Sounding it out

Vinyl fetishism and exhaustion on Record Store Day

A daunting prospect… Will Folsom, CC BY

Another April, another Record Store Day. Not sound familiar? This is the one day that, as its website joyfully proclaims:

All of the independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music. Special vinyl and CD releases and various promotional products are made exclusively for the day and hundreds of artists across the globe make special appearances and performances.

But I’d decided not to play ball this year, put off by a variety of factors. For one thing, I don’t find queueing for hours outside record shops any more enjoyable than queueing for hours at other venues. The first time I attended one of these events a few years ago, I naïvely turned at the shop at what I thought was an early hour, only to find a long and seemingly unmoving queue stretching round the block. It was cold, I didn’t know anyone, and it wasn’t much fun.

Things hardly improved once inside as each customer took their turn at the hallowed boxes of goodies, painfully aware of the person waiting impatiently behind them, peering over their shoulders in search of rare finds. Escaping from the shop with a small horde of artefacts, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d ended up handing over silly amounts of cash for items I didn’t really want.

Other years found me trying the experience again in other cities, this time more carefully. I turned up later in the day with a prepared list and a more carefree attitude. Other shops had better systems for processing customers but the general suspicion remained: this wasn’t how I enjoyed spending time in record shops.

Record Store Day is about getting people to support independent record shops. But I felt I spent an inordinate amount of my spare time doing precisely that anyway. Something of a record shop junkie, perhaps what I needed was a non-record day, a day away from the regular checking of new, unusual or otherwise tempting musical objects.

Then there was the concern, shared by many, that Record Store Day was about making money for people other than the shops it was supposed to be supporting. Major labels, most of whom showed little or no interest in maintaining vinyl as a format prior to the recent boom, seemed eager to cash in on the day. They did so by using the already stretched resources of the few remaining vinyl pressing plants to produce “new” versions of back catalogue items – items that had already been released in multiple versions and formats many times before.

This tendency, coupled with the strong emphasis on rock as the Record Store Day genre of choice, led some to see the annual event as a defence of an outdated musical genre as much as of an almost obsolete format (vinyl) and institution (the record shop). Other complaints have been levelled at those looking to make money by snapping up exclusive Record Store Day releases and selling them online for profit, the rare record equivalent of the ticket tout.

I relented in the end, partly because I discovered that the tiny new record shop that had recently opened in my new hometown was involved, partly because the vinyl addict in me couldn’t resist the idea that there might be something interesting on offer (there was). But before leisurely heading over for a midday visit, I spent part of the morning feeding another part of my vinyl habit by visiting the local charity shops and engaging in some vinyl archaeology.

This combination of events led me to think about commodity fetishism and commodity exhaustion. On the one hand, a tiny, cramped record shop with a couple of boxes of new items for which people were willing to queue for hours and pay ridiculously high prices for; on the other, some larger, though still cramped, shops in an unlovely corner of which sit one or two boxes of unloved (or “pre-loved”) items donated for free and sold for (usually) ridiculously low prices.

These are the “exhausted commodities” that communications scholar Will Straw has written about, the abject but undying lumps of wax that embody the material culture of music. “No one may want certain kinds of mid-1980s dance singles, or French-language Maoist books of the early 1970s”, writes Straw:

But there is still a resistance to throwing them out with other kinds of trash. And so we donate them to church rummage sales or charity shops where they continue to sit, usually unsold, until they are moved along to somewhere else.

Like many crate diggers, I’ve found all kinds of forgotten, or unknown, treasures in charity shops, car boot sales, flea markets and even the local tip. I’ve also seen the sedimentation of unwanted vinyl that Straw writes about, the same sad covers that speak of times and tastes long gone. And I’ve suspected that what these items lack is not so much desirability in and of themselves but the particular desirability concocted by the “limited edition culture” promoted by Record Store Day and other differently motivated activities, such as Wu-Tang Clan’s luxury one copy LP.

I have little doubt about the fate that awaits Record Store Day’s 2014 releases once the veneer of exclusivity and topicality rubs off. Let’s hope that between the excitement of anticipation and the dust of neglect, something magical and meaningful gets communicated. Some of these objects actually contain fascinating music, after all.