Discarded Plastic

I concede. I’m a record collector.  Music drives my life.  It’s mood is my own.  It quenches thirst.  Weaves together memory.  Founds friendship. Teaches empathy.  It brings joy.  Despite my dedication to vinyl as a format, my love for its content far outweighs any fetish for the object.  Music leads, above all things.

Over two and a half decades, I’ve weathered a storm at the hands of the record industry.  Drifting through the age of paper thin vinyl, cassette, CD, digital download and back again to the vinyl record.  I’ve sifted through thousands of hours of content.  Endured an industry throwing shit at the wall to find a single gem.  Watched a slow degradation of delivery and audio quality.  These years leaving in their wake, countless dollars and endless boxes (not to mention hard drives) filled with formats I regret.  Like most of my generation, I’ve owned my favorite albums on three formats before settling on the vinyl copy.  Despite frustration and waste, I will never stop buying music. There is no end to my desire for it to live in my world.  For it to take the journey from shelf to turntable, pronouncing itself with that first inevitable crackle.

In the last year, there’s been a great deal written about the resurgence of vinyl.  None of it by those of us who haunted record stores in the years that plummeting sales claimed casualties.  When we dug in solitude and kept shops afloat. The collectors, the nerds, enthusiasts, obsessives, economizers… the fans who could not be dissuaded and took great value in owning music in a physical format.

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In those years, I never gave it thought.  The music I collected had limited audience.  All of my friends bought records.  Record collecting was outside of a mainstream I had no interest in. I shopped at small businesses, and small businesses are always vulnerable. I only began to take note when large corporate venders started to shutter their doors. Even then, I hardly payed attention. My feeling about the compact disc, these stores’ trade, was so cynical, I was happy to see them go. They were part of, and complicit to, a collapsing industry who fucked over their consumers and got burned in the process. With hind sight, I see a larger condition, created by the record industry, with far greater and lasting consequences than its own mortality.

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The history of the Compact Disc unveils the profound cynicism of the record industry’s regard for its buying public. Most people attribute plummeting album sales to the rise of illegal downloading. What they forget is the record industry thrives on Group-Think.  A pack mentality, where it leads not follows.  Dropping sales were partially the result of a poor product.  But if the rise of iPods and computer speakers tells us anything, sadly, it’s that most people are not invested in the quality of sound. Unless led to the alternative, consumers prefer convenience and thrift over all things. What the CD introduced is a transience in the consumers’ investment in recorded music. Beyond the flimsy, under-invested object, which wears out, degrades and will eventually need to be replaced. The CD introduced the idea of recorded music as a commercially motivated technology, where things become obsolete with the rise of other technologies. This was a drastic shift. If you have a record player which can be regulated to variable speeds, you could still play the first records sold in 1889 (and everything in-between). Beyond wear and tear, mostly do to poor maintenance, mistreatment or habitual use of a worn out stylus, a vinyl record does not lose noticeable fidelity over time. Even at its worst, a great deal of pleasure can  be gained from a well worn and scratched album. It takes effort to render one unplayable. Place this against a CD, where a fingerprint or a small scratch can send it skipping into oblivion, the listener into a state of frustrated madness and eventually to the store to buy another copy. Before an artist gives it value, vinyl is a product of inherent quality and durability. It can literally last forever. Under an older model of capitalism, this would have been a selling point. Companies won consumers on quality and durability.  In 2014, I challenge you to conjure when you last encountered these terms. Durability and capitalism’s necessity for growth are incompatible. For the record industry to produce what it desires as growth and profit, it needs you to replace your purchase and to accept that process as inevitable, with the highest material profit margins. This is capitalism’s inherent cynicism. Produce for less, sell for more. It costs around a penny to produce a finished CD. The cost of producing vinyl is exponentially higher.  More importantly, until very recently, the retail price of a vinyl record was roughly the same as its digital counterpart. The motive for discontinuing or suppressing it becomes transparent.

