Friday, December 14, 2007

Hotwax Residue: Vinyl Finds a Place in the Hearts of the Young

For my ethnography, I explored vinyl culture. This work is slightly atypical from most ethnographic work in that the central focus of my study, the culture surrounding the vinyl record format, transcends particular genres of music or particular locales. This study is meant to focus on how a “method” of listening to music creates a community rather than how a certain “scene” or “sound” shapes a community. In the late 1980s, the Compact Disc became the prevalent format for listening to and consuming music, at which time vinyl records fell out of mainstream listening culture leaving in its place the more portable, durable, and reliably clean-sounding CDs. Now CDs are on their way out to make way for digital download, but vinyl is still lingering in the hearts of many music fans (Pfeiffer 2007). Today, this shift in format means that anyone younger than roughly thirty years of age never knew vinyl records to be the industry standard for listening to music. From the 1980s up through the present, vinyl records are most importantly associated with hip-hop and DJing culture, where they are used as a palate from which to piece together new (and very influential music). Instead of focusing on the “creative” aspect of vinyl culture, I chose to examine the “listening” aspect of vinyl culture—the continuation of vinyl as a listening format into the age of digital music.

My research methods included interviewing five music-savvy youths ranging in age from late teens to early thirties, a young musician who just released a 45, and a seasoned record store employee, as well as visiting several record stores, independent, commercial, and virtual. My varied contacts, contributors, and locales were drawn from Tampa, FL, my hometown, and Providence, RI, my current location of residence, and the worldwide web, the occupant of a solid majority of my time. The purpose of all of this was to discover how vinyl factors into people’s consumption of music, how it is marketed and presented in stores, and how it is brought into production by musicians.

First off, I feel that it is useful to understand how records are made achieve an analog, non-digital sound. This distinction will be helpful to relate to how some of my interviewees describe listening to records. Here is a clip from Discovery Channel’s “How It’s Made” which surfaced on and details the process of making a record:

And here’s a homemade video on how the needle of a record player “reads” the actual record:

These days, the records that can be found in record stores are broken up into two different varieties, 33s and 45s. 33s, or 12-inch LPs, are long playing discs that usually contain 25 minutes of music on each side, spin on the turntable at 33 rotations per minute, and typically contain an entire album. 45s, or 7-inch records, are short discs with usually one or two songs on each side, spin at 45 rotations per minute, and typically contain a track that an artist considers a “single”

Vinyl culture is still very alive today. Although vinyl is not as ubiquitous as CDs or digital downloads, it still has an important place in the music industry and with music fans. Many bands and record labels are making sure to have releases come out on vinyl as well as CD and digital download. Some of the larger “indie” labels such as Sub-Pop (home to The Shins, Iron & Wine, and The Postal Service), Matador (home to Cat Power, Belle & Sebastian, and Spoon), Nonesuch (home to Wilco and The Black Keys), and XL Recordings (Home to Devendra Banhart, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and The White Stripes) all feature LP versions of many of there releases if not on their homepage, in there online store. Smaller “indie” labels such as Fat Possum and Alive Naturalsound Records make an even bigger deal about their vinyl releases. Alive often features their new releases in a vinyl format with an odd colored wax or a heavier pressing (such as 180g which means the record is more durable and will last longer).

Images of special "limited" colored pressing of Alive's band Brimstone Howl.

This can well be seen at many commercial record stores. My visit to Newbury Comics at the Providence Place Mall revealed that even a commercial chain still reserves a small corner of their store for vinyl records. Most of the records were of new bands (with a large assortment of White Stripes vinyls) as well as some reissues of classic albums ranging from The Beatles to T. Rex. The selection was small but vinyl was present at even at a commercial outlet in a mall.

Independent record stores are a different story. The independent stores I’ve visited such as Round Again Records and Tom’s Tracks in Providence, as well as Vinyl Fever in Tampa provide a much larger selection with extensive inventories of used vinyl as well as crisp and neatly wrapped new-releases from all sorts of bands, as well as large selections of 45s. I found vinyl was featured much more prominently at independent stores who maybe couldn’t compete with the prices of chain-stores like Newbury or FYE, especially in a market where in the past few years, CD sales have dropped due to digital downloads (legal and illegal).

