You can’t copy this

Faust / Faust, originally uploaded by bradleyloos.

[Suggested soundtrack for this post, LCD Soundsystem’s amusing ode to musical obscurity and idolatry, with ruminations on formats, “Losing My Edge]

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CharlesV – LCD Soundsystem – Losing My Edge
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A lot of linkage has justifiably gone towards Kevin Kelly’s post “Better than Free”, which charts a path by which digital work might begin to make sustainable financial sense. The oft-quoted core statement:

When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.

Which brings to mind the revival of my favorite music format, vinyl LPs. The mainstream music industry is as clueless about this phenomenon as they are with everything else, but the DJs, the niche artists and smarter independent record labels certainly get it:

Pressing plants are ramping up production, but where is the demand coming from? Why do so many people still love vinyl, even though its bulky, analog nature is anathema to everything music is supposed to be these days? Records, the vinyl evangelists will tell you, provide more of a connection between fans and artists. And many of today’s music fans buy 180-gram vinyl LPs for home listening and MP3s for their portable devices.

“For many of us, and certainly for many of our artists, the vinyl is the true version of the release,” said Matador’s Patrick Amory. “The size and presence of the artwork, the division into sides, the better sound quality, above all the involvement and work the listener has to put in, all make it the format of choice for people who really care about music.”

Because these music fans also listen using portable players and computers, Matador and other labels include coupons in record packaging that can be used to download MP3 versions of the songs. Amory called the coupon program “hugely popular.”

Exactly right. When I want to connect with a piece of music, vinyl can’t be beat. (I was given a fantastic translucent copy of the reissued LP pictured above for Christmas, and I get a warm feeling every time I handle it… less warm when I listen, it’s rather dissonant and nasty.) I sacrifice some sound quality and sense of aura when I listen to digital music, but it is fluid, easily accessed and portable. And digital music is effectively free, even if I don’t engage in illegal filesharing. I can tune in to a carefully assembled three hour set by one of my favorite DJs, or see what Last.FM turns up for me. Digital is where I sample, browse and explore. Vinyl is where I commune. It’s where I live. I only wish I had the shelf space and the wallet to buy more of it.

I should add that while I all-too-rarely splurge for the occasional premium piece of 180 gram virgin vinyl, I’m more likely to hit the bargain rack for a stack of records that may never have been digitized (though more and more weblogs are addressing that gap). Most of these cheap campy finds are crap, I suppose, but I always feel like an intrepid cultural anthropologist and archivist walking out with a stack of forgotten music, having spent less than the price of a cappuccino. Roy Edroso captures this sensation well:

…the recesses of our cultural memory are an archipelago where vinyl certainly rules. Things were caught on wax that, with rare exceptions, no one will bother to digitize because there’s no money in it, or because no one cares, or because they just plain suck. These artifacts have the same value as any unobserved details of life: they are either worthless or a treasure trove, depending on how much faith one has in the obvious, or patience for that which is not obvious. Like bookstall remainders, garage-sale handicrafts, photos found in the trash, or conversations overheard on the bus, or anything you might happen to attend that did not call attention to itself, they are part of a secret world that is larger, and often more interesting, than the consensus reality we half-awakenly inhabit, and to which we can only abandon ourselves at great risk to our souls.

CDs are inferior to LPs or MP3s in almost every respect. They are expensive, and nearly as hard to store as LPs. The artwork usually borders on pointless. A slight scratch can render the whole thing unplayable. Their long-term storage prospects are a joke compared to vinyl. They are a pain to handle.

More on the niche-driven nature of vinyl’s resurgence in a couple of Guardian articles published last year.

While I’m here, check out this memoir by a longtime rock manager if you doubt that the demise of the existing record industry is something to celebrate, not to mourn.

And if you haven’t encountered producer Steve Albini’s account of music economics from the perspective of an up-and-coming music act, it’s simply a must-read.

7 thoughts on “You can’t copy this

  1. “When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
    When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.”

    This would seem worth a read. (See also this.)

  2. Jon, that reference to aura I tossed in was glib, and shallow, but intentional. I sometimes say I’m waiting for someone to write the “work of art in the age of digital reproduction” but maybe it’s being written all around us. Or maybe it’s already in Benjamin’s text.

    I reread Benjamin’s essay a couple years ago and it got my mind racing on so many levels that I didn’t know what to do with it. So I did nothing. Maybe time for yet another revisit…

    I watched the Berger series when I was an undergrad, but it’s drifted from me… good call.

    Thanks as always!

  3. What a great post. It really captures the uneven development of the digital age we all too often forge forward with mindless notions of progress and the inevitable. The resurgence of vinyl is such an excellent example of the push towards “communing” with the cultural objects around us, and I think the immensely powerful space of the social web has not yet found the space for a more intense communion with the things it represents, and this post is a beautiful reflection on that problematic.

    Also, it’s not everyday I read an edublogger citing Steve Albini! The beauty of all that are abject.

  4. Not necessarily being from a generation where the vinyl is the norm I still have an appreciation for it and in some ways a bit nostalgic about it (odd I know).
    Perhaps its because my family listened to records and I just thought it was the coolest things that a disc with grooves in it and a needle could produce music. And I now have a bunch of friends who have an appreciation for vinyl.
    It would certainly be interesting to see if the future would be heading towards retro again.

  5. It’s strange (or perhaps not so strange, given the Benjamin reference) that this post captures exactly why I’ve felt a desire in recent months to move from digital photography back towards film. I just bought a vintage rangefinder, and I can’t wait to hit the streets with it. I can’t think of any better expression of that feeling than “Digital is where I sample, browse and explore. Vinyl is where I commune. It’s where I live.”

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