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The CD is a flawed, inferior product, but the problem is not the object itself. Had we been given a choice of format, on similar terms as the cassette, one of lower fidelity but greater convenience, or one for long duration works, unsuited for other formats, I expect people would have shifted toward it. Tapes wear out and I’m not pointing my finger at their corpse. The cynicism lies with how the CD was forced on the consumer in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was the record companies’ desire to make a generation replace functional albums with the new inferior format. This was inherently self-serving, at the expense of their listeners. A profit motive. A con.

Sadly, the cost of shifting from analog to digital was far greater than fidelity, outmoded albums, or inferior replacement. The cost was a learned behavior. How we were taught how to invest in the object of recorded music. The CD accepted a transference of meaning, from the way it entered the world, onto the way it lived in our lives. It was an under-invested, disposable object with limited life. Thus recorded music acquired this temporal importance. Through mistrust and learned behavior we became cynical.  Why invest in something that hasn’t been invested in?  I suspect, had vinyl remained, and no other format introduced in the ensuing years before digital downloads, illegal or otherwise, record sales would have remained stable with their introduction. The distance between a download and a record is so chasmic, and our understanding of the value of vinyl so clear, who could confuse it with a compressed piece of music in some unknown ether.  If you contrast the endless shoe boxes of broken jewel cases, and loose CD’s littering the floors of our cars and bedrooms, through the 90’s and 2000’s, you might understand how we came to a place where recorded music was quite literally disposable. It’s easy to see the digital download as a kind of karma exacting its revenge on the music industry. In truth its rise was part of a continuum of learned behavior, the origin of which is the very industry it has come to undo.

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Vinyl’s return is remarkable. I can’t deny missing the days when I was alone, sifting through the stacks. That has changed. Sometimes to frustration. But I’m happy to see shops thriving. I’m happy that new record stores are opening, replacing ones we lost along the way.  More than anything, I’m happy to see people buying records again. I believe vinyl is the only viable and sustainable format for recorded music and want to see it thrive. I believe everyone should invest in music and bring it into their lives. I hope it brings each listener joy.  When it came to the fate of vinyl, I love the fact that it was the DJs, collectors, music lovers, independent labels and shops that ultimately had the final say. Not the major label industry that tried to destroy it. Unfortunately, if I believed the return of vinyl as a mainstream format, and its fate, was safe, there would be nothing but silence on these pages.

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Over the last five years, I have watched a change in the culture of the vinyl record, paced with the resurrection of that same object. Sometimes at the expense of those of us who have carried the format through the years. It goes beyond negotiating throngs of Millennials at the crates. The thinning secondary market stock. Dealers buying shop stock to sell online at unnatural prices. Or even physical shops holding back their best records, to do the same. These things relate to second hand records, remnants of vinyl’s former hay-day. They affect me, not necessarily the future of vinyl. My concerns directly relate to the locality of new vinyl records. How they enter and exist in the market place and the subsequent lives of those who purchase them. My greatest concern relates to the cynicism toward recorded music, which was sown by the major label industry with the introduction of the CD, entering the world of vinyl sales for the first time. This, and a new desire for profit.

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Today’s record shop is formed by the record collector. Collectors own the shops. Collectors work there. Collectors shop there. Collectors’ demand dictates what can be found in a shop and its price. It was faith in the format that kept record shops alive, not a hope for profit. It is a connoisseur’s brand of capitalism, and in so being, simple and direct. Basic supply and demand directly relating to the available commodity. This culture largely sprang into existence after the deletion of vinyl and was a fairly stable and autonomous microcosm for the last two and a half decades. That is, until recently.

