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Vinyl: A Reappraisal?

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Daniel Danger

In a Marxist theory of value, humans imbue commodities with the value of their labour. These are then circulated within a market as a means of remunerating that labour into capital (money), which can then be accumulated as wealth.

20th Century innovations in recorded music allowed artists to produce a commodity outside of their actual performances that contained an expression of their labour - the 'album'. Soon the idea of an album took on a life of its own, becoming the primary way in which we consumed music. While we think of this form as a natural expression of music, the album is a direct reaction to market production, the average length of an album being equal to the amount of high-quality sound that was able to fit on two sides of a vinyl record.

By being bought and sold within a market, the album allowed musicians to produce a commodity which could be compared in value to other albums, since all have a monetary price. These commodities therefore take on a social power as having value in relation to other commodities, rather than just being reflective of the human labour used to create them. As markets increase, consumers increasingly forget about the labour-value relationship of commodities, instead fixating on their monetary relationship with other commodities.

This is called commodity fetishism - the way we attribute divine qualities to material objects as things of inherent 'value'. Think of that latest limited-pressing hype record on your favourite record store website. You no longer consider it a means of expression of an artist's labour. Instead it seems to urge you to purchase it because of its value in relation to other records. It's rare and desirable to other market consumers, therefore you want it.

This fetishism means we think of vinyl records as having inherent value, rather than being objects that reflect the value of labour - a musician's performance or a producer's composition. We become alienated from this true understanding of material relations and fail to acknowledge the value of musical expression in favour of an obsession with the desirability of an album as a product.

We think of vinyl records as having inherent value

Vinyl as a format inherently demands that we consider music this way due to the limited production means of the market. Pressings will always be limited and therefore records seem desirable due to their fleeting existence within the marketplace. This increased alienation directly contradicts the potential of human expression as a means of progression, as we become a culture of collectors and accumulators who forget the true relationship between artists and their work.

Vinyl collecting produces a culture in which we value and celebrate the rapid accumulation of wealth, as the size of your collection. How often have you or someone you know lusted over the size of someone's record collection? I have. We are existing in a world where we equate superior musical taste with a superior bank balance. This concept of the ideal music collector inevitably excludes people without the financial means to achieve such a collection.

The recent reinvigoration of vinyl as a potential market for major labels has also brought with it the increasing alienation workers feel in relation to the commodities they produce. Small DIY labels have succumbed to the will of the market. Shoved to the back of the queue at pressing plants, the production of their own records is made an increasingly unpleasant experience, as the behemoths of music capitalism reap the rewards of their superior financial might. The increased prices of manufacturing due to stressed factories also breeds conservatism in labels, which are becoming increasingly hesitant about taking chances on artists they cannot guarantee will recoup their costs, as well as consumers not wanting to buy something on a whim.

We would be foolish not to question our relationship to a product we so fanatically defend and look at how this mirrors our alienated stature in our hyper-consumerist society. Add to this the reality that vinyl is made primarily from PVC, which itself is made from petroleum - very literally a fuel for so much conflict around the world - and we're confronted with a format for the music we love that is fundamentally unsustainable.

It's time we wholly embrace 21st century digital technologies as a means of delivering a culture which can help us realise a new form of social relations as artists and listeners.

Alex Keegan

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