Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Unnecessary Object of Desire

Standing at the roadside it is hard no to be transfixed by the slow motion collapse of the record industry. This high rise building that once dominated the skyline and mediated the listening habits of all that it surveyed is now sinking in front of us as artists begin to give away their music with newspapers or make it free to download.

In a blog entry almost two years ago I asked “how long will we cling to the wreckage of these outdated forms? “In its death throes the record industry at all levels form tiny companies releasing 500 copies to the majors have tried to counter the transparency and weightlessness of the download by making the physical releases self consciously tangible So rather than a single disk in a plastic jewel case one gets a box set complete with remix disks, limited edition posters, booklets, t-shirts anything and everything to give us some excuse to buy the thing even if we will probably rip or download the music to play digitally anyway. A good mainstream example of this is the recent EMI re-issue of the first Pink Floyd album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. In a 3CD box set one gets the stereo mix, the mono mix, a further disk with obscurities and previously unreleased tracks and mixes and of course - “The album is packaged in a cloth-bound book format, that will include an expanded 12 page redesigned booklet, plus a reproduction of a previously unseen Syd Barrett notebook from 1967 that contains personal artwork and lyric ideas.”

In the small backwater that is experimental and electronic music, vinyl still holds a certain sway. Vinyl’s sheer physicality gives it a head start on the purchase front as it engenders a strong sense of ownership and the large twelve-inch cover provides a good platform for artwork. There is also something highly ritualistic and fetishistic about having to remove the record from its sleeve, wipe it with a cloth, place it on the turntable (and then only twenty minutes later turn the record over) that further emphasizes the physicality of the whole experience.

One of the key micro companies re-issuing electronic and avant-garde music is the German label Vinyl on Demand. Last year indeed a Snatch Tapes compilation and this year a Storm Bugs record came out on the label; both releases on heavy weight vinyl with textured and embossed sleeves. But these releases are quite modest by the label’s usual standards as lavish 5 LP box sets with inserts and accompanying 7 inch singles and T-shirts etc (for subscription members) are more the order of the day.

Such releases are quite wonderful, bringing together previously obscure and unreleased recordings. Vinyl on Demand is single handedly doing much to archive and preserve music that would otherwise be potentially lost or at the very least go unheard. In a world of dwindling resources though it can seem hard to justify this sheer level of physicality when the essential component - the music could be reproduced as a tiny digital file.

Arguably the actual resources and energy needed to make and ship a 5 LP box set are in the scheme of things not that great (particular as unlike the Floyd re-issue most Vinyl on Demand releases are limited to 500 copies); we probably all throw away/recycle more cardboard and plastic from our weekly shop and if one had a choice it would seem to make more sense to use these resources for the reproduction of art rather than a simple packaging for everyday consumables.

That more energy and resources are being wasted elsewhere of course doesn’t detract though from the slight absurdity of both the Floyd cloth bound CD and the vinyl 5 record box set. Perhaps though we should cherish this last lavish and excessive baroque fling of the record industry (an industry almost synonymous with excess). In ten years when resources are just that bit closer to complete exhaustion, when disposing of items becomes as expensive as acquiring then, when the cost of shipping reflects its true environmental impact then the price of box sets will be prohibitive and they will be seen as a wonderful and deliciously wasteful fin de siecle excess.

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