In a few short years, the contexts of the collector have been turned on the record buyer, motivated by short term profit.  Unknowingly, vinyl has become a luxury object. It has quality. It’s beautiful. Obscure. Often rare, or produced in a limited run. It requires investment in specialized equipment.  Sometimes commands exorbitant prices.  It sounds best.  It’s become the format for people “who know better”. This is part of vinyl’s recent resurgence. The desire for objects with the inference of “knowing better”.  Of having taste.  It has been cast as a luxury good. A position happily accepted by producers and sellers, without recognizing luxury goods are subject to the vulnerabilities of fashion. A natural backlash. Fickle buyers turn as quickly as they come running. Every industry invests to stave off this phenomenon.  To establish a sustainable lasting demand for what they produce. Those who take their customers for granted, crumble.

Unfortunately, the vinyl market is slowly turning its back on those who historically supported and formed it, those who “know better”, in favor of a market that can be easily manipulated but is unsustainable and fickle. In other words, the introduction of vinyl to a larger market with a similar bad faith and cynicism that introduced the CD. A profit motive and con.

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When mainstream vinyl production was deleted over two decades ago, the market shrank to an organic equilibrium that could be sustained by music “connoisseurs” and collectors. This market was small, driven by the knowledgeable, and self-policing. It was held in check by a code of ethics dictating “quality first”. If a label, shop or dealer tried to sell an inferior product or mark up prices, their entire consumer base knew better than to buy it. If the behavior became habitual, the offenders almost always failed and went out of business.

Two or three years ago, the average price of a new record ran between $10 and $15 and sometimes drifted toward $20 for a double LP. These prices where logically dictated by the market the record entered. One dominated by a knowledgeable consumer. A label pressing a reissue or a new record had to motivate a limited buying public, fully aware of what they were buying, and all of its contexts. Which is why, until recently, the reissue market has largely focused on rare and obscure (read expensive) records. There is an inbuilt demand. If the average price of an obtainable record was $20, why would a collector pay close to the same for a reissue? New record prices hovered below the average of collectable ones. Which makes sense. For those of us with budgets smaller than our appetites, and who put the music over the collectable object, reissues are a great option. The logical price point also made new music affordable enough to commit to and explore. This was the result of a basic strategy of balanced capitalism. Seduce the buyer with affordability, quality or the otherwise unattainable. In the process foster a loyal buying public.

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In recent years, I have watched a total inversion of this basic logic. The pace of the growing market has out-stepped the potential for a knowledgeable consumer base. Reissues of common albums (read cheap), being pressed for a new base and pushing the $25 mark. These clearly take for granted a buying public who does not know better. This seems to be part of a larger phenomenon in the pricing of new records across the board. Replacement stock often costs $5 more than its predecessor. Second pressing sometimes pushing prices up another $10.  I buy too many records not to pay attention to the prices. There is no accounting for the radical increases, beyond the presumption of a gullible consumer. Particularly when a number of small labels continue to release records (yes they pay their artists!) at the old price point. I doubt they are losing money, or have found a way to maintain lower production costs. They simply operate in good faith. Record plants are clearly thriving, it’s unlikely they are radically raising their prices. I’m sure labels aren’t paying their artists the reflected percentage. Someone is pulling a fast one.  No one seems to notices the discrepancies. Sales continue to grow and grow, for now.

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Part of what made me a music lover, even from a young age, was that I could afford to be. In the beginning it took an entire month’s allowance to buy a single release. I did this faithfully month in and month out. Most record collectors have the same narrative. We sacrifice for music. The exchange is fair.  It keeps us coming back for more. Buying music has always been exciting, and for this I have to acknowledge many record stores and independent labels along the way. Their historical respect for their customers, and belief in our ability to learn, grow, and approach challenges, brought a great deal of wonderful music into my life. Had those shops and labels pandered to a presumption of desire, I would have become bored and drifted away.  Had their motive been profit, the music I love, out of reach.

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Any industry that lacks respect for its consumer, is bound to fail. People learn. The producers and sellers of new vinyl, seem to be forgetting this. As a result, many shops and labels are losing an opportunity for sustainable growth. They have adopted the worst qualities of the industry at large. Cynicism. Opportunism. Dubious marketing. Dropping interesting artists, and shifting stock towards the presumption of a mainstream demand. Negating wonderful and exciting music in the process. All this, while the price of new vinyl reaches a point were it is prohibitive to most.