A view into Tampa's Vinyl Fever!

None of these stores could compare to the vast selection of used, new, and rare/vintage vinyl available on auction sites like ebay or multi-seller record store

Despite vinyl's scattered representation in stores, the people I interviewed about vinyl had some similar feelings towards the format. In general, everyone that I talked to seemed to link to something that contributes to the authenticity of music (in-depth background on my interviewees can be found in my previous posts). Interviewees often mentioned playing vinyl sounding more “real” and creating a “physical connection” with the music. Tampa-based WMNF DJ Arielle commented on a visceral reaction to the vinyl sound, “I can’t quite describe it, but the sound, it just gets to you in your gut.” Matt from Tampa relates going to a record store and physically picking out records brings him closer to fans of a similar intensity and dedication, creating a physical connection not just between the band and the listener, but between multiple listeners. Doug, a music fan who doesn’t own a record player, described vinyl as “so much more tangible. You’re holding a record. You’re putting it on this thing that you sort of understand,” and also associated vinyl with a “cultural belief” that “(listening to) vinyl means that you have more discerning musical tastes.”

The heightened “discerning musical tastes” could be linked to the fact that vinyl is expensive, and people choose to buy music on vinyl that they feel proud to own. Matt, a late 20s/early 30s vinyl fan from Tampa admitted priding himself on the physical presence of his vinyl collection, which although is not comprehensive like his digital music collection, it represents the music which he likes enough to buy on vinyl. Matt also mentions how on his high-end stereo dedicated to playing vinyls, one can truly hear the superior sound quality of vinyl when compared to a digital track. Matt from Providence (from my first set of interviews) comments on the “reality” and quality of the sound of a record in that “it’s a little more like you’re there,” which is similar to that visceral reaction described by Arielle earlier. The sound of the “music itself” is not concentrated on notes and rhythms, but rather the warmth and quality of the recording, a conception which broadens the scope of McClary’s definition (McClary 1994).

Another interesting aspect of vinyl records is their association to tradition. Several of my interviewees discussed the process of digital download and how it may not necessarily convey the tradition and musical history of listening to music. Matt from Tampa describes the vinyl ritual: “ I mean, it’s more work, it’s really going out of your way to appreciate music on vinyl—it’s a whole process. It doesn’t just flow into your earbuds from something that you can fit in your pocket. The thing doesn’t tell you the track names on the screen and you’ve got to go flip it yourself, but it’s worth it, you know.” Carson Cox elaborates on this idea from the musician’s perspective. His band the Dry County just released a limited run 45—their first official release—on Kiss of Death Records, and Carson mentions the impetus behind going with a 45 was to follow in the footsteps of DIY punk bands whom he considers influences like Black Flag and The Minutemen.

Cover art for the Dry County 45.

Gabe from Tampa record store, Vinyl Fever, inverts vinyl’s association with tradition by saying that records may be non-tradition for youth who have never encountered the format before.

Associations with warmth and presence to vinyl sound, the physical attraction of physically setting up the record to play, and a vinyl tradition historicized through the long history of vinyl production and culture, seem to make vinyl out to be the format which best showcases the sound and history behind a piece of music (Hayes 2006). These associations along with the physicality of playing and owning a record seem to generate a very real, deliberate, and authentic musical environment for many music fans, even if they may not have a record collection. This heightened level of involvement when listening to music is what brings vinyl fans together, even if it's just on the consumerist level to purchase the records, and this status and tradition of involvement will perhaps be what keeps people interested in vinyl even once mainstream format shifts from CD to digital download. Most of my interviewees discussed digital downloading and how that has become an important source of music for them, and some, and Gabe and Carson both discussed how vinyl can supplement the seemingly “invisible” format of digital downloads. Gabe even mentioned many record labels including coupons or CD versions of albums with vinyl releases as an incentive to purchase vinyl yet also to retain the practicality of modernity.

