Vinyl's Resurgence is Weirdly Exploitative
If you still care about the music industry at all, you have likely heard lately that we are in the midst of a vinyl resurgence - a boom of new interest in this once fledgling market is underway, they say. Well, if this is how we have to have vinyl come back, I’d rather it stay obscure.
Today, buying vinyl records poses an interesting value proposition. Why are you going through the trouble to obtain these large plastic discs when Spotify blah blah blah blah…
My common retorts are:
- Much of the music I want to hear was originally released on vinyl. I want to engage with this music as it was meant to be heard.
- Spotify doesn’t actually have everything. In fact, my two favorite living musicians/composers today are John Zorn and Anthony Braxton - both of whom have hardly any presence on any streaming service. And they have a combined discography of well over 500 albums!
- Entire labels aren’t on Spotify - again, Zorn’s Tzadik label is a great example.
And while this is all well and good, the question then becomes – if these aren’t your retorts, what else is out there? Investment is not a good option, since we are in the middle of an outrageous vinyl pricing bubble.
No, the answer is more sinister.
Vinyl’s Actual Value
Vinyl is valuable because it is cheap, universal, standardized, and easy to manufacture. Without vinyl, most important modern musical movements would not have been possible; in particular, jazz was the music genre that actually necessitated the existence of vinyl in order to thrive and survive.
Jazz required vinyl to be as cheap as it was back in the day, in order to actually follow the artists you cared about. Not only did the low prices help fans obtain their favorite artists when they were bandleaders as well sidemen or special guests, the records themselves contained highly valuable essays on the music which helped listeners contextualize the release.
High-profile vinyl releases today - the kind that sell out days or weeks after release - are typically billed as “limited run” special editions, with all sorts of fancy add-ons like picture discs, colored vinyl, poster inserts, or whatever.
It is apparently not widely understood by the intended demographics that these kinds of “perks” are nothing more than fodder for senseless commercialism. Worse yet, picture discs and colored vinyl have generally lower quality pressings and are more prone to errors during production. Basically, labels are seeking to produce a lower-value product in order to push more stock, because music sales are now ridiculously low-margin.
What Is the Point?
There’s no real point in buying a new release today on vinyl unless one or more qualifications are met:
- The music was actually tracked, mixed, and mastered via a largely (or fully) analog signal flow.
- The provided “extras” really are worth the expense and extra effort.
- You want to help out the artist a little bit more than a normal consumer would by simply purchasing a download code or streaming tracks on Spotify.
By no means is this list exhaustive - but you hopefully get the picture.
Vinyl is most truly useful and distinguished when it is obtained for the purpose of getting as close to the “soruce” as possible. This means that the music you’re pursuing would likely be released prior to 1990.