My heart skips a beat, rubbing shoulders with a new generation of record buyers. The music industry clearly sees the resurgence of vinyl as a trend. A fluke, to be cashed in on as quickly as possible, before the wind changes. It is not to invest in, foster and develop. If anything quite the opposite. The object they sell you may not be disposable, but your investment in it should be. The consumer is not allowed to drive the market. This is something I believe to be conceived with decision, and dictating the jumping price of records. Quick profit and cost prohibition rolled into one. The suppression of a media through its production. In order for a commodity to survive and grow in a larger economic reality, it must be obtainable, and establish a steady customer base. With prices as they are, this is impossible.

Unless all demand for other formats dries up, there is no impetus for the industry to invest in vinyl. Were this to happen, profits will slip significantly and without the adoption of a new economic model they would perish completely. Only the CD and digital download satisfy the record industry’s inherent cynicism. Produce for less, sell for more. A vinyl record has become this position’s antithesis. It is likely why, despite a growing grassroots interest in the format, there is no vested marketing in it. Any other business that desired success, and has the resources, would have erected billboards and placed magazine adds promoting their product. The answer for this deafening absence, is all too clear.

And sadly, I think the industry is right. Vinyl’s return, in current scale and growth, is probably a trend with short shelf life. This accepting the lack of promotion and cost prohibition outlined above. What I do see is the potential for a cultural shift, regarding how people engage with the object of recorded music, which gives me hope, despite the odds. I believe in the persuasiveness of the format, but not through computer speakers, which is likely how many now experience it. If we want to see the format succeed, we have to focus on what vinyl is as an object. Something of quality and durability, rather than the potential it holds as an aural experience. It is the only format which offers a fair exchange for your investment in music. If this sticks, I hope newcomers will someday hear how wonderful their records really sound. Until then, the object alone should be persuasion enough.

I believe in vinyl as the only viable and sustainable format for recorded music. I want to see it thrive. For it to do so, the industry producing and selling it, large or small, needs to acknowledge its recent history. How it survived. Its appeal beyond fluke or luxury object. It needs to foster a lasting interest in it, within its own terms. Vinyl is an object that gratifies the consumer and captivates the listener. Until recently, it was accessibility and quality that brought new listeners to it. Not the inference of an externalality. For it to find lasting life with new listeners, we need to remember that when we inherited it, we rewrote the terms of its capital. This is a vital part of the format we now hold. We imbued it with a respect and honesty long absent from the recording industry. We sorted through the industries’ sins, and vanquished them to dollar bins. We wrote a better history, and added wonderful labels that popped up along the way. We set the prices, and bought with a fervor. In the process building a world of wonderful objects and sounds all our own. Before we turn over the reins. Before we watch it slip away. I simply remind you of all that we collectively made, with those simple disks of discarded plastic.

-Bradford Bailey

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3 comments

  1. Tina Parsons

    I have kept many of my vinyls from 1958 onward–I still play them on my original stereo record player (speakers on each side)–purchased about 1974–still works, and the sound is amazing!

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  2. 18 months later and what you predicted has become reality, prices for vinyl are mostly over $20 now, also from labels who priced their records $16-$18 only a few months ago. I’m not naive, this is capitalism, it is about profit and nothing else, but when will the vinyl bubble burst? And who will get hurt in the process?

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    • bradfordbailey

      All good questions. It does feel like a bubble, and that many people are making the same mistakes which have caused so many problems for the industry in the past – trying to eek out as much profit as possible, as quickly as possible and not looking to build a sustainable market – I keep seeing announcements of long standing record stores closing and hearing word of severe struggles at independent labels – it does sound like trouble is brewing bellow the surface. Thanks for your thoughts. Best – B

      Like

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