I’ve found that many music fans are beginning to appreciate more and more the physical manifestation which vinyl creates. With music that is truly important to someone, that physical connection can be essential. While a vinyl collection may not be as practical as a collection of mp3s, the format still has its distinctive edge of “authenticity” whereas CDs don’t have much more to offer than an mp3. With a fledging record collection of my own, I can understand the enjoyment which can be derived from physically playing a record, but admit to not having the time or money for any sort of vinyl collection to be comprehensive—I’ll never become musically independent from my iTunes library. As digital download sales continue to rise, perhaps owning a mass quantity of CDs will be less important to music fans and consumers, rather, they will cultivate a selective batch of vinyl records to commemorate their favorite tunes(Lin 2005).

Works Cited and Consulted:

Hayes, David. 2006 "'Take Those Old Records Off the Shelf': Youth and Music Consumption in the Postmodern Ave." In Popular Music and Society Vol. 29, No.1, pp. 51-68

McClary, Susan. 1994. "Same As It Ever Was: Youth Culture and Music." In Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture, eds. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose. New York: Routledge.

Lin, Albert. 2005. "Understanding the Market for Digital Music."

Pfeiffer, Andreas. 2007. "Why the Audio CD Is Dying... And What Will Replace It."

Marshall, Wayne. 2006. "What Is Stolen? What Is Lost? Sharing Information in an Age of Litigation."

Peitz & Waelbroeck. 2005. "An Economist's Guide to Digital Music."

Milano, Brett. Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting. St. Martin's Griffin (2003)

More Interviews!

In those post, I am uploading several interviews. One from a musician, another from a record store, another from a late 20s/early 30s vinyl fan, and finally one from a teenage DJ/vinyl fan. As usual, my questions are in bold, and the answers in regular font.


Here is a conversation with Carson Cox, songwriter, singer, and guitarist of the Tampa band The Dry County. The band just released a limited pressing 7-inch on Kiss of Death records.

First off, can you give me a little bit of background on you and your band, the Dry County? Can you describe the scene in which the Dry County typically performs?

Line up:

Carson - Vocals and Guitar
Matt - Drums
Lily - Bass (2005 - 2007)
Pat - Bass (2007 - present)

Dry County started around 2004, sort of as a recording project where I recorded full band versions of acoustic songs I'd been playing by myself. By 2005 Matt was playing drums and Lily was playing bass at shows. Lily moved away to Gainesville for school in the fall of 2007. That's when Pat started playing with us.

I feel like indie rock such a diluted term but that's what I guess most people think when they hear us. My biggest influences are the pioneering DIY bands like Dinosaur Jr., The Wipers, Sonic Youth, or Mission of Burma.

Has your band officially released any of its music before as an album EP?

We did a cassette demo with 3 songs that has 2 songs from the 7 inch. We made like 100 of these. The next thing we release doesn't have a label affiliated with it yet…

You're releasing a limited pressing of a 45, what's your reason for doing this?

Not that many kids have turntables. Kiss of Death pressed 300(100 with screen printed covers) which is pretty normal for a first release. Limited can also be cool, It's a little piece of the band that not many people get to have. It can suck when a 7inch is on eBay selling for $600 because the band only pressed 100 20 years ago and now everyone will pay top dollar to have it, but that's sort of comes with the territory.

Do bands in your "scene" do this quite often?

Bands that I consider peers typically do. But it's expensive to press anything. It's been something that hardcore bands like Black Flag or The Minutemen and bands that were influenced by hardcore like Beat Happening or SWANS have done since the 80's up to today. It's kind of a way of acknowledging the past and continuing the ascetic.

Will there be a digital download of the 45 release?

Maybe, I'm not against it but I feel like keeping something vinyl only is more appropriate. If someone wanted to rip the record to a peer to peer and share it illegally I give them my blessing to do so. But I would rather focus on what were doing next (Which is going to be a CD, which should come out as a digital download).

How are your fans receiving the fact that you've put out a record... is it popular with the kids?

