records accrue data; mp3s are always-already erased.





A good deal of my thinking on analogue and digital listening has been influenced recently by Nicholas Carr’s equally enlightening and infuriating book The Shallows. Carr proposes that the hyperlinked structure of the internet promotes less sustained, less focused, less engaged – ultimately, shallower – thought. He writes primarily on the exercise of reading online versus reading in print, but I think his findings can be extended to the ways we listen on the internet, especially through supposedly social media. Carr says that, when we go online, we tend to quickly follow prescribed habits that turn “conscious craft” into “unconscious routine”. When we see an update from one of our followees or friends, with a link to a song or video, hyperlinked scripts of “prevailing opinion” are literally propelling us forward. Carr says that these scripts can be useful forms of discovery where social bonds are already established, but cautiously notes: “they also mechanize the messy processes of intellectual exploration and even social attachment.” We tend to contemplate these links less in the environment of the internet, amidst steady streams of distracting stimulation. What is more, they become meaningless when stripped of their social spatiotemporal context.

When we see an update from one of our followees or friends, with a link to a song or video, hyperlinked scripts of “prevailing opinion” are literally propelling us forward.



In his 2006 article ‘The Life and Death of Digital Audio’, sound scholar and historian Jonathan Sterne writes: “Regardless of whether potential definition is increased or compromised in a particular form, digital audio is incredibly mobile and incredibly social.” But I believe there’s a problem with the kinds of mobility and sociality that digital audio encourages when it moves online: it enables experiences that are far less collective than they are individual. While digital music is mobile and social in its capacity to be shared quickly, in frictionless climates, services like Last.fm, Spotify, and This Is My Jam substitute social space for social place. Online, we don’t really know why we’re listening, we are not listening together, and we’re not listening for long. The music’s importance is flattened at the interface.

Online, we don’t really know why we’re listening, we are not listening together, and we’re not listening for long.



An essay entitled ‘Record and Hold’, which analyzes the connection between memory and music, finds José van Dijck maintaining: “musical memories become manifest at the intersections of personal and collective memory and identity.” And Rothenbuhler and Peters conclude that the record “is a better medium for both collective and personal memory.” In order to form meaningfully, those memories require durational, sometimes solitary, sometimes shared listening experiences – in co-presence, in meatspace – and not just randomly posting to Facebook and Twitter whatever we happen to be listening to at that particular second. Flipping through a friend’s vinyl collection is not the same process as navigating the I-me-minefield of decontextualized updates, from people we may or may not know personally, while doing all the other things we do on our digital devices. Sharing vinyl is a far richer way of making your jam, or my jam, our jam.

Our albums may get warped, or scratched, or broken, but they cannot be deleted.



So, after some deliberation, it seems the re-remembrance of records was well poised, because vinyl itself is memory in material. Our albums may get warped, or scratched, or broken, but they cannot be deleted. When we listen to records – alone, together, when and wherever – we’re obliged to do so differently. We listen in ways that don’t necessarily require the desire for a fetishised commodity, or perfect fidelity, or nostalgia for residual technologies. We listen with something solid to read, look at, hold on to, talk and think about. We tend to listen for longer. And we simultaneously hear a recording, and our memories of it. When we share those experiences in space and time, our subsequent understandings become that much more meaningful. Not that listening digitally, or discovering and sharing music online, doesn’t have its virtues. But we mustn’t confuse #nowplaying with now playing.

What matters most about my personal vinyl collection is not its aftermarket value, but that each record is also an object that remembers every time it was listened to, an object that will be re-circulated well after I’m dead and gone, and not locked away on some obsolete hard drive. However, I’m afraid that my digital collection will be forgotten forever, unfortunately, because no one knows my password.

Ryan Alexander Diduck
Gatefold photography by Matthew Ingram

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