Sunday, February 10, 2008

Vinyl Mythology

A couple of weeks ago, an indie rock band appeared on the David Letterman program to play a song from their new album. When Dave announced them, and the song they were playing, "off of their new record, _________", he held up, instead of the familiar promo CD, a vinyl LP. "Look at the size of this CD!"

Let's be extremely naive for a moment. What is accomplished by presenting an LP instead of a CD?

The dumbest thing
we can think of would be that the album is *not* available on CD, but only on vinyl. Fans will have to purchase a turntable to play it! Well, clearly that is not the case. If the promo is meant to indicate the primary method of distribution for the album (obviously the initial intent of holding it up: see, this is what it looks like, go buy it), then Dave would have to hold up an mp3.

Still playing dumb, we have to remark on Dave's feigned surprise. In a scripted routine, he is shocked at the "size of this CD," but then Paul Schaeffer reminds him that it is vinyl, as though Dave didn't purchase vinyl albums for thirty years. That is, the (rather bad) joke is on our having forgotten that these things exist, or more likely, on a feeling of having-seen-something-like-that-somewhere-before.

What is really going on, however, is that you are being paid a compliment. "You, dear consumer, you know what's it like, being a cool white kid. These old fogeys don't understand you. But you are cool enough, we can let you in on a secret. But the secret is already us, our music. We mutually recognize each other. You know our code, and we know you are the right person to hazard this antique medium to listen to us."

Undoubtedly this is a fairly broad compliment. One does not have to own a record player to feel it (as I said, the mp3 will surely be the primary method of distribution here)--one merely has to feel special for having this piece of large plastic signify a historically-determined distinction. In the 1970s, holding up an LP would mean nothing. In the 1990s, it would only have been confusing. But in 2008, when Radiohead are releasing albums on the internet, it means something else.

An anecdote: when I first started buying records in 2001, everyone always asked me if I "scratched," that is, if I did hip-hop DJing. This was the only imaginable use for albums. Now, everyone knows that certain genres (with their own class base) will have this medium available to purchase. It is a loss leader. Vinyl is several times more expensive to produce than compact discs, but the assumption is that those who purchase it will spread the word, and act as tastemakers. They will review it, blog about it, etc. If you see the disconnect here: the person buying the *more* antiquated medium is likely *more* plugged in to the internet and advanced forms of "viral" marketing. Vinyl is a viral marketing tool.

Reading Roland Barthes' "Mythologies," one learns a great deal about the unarticulated, subtle, pervasive, and inscrutable judgments of bourgeois society, the basis of which is obscured by "ideology" but which is always the means of production and class structure. I forget if Barthes is this explicit, but he knew all this. The point to make here is that "vinyl" as a signifier in this instance can only work if it indicates the opposite of its latent message: "You are part of an exclusive club." As I wrote in a previous post, "indie is the new name for the million-seller." The omphalos, or navel, of this mass of significations, is the bourgeoisie's own myth of itself: bohemian, cultured, elite, "knowing." And it rests on the assumption (counter to the surprise of Dave or the limited nature of the vinyl pressing) that this signification *be understood.* No one will ask the buyer of this album "if they scratch."


furtanic said...

Maybe Vinyl sleeves just look better on TV? (no need for awkward zoomed-in shot). Weirdly, that album is not available on vinyl in the US until the 19th. Three weeks after the CD was released (and debuted on Billboard's top 20 album chart) and therefore not serving it's tastemaker purpose. Or in the case of this band, the mp3's & blogs served that role. Why put the album out on vinyl for this band at this point anyway? Maybe the band insisted?

Tim said...

As F said, they use the vinyl on TV because it's bigger. This is not the first time Dave's made that joke. And, frankly, I think his audience tends to be a lot more white-haired midwesterner than hipster 20-something, so the joke is more "Kids these days! (wink, wink)" than anything else. I'd bet pennies to dollars that David Letterman has absolutely no clue how a typical reader of Barthes interprets Vinyl.

In other words, yeah, the joke was "You are part of an exclusive club." But the club he's talking about is people who were confused about the introduction of the CD, and are now even more confused about where all the Tower Records went (and why the heck did they call it RECORDS if they sold CDS, amirite??)

(e.g. this cartoon)

B. Willett Parker said...

Guys, it's just an example. The release date, the audience, whether this has happened before--all very nice to know, but not relevant to the point I'm making.

I would bet pennies to dollars that David Letterman has no idea who Roland Barthes even is. But that's not the point here.

As I hinted, this is a Marxist analysis. And the one thing you need to know about "behavior" within ideology (in Marx's definition) is, "they do not know it, but they are doing it." I am not saying this is an elaborate PLAN. Anything but.

Tim said...

So not only has the author died, bourgeois society has its hand up his ass!

furtanic said...

oh, a Marxist Analysis. Why didn't you mention that in the first place?

Would you at least concede that it's possible that the dialogue re:vinyl is not exclusively w/ 20 somethings cool white kids, but also w/ 50 something aging white cool kids who used to have vinyl? Can't a thing signify multiple things to different (possibly overlapping) audiences?

But that's all a distraction because in this case it's not clear that it is doing what you claim it does. And your claim that "what is really going on" seems poorly supported (even if I might tend to agree with you.)

sing_o_muse said...

I'm not really sure about the vinyl cost vs. CD cost having much to do with it. No matter how little or much it costs, no store will sell it for less than $14.

You can get your vinyl pressed for $1/LP. The big cost is not the manufacture, but the shipping and handling. Plus there's still a ton of vinyl around, as much of it just as shitty as what's on CDs.

A cultural Marxist critique might be more along the lines of: people think buying LP gives them more purchased identity than buying a CD than buying 0s and 1s. So those with money or concern, do.