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."