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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Vinyl Rumours

Detail of Rumours -  who were Anne and Lynne?

Has the so-called vinyl revival gone too far? Is vinyl fetishized too much? Is there such a thing as too much when it comes to vinyl? Jason Heller at the A.V Club website certainly thinks so. He fingered the example of the upcoming release of Kenny Rogers’ 1977 album The Gambler on deluxe 180gram vinyl. Heller opines that because there are literally millions of cheap copies of this album floating around in second hand shops, then why do we need a deluxe version? Heller also indicates that the quality difference between vinyl and MP3’s is simply not worth the effort of hunting down and hoarding thousands of records when the music can be readily accessed in a more convenient manner.

To be fair Heller does have a point, however I believe that it is a little churlish to bemoan the release of pristine versions of big selling albums. There may well be surplus copies of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours waiting to be picked up for a pittance. But what kind of condition are they in and even if you can find a second hand copy in fair condition then what’s wrong with having a new copy? Second hand or thrift shop copies of albums are an ideal way to discover an album or artist that you may not have taken seriously enough to shell out for a brand new copy. Rumours is a perfect case in point. Back when I was in my indie ghetto in the 1990’s, listening to bands like Fleetwood Mac was simply unthinkable. But then I picked up a cheap copy at an op-shop and when I played it I had one of those “what the fuck was I thinking” moments. Because of second hand vinyl I’ve discovered hundreds of albums and bands in similar circumstances and my musical horizons have expanded significantly.

So if there are all these cheap copies of albums sitting around why bother with new deluxe versions? I discovered that I loved Rumours but my copy is pretty shitty really. It plays well enough, with only a few pops and crackles, but the cover has been defaced by two names and it’s pretty tatty. Rumours has just been re-released and I’m going to buy a new copy because it’s worth having both pristine sound and artwork. Records are, like the rest of the universe, subject to entropy and drunken mishandling. So sure there are millions of prior copies out there, but there are plenty of people who would like a nice new copy for quality’s sake.

Are records worth searching out for their sound quality and are they really “holy objects” that are fetishized too much? Well, of course they are not holy objects, but they are great cultural artifacts. Records are musical time capsules from other eras in a way that downloads can never be. But records also offer, in most cases, a superior sound, but more importantly a certain kind of sound. These days CDs can sound fantastic and offer a totally acceptable version of your favourite album. But vinyl offers all those dirty frequencies that digital sampling can’t capture, resulting in deep and warm sounds, in particular from the bass and drums. Vinyl sounds like you are there with the band in the room, whilst CDs sound like a reproduction of what was recorded.

Heller points out that one of the reasons he stopped collecting vinyl was that he realized that he wasn’t an audiophile and that the small difference he could detect wasn’t worth it (that and the fact he couldn’t pay his rent!). Without going into it too much, with vinyl comes the need for quality amps, speakers and turntables – without quality gear you are only getting half the story. So my advice is if you want the vinyl and the stereo gear but you don’t have much money, then go to garage sales and second hand stores and pick up some vintage equipment. Then you’ll be able to enjoy that deluxe version of The Gambler to its fullest extent.

I do, however, have to agree with Heller regarding “strip-mining the fans” and the creation of engineered scarcity. They really see us coming and it sucks when, for example, a release like Can’s The Lost Tapes is put out as a CD box set with no indication of any vinyl release and then six months later out comes the vinyl version. Record companies know that many fans will be tempted to shell out again just to get the vinyl, I know I’ve considered picking it up before it disappears. What’s a vinyl junky to do? And Heller, if you want to offload some of those six thousand records you collected then just let me know!

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