I think so. I have some friends who bought turntables because of it.

When I see a band that puts out a vinyl only I feel a little more connection with them. It's a first impression that is important. I know what there intensions are as a band, be it good or bad. Pressing 100 7-inch records and selling them for $7 instead of $3 is never something I want to do just to keep a collector aspect/cover the cost of pressing so few. I want my music to be played and enjoyed.


Next up is an interview with Gabe from Vinyl Fever in Tampa. Vinyl Fever is one of the only independent record stores in the Tampa Bay area and besides selling a whole lot of vinyl, the store also hosts many in-store performances from local/national acts and has a reputation across the bay area for its tasteful selection and knowledgeable staff.

Apart from the name, why is Vinyl Fever still selling vinyl?

I think because there is a certain section of the music buying population that is still really into collecting vinyl and buying vinyl and I just think that’s part of what made this store what it was and I don’t think it’s anything we should let go of any time soon. I think we should keep the tradition alive.

So you’re relating vinyl more to tradition than to something that is more practical or useful at this point in time?

In a large way I would say that, but I think there is a real intrigue and a real amazement for those whom maybe it isn’t as traditional for, such as younger kids. I don’t want to downplay it, but I think it’s more of a novelty. I know there are a lot of young kids who are getting into it and are getting turntables, because I think they are really intrigued by it. So, I think to say it is traditional on one hand is true, but on the other hand, I think it is finding a whole new audience and a whole new section of the population who is getting turned on to it.

So do kids make up a large portion of the customers who buy the vinyl, or is it pretty mixed?

It’s pretty mixed, but I’d say all of the newer customers who are buying vinyl are between 15 and 21.

Interesting. Vinyl fever sells both new and used records, right?


So what about with current bands, and new vinyl, who buys those?

It depends on the artist and the release. A 200g pressing of a Dire Straits album is going to appeal more to the likes of an audiophile, and not to make a blanket statement, but they are going to be a 25 to 55 year old guy… But the new Jay-Z record… anybody from a 16-year-old kid to a 40-year-old guy might pick it up. It really depends on the release and whom it appeals to tell who’s buying these things. I suppose there are different niches for different records.

Do you see a difference between the people who buy hip-hop records and the kids who buy rock n’ roll records, since there might be a practicality associated with having hip-hop on vinyl?

A long time ago, I would’ve said yeah, but now it’s not unusual for me to come up to the counter with a Wu-Tang record and a Bad Brains record. I think those lines have been blurred and it’s more mixed now. It’s not the hip-hop kids vs. the punk rock kids, I see people coming up to the counter with stuff to by that isn’t similar at all, and I think that’s great. I think vinyl attracts a certain person, and that person will have a wide variety of musical tastes.

So perhaps, it’s not necessarily the genre at this point that is defining people as vinyl fans?


What about with some of these bands that aren’t necessarily punk bands—because I know punk bands have a long tradition of releasing 45s—what about some of these more mainstreamed “indie-rock” or “indie-pop” bands? How popular are those types of records?

Well, I think it’s funny that you mention those. I think those records are leading the way in that they are the first types of records that have made that initial leap to include download codes with the record for the whole content of the record to be downloaded, or even better a lot of the records come with the CD inside of the record. Sub Pop is doing that a lot, Matador is doing that a lot. A lot of the bigger “indie” labels. I can’t believe it took so long to come up with that idea.

Yeah it’s a great idea. So as a local, independent record store, you sell a lot of local music by local bands, right?


Do you see many local artists putting out records?

Not many, sadly, not too many…

So maybe it’s a luxury that doesn’t come around until you’ve hit it kind of big.

I think so. I think, from what I hear… I don’t have any stats or proof, but I hear that it is a lot more expensive to press vinyl than it used to be. That might be scaring some people off too. You have a brand new, upcoming band who’s trying to get their music out there... it’s great exposure to get it out on vinyl, but sometimes it’s not very economically feasible.

Yeah, I just talked to Carson Cox of the Dry County, and his band just put out a limited run 45…

Yeah, we’ve got those here.

