Art’s on our sleeves: is unopened vinyl, dead vinyl?

NOTE: This was written in early 2016, and I’ve uploaded it here with minor edits in response to the recent news around vinyl sales (and plays): “Vinyl is having its best year since 1985. Shame no one is listening to the records


Most people agree the records are very nice objects: things to have, to hold and display, but that this should only ever come as secondary appreciation behind one thing; that they are played.

But increasingly (and this is going on a fair bit of anecdotal experience) I am hearing about vinyl that is being bought to be left in the wrapping, put up on walls or collecting dust on shelves. It’s one thing playing it rarely, but what about never playing it at all? Caught up in the wave of the vinyl r*****l (redacted to save everyone having to read that phrase again and get angry) the record as an artifact, and its rise in popularity, has become a divisive issue. Record Store Day is one event that seems to have not only aided vinyl sales, but also come under fire for invoking the wrong sort of buying: mainly those buying to re-sell, but also those who want to come away with a physical memento of their day, a postcard.

There’s no denying people do like to own and show off these things: gatefold artwork and larger imagery are often cited as a key reason (alongside the audio quality) that vinyl presents a superior format, one for true fans. There was even a minor panic when it seemed people wouldn’t be able to show their records off on IKEA’s ‘Expedit’ unit (only to find out this wasn’t really the case at all). (FACT) As Shortlist described, “the rise of digital music threatens one of the greatest canvasses of art seen in the 20th Century — the record sleeve.” when counting down the 50 greatest album sleeves

I recently had a conversation about this record — a friend wanted to buy it as the artwork was so good, but still wasn’t sure about the actual music. Initiatives like Secret 7's play on this dynamic, further accentuating the concept of vinyl as art and turning each release into a unique object (Secret 7). Playing with this idea of a canvas can even surprise: when inspecting Floating Points’ debut record for the first time I noticed that there is a full-bleed image printed on the inside of the sleeve, this means it’s only fully visible by tearing open the glued card: something that brought me equal confusion and joy.

A little while ago I wrote an article (Flamingo) about cocktail books replacing the photo-heavy ‘coffee table’ cookbook, but perhaps the vinyl record could pitch for this spot too: an object that may not see too much use but is publically displayed to signpost a particular type of person. As you might imagine, this practice has picked quite a bit of flack as a pursuit (Isn’t unplayed vinyl a dead, impotent object?). But what if this isn’t wasted vinyl: what if purchasing records, to never be played isn’t such a crime, but actually a very good thing.

Firstly, supporting or being engaged with something is good for your health:

“Being a fan of something is claimed to improve your relationship with yourself (self-perception) and with others (social currency)” — Twitter Fan Report

And your level of engagement informs how much of a benefit you get out of this process. Part of this relationship is unavoidably financial, which is something that many of the ‘End Of Year’ streaming summaries have highlighted. As Stuart Dredge (along with a few other commentators) noted at the start of the year:

“In 2015 so far I have listened to Spotify for 877 hours, but my favourite band’s payout from that was around $2.69 — and that’s before labels and publishers took their share” (Music Ally)

A lot of music is being consumed, but how is this shifting what a fan and artist relationship looks like. Courtney Harding sparked off the debate about how artists are supposed to engage “intermediate fans” (Cuepoint) — the guys that were buying CDs but maybe not coming to a gig, because artists can’t live on a concentrated group of super fans alone (a model once seen as the golden goose).

This also allows us to extend the level of engagement, part of an important process we miss out on when we ‘rent’ music, as vinyl purist Jack White says:

“Vinyl is the real deal. I’ve always felt like, until you buy the vinyl record, you don’t really own the album. And it’s not just me or a little pet thing or some kind of retro romantic thing from the past. It is still alive.” (NPR)

And yes, part of this display process, can be seen to be posing but this is also about portraying who we desire to be. Placing these objects in your house performs the same action as getting ready in the morning, as Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada points out: “When you get dressed, you are making public your idea about yourself, and I think that embarrasses people.” (NY Mag) Dressing your home in objects mirrors this performance, but perhaps offers a greater protection with you have greater control of the audience.

The physical aspect of this not only helps us to realise and communicate our ideas of self, but also strengthen and reify them. As Rusell Belk suggested with his theory of the ‘extended self’ that “knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, we regard our possessions as part of ourselves.” (Salon) Today, living in a world where physical consumption is falling, as more and more of our interest (or occasions related to them) can be experienced digitally, physical objects still have a powerful ability to remind us who we are (and how we want to be).

All this, of course, shouldn’t make vinyl the token, ‘Big Issue’ of formats: it’s a symbiotic relationship we should be aware of and take advantage of. Those playing vinyl get a different experience from digital and while the LP in the frame or 7” on the shelf is in no way completely flaccid, it does mean you might be missing out on something.

Thanks for reading — please get in touch to say hi, share the link or hit the ‘like’ button so others can find it.

NOTE: This was written in early 2016, and I’ve uploaded it here with minor edits in response to the recent news around vinyl sales (and plays): “Vinyl is having its best year since 1985. Shame no one is listening to the records

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