Vinyl re-enchantment

The Economist‘s website has an article about Record Store Day, a marketing stunt during which a bunch of vinyl-only releases and reissues are choreographed in hopes of driving music buyers to support some brick-and-mortar businesses. Every label wants to piggy-back on the hype of every other release, leading to an overwhelming hodge-podge of material record stores are supposed to carry to be full participants in the event. This creates problems for the stores that the event is supposed to help, saddling them with stock whose appeal to non-hardcore record collectors may already be questionable.

I have never understood the point of Record Store Day, in part because I have not traditionally been sentimental about record stores. I tend to associate them with judgmental clerks and aggressive taste peacocking and stereos playing the most confrontational music the workers could get away with to keep the store clear of unwanted browsers. Independent record stores often seemed more like clubhouses, and I was never confident enough in my tastes to believe I could truly belong. The record store was a place where “nerds” could be vengeful bullies; now that we have a whole culture that is like that, record stores feel a bit redundant in that respect.

But the more salient reason Record Store Day repels me is that it runs counter to what I do find appealing about shopping in small record stores, the fact that I can’t predict what they will actually have in stock. Record Store Day supplies you with a prefab shopping list and an easy way to cross off every item on it — just come early (or have a friend who works at the store; it’s still a private club, a market in which it matters who you know). If I wanted to shop in a market that I knew in advance would have what I want, I would go on to Amazon, or to Spotify. But I started to buy vinyl again not for the records so much as for the intermittent rewards. Going to a used record store not knowing what I will find allows me to go in not knowing for sure even what I want — and this expands my capacity for desiring things. It re-enchants consumption for me, for better or worse. I have a list in my head of records I hope to come across some day, but since I can download all this music to actually listen to it, I am more invested in the quest itself than its completion. It keeps me flipping through crates, looking for a lottery-like payout.

Record stores are a bit like thrift stores in that they produce a sense of rarity and serendipity, a shopping experience that can trump whatever it is one ends up buying. When I go to record stores, I want to enter into a fantasy of one-of-a-kind finds, of consumption sweetened by its contrived precariousness. I want to pretend I’m in a world where you have to earn your consumer pleasures, and where the bond between pleasure and ownership is still tight. (This is a depressing realization.)  It’s not uncommon for me to be so excited about coming across a record I love that I’ll buy it again, “forgetting” that I already have a vinyl copy.

I want there to be some sort of excuse for taking pleasure in the sheer act of buying records. I want to pretend record buying is not just another species of luxury indulgence, so I come up with specious theories about why it is somehow righteous — ethical, even. (Record Store Day smacks of this sort of moral posturing.) In The People’s Platform Astra Taylor makes a strong case for “sustainable cultural consumption” supporting the creative ecosystem of artists by paying for their work — but buying used records hardly qualifies for that. Instead, I am susceptible to fetishizing records as occulted objects, making claims about how they capture the way recorded music is “really” supposed to sound. (The Economist article mentions a museum exhibition in Oakland devoted partly to this premise that listening to vinyl is more “intentional,” whereas this post does some work to demystify the illusion of mistaking nostalgia for a medium for measurable sonic superiority.) I am prone to assigning my records an aura, marveling at their unique patina, the skips and scratches and pops that bequeath me a genuinely unique listening experience. No one else out there gets to enjoy those bona fide skips on the copy of Moby Grape’s Wow that I just bought at the WFMU record fair. Those are now for me alone.

My craving for these purely idiosyncratic consumption experiences has something to do with wanting to enjoy something unsharable, something that can’t go viral, as though that might authenticate it in the solipsistic counter-reality I try to create for myself. The curator of the Oakland exhibition remarks that albums, as material objects, places the emphasis on music appreciation’s “social aspect,” but I think that’s backward. I want to use records to prove that I am “better” than those social pleasures of validation that are now so readily sought for online. I want records so I can try to remind myself  that I can get autonomous joy from a private world of things.

This is essentially sociologist Colin Campbell’s theory of modern consumerism, which is summarized clearly in this paper. The problem with “autonomous hedonism” pursued in the individual imagination is that “the more proficient one becomes at creatively imagining emotions and sensations, the more likely it is that ‘real’ consumption fails to deliver a comparable intensity of pleasure.”

I find that I yearn for pleasure in pure ownership because I don’t have time for use value.  I don’t have any time to play the records I already own. In fact, I resumed buying vinyl a few years ago, before I even had a working turntable. I started to assemble a collection for the sake of the act of collecting, because I was overwhelmed by music online but still wanted to maintain a strong affective bond to it. Keeping buying and enjoying linked in my mind was the only way I could think to do it. My record collection sits in my living room as a testament to the failure of my imagination, the deficiencies in my aesthetic capability. I wonder how many times I will need to play them for penance, until my listening becomes authentic at last.