And it was interesting to hear his take on this, because it did seem kind of expensive for something that was a first release and kind of a novelty. But apparently the fans dig it, and it’s a cool little piece of memorabilia.

Yeah it is, it looks really great, too. They did a really good job on it.

That’s good to hear. I kind of want to pick one up myself when I’m back in town. So, one last question. Do you find that more guys will come in and buy records than girls? It seems that a lot of the people that I’ve been running into and talking to seem to have been guys collecting and whatnot…

I’d say yeah, just because of the ratio between males and females who come into the store. But a lot of females buy records too; don’t let me give you the wrong impression. There are a big number of females who buy vinyl.

Here's an interview with Matt, a late 20s/early 30s vinyl fan from Tampa.

Could you briefly describe what sort of music you are interested in?

OK, I’m interested anything that you could call rock in roll, but to narrow it down, I’d say I’m interested in what people call indie-rock, indie-pop, or alt. country, that sort of thing.

What sort of music do you end up buying? What are the qualifications for dropping some money on music?

Well, I generally buy music based on recommendations of other people whose opinions I trust, and if I know that I’m into the same music as somebody else in general, or if we have a couple of favorite bands in common and then they recommend something that I haven’t heard, I might buy it without listening, or I might encounter something on the local independent radio station, WMNF, and hear it that way.

I know that you buy a lot of music on vinyl… why is that?

Well, I get music two ways right now, I buy music on vinyl, but I also have an emusic account, so I acquire music electronically, which is a very good value. I get a ton of music that way and it’s portable—it works on the ipod, in the car… but I don’t feel nearly as personal or possessive or proud of that collection as I do of my vinyl collection. Also, if I get something from emusic, I’ll decide if I like it enough to go buy the record, because, you know, records are expensive.

So you’ll own two copies of the same music if you like it enough?

Yeah, I’ll get something on vinyl even if I already have an electronic copy if I really love it. Because, vinyl is, first of all, a big twelve-inch square, so you get this huge version of the album artwork. That’s a big part of it. And you get the physical reality and the feeling of possessing something that is tangible rather than something that is an electronic file—which of course sounds the same through a cheap pair of headphones, but it doesn’t feel the same.

So do you listen to your records? Or is vinyl more collectible for you?

Well, I do listen to them. I have a really nice… really nice stereo. It’s got an older turntable with a really expensive, upgraded cartridge, a really great pair of speakers and an awesome amp and a separate pre-amp. So I’ve got a very high end stereo basically dedicated to listening to vinyl. It doesn’t have a computer or CD player hooked up to it. I do have a line-in for my headphone jack so I can plug in my ipod or my music from my computer from itunes, and on that stereo, you can really, really hear the difference. That’s the most satisfying thing about vinyl ownership—it’s that it really does sound better. On a cheap pair of headphones or driving down the road in the car—not that you can play vinyl in the car—you can’t hear the difference, but at home in a quiet room with a really high-end stereo, you really can hear the difference.

So how extensive is your collection? How many records are we talking about here?

Well, not including the sizable collection that my father gave me from his vinyl buying days. Let’s see… I probably have been buying record for a about two years now… I buy a couple a month… I probably have sixty or seventy records… I buy more than two a month. That’s got to be about a thousand dollar’s worth.

How about 45s? Do you pick up a bunch of 7-inches?

I buy 45s at shows, and occasionally I’ll order one online if it’s something I really want. I buy a lot of vinyl at vinyl fever here in Tampa, which is a great record store, buy they never have any good 45s for sale. And when they do, they (the 45s) are really expensive. So, you know, I don’t buy a lot of those records there. But Vinyl Fever gives away a lot of 45s. They have a box of giveaway 7-inches behind the counter, and they don’t offer them to you, but if you ask what’s in the giveaway 7-inch box, they give them to you. So I have dozens and dozens and dozens of those things too, and I’ve probably bought less than half of them.

Wow, that’s really cool!

Yeah it is really cool… that’s probably my favorite thing about vinyl fever.

So, you’d say that when bands or record stores have these free vinyls as incentives, it heightens your desire to actually buy music?

Well yeah. Absolutely. The 45s are, as you probably know, great collectibles and are kind of a novelty and sometimes have cool artwork. Oftentimes, they include tracks which are not on the album. They’ll have an album track and then a B-side that is only released on a 45, and there’s a thrill having a rare recording and appreciating that. Then Vinyl Fever giving them to you for free! I mean, you can buy records online, and in a lot of cases, for cheaper, but I just love going into Vinyl Fever and talking to the people who work there, and one of the things that keeps me coming back is the matter of those free 45s.

So perhaps the tangibility of the actual vinyl record, you know, can be associated with actually going into the record store and picking the music out yourself and buying it and having that sort of physical connection with the music as well?

Yeah, and you know, standing shoulder to shoulder with other analog snobs flipping through the records and talking to other people who appreciate that kind of thing. That’s part of it as well… it’s a community that seems to be growing with people who are into this way of listening to and owning and appreciating music. I mean, it’s more work, it’s really going out of your way to appreciate music on vinyl—it’s a whole process. It doesn’t just flow into your earbuds from something that you can fit in your pocket. The thing doesn’t tell you the track names on the screen and you’ve got to go flip it yourself, but it’s worth it, you know. It reminds me of people who smoke pipes, because the ritual is such a big part of the experience.

That’s interesting you talk about it as such a community. Having other people around to appreciate it can be just as important and personally owning the record—having that connection with other people. Is there a status involved with vinyl ownership?

Yeah, probably. I’d be kidding myself if I said there wasn’t. Often, I just like to sit—I have a whole room now in my house devoted to records and my stereo system with musical instruments for playing, too… it’s a music room—and I sit in the music room by myself and listen to records by myself, and that’s exactly what I want. But then, talking to somebody else who understands the vinyl obsession and even better if they’re into the same kind of music—that can be a lot of fun too.

Lastly, here's a chat with Arielle, one of the youngest DJs at Tampa's independent, community radio station WMNF 88.5FM.

So can you briefly describe what types of music you’re interested in?

I’m definitely interested in the 80s punk rock genre more than anything else. I have all of the early Generation X albums before “White Wedding” when Billy Idol was in his prime. I have all of those albums… all the Sex Pistols albums, which at every person should at least listen to and begin to appreciate, and, a complete “must” in everyone’s collection: David and Bowie and Bing Crosby… it’s for the holidays!

So when you buy music, how do you do that? What are some of the qualifications for spending money on an album?

If something is good enough for me to say “Oh my gosh, I need to buy this!” usually, because I live in Pinellas County and there aren’t too many “indie” outlets, I’ll go on the band’s website and order directly from them so that they get the proceeds, or I go to Asylum (Records) in St. Pete and try to find it. I either try to get it from the local “indie” record shop or the actual band—I try and get them the money. I am guilty of using Limewire, but I always end up buying the album.

So do you ever find yourself going and buying a new album or a new band’s record on vinyl?

Not so much new… Although I did just get the Joshua Tree re-mastered although that wouldn’t’ be a new band. I guess I don’t buy too many new bands on vinyl because I guess I just don’t know enough new bands that are on vinyl.

Well if you look hard enough, I think you can find vinyl releases of new bands here and there. Anyways, you clearly have a collection.

I do! I’ve got Eric Bourdon and the Animals’ San Francisco Night’s, I have a lot of Tom Waits on vinyl—it just fits his voice. Vinyl, I don’t know why, just makes everything sound so authentic and real and I feel that CDs make music sound so squeaky clean that you lose a lot of the clicks and clatters that make the music have a lot of character. For instance, when I’m at the station DJing my show, I’ll specifically find songs that I know we have on vinyl and play them on vinyl. It just sounds better.

So is that your foremost reason for having this affinity for the vinyl format? Because of the sound?

Yeah. It has a lot of integrity… and I really like music with integrity. For example, if you listen to Bob Dylan on vinyl…. I can’t quite describe it, but the sound, it just gets to you in your gut.