Has the vinyl revival gone too far?
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This week, after decades of egregious neglect, a definitive piece of our American heritage will finally be unearthed and returned to its full, resplendent glory: Kenny Rogers’ 1977 album The Gambler.
At least that’s what Rogers’ publicist would like you to believe. On March 12, The Gambler was given a deluxe reissue on LP, a lavish production that includes remastered sound, 180-gram vinyl, and “restored” artwork. See? The Gambler is like a Van Gogh, a long-lost masterpiece of Western culture that’s being valiantly snatched away from the ravages of time and obscurity.
Only it isn’t. You can still find a perfectly playable vinyl edition of The Gambler for 99 cents at any flea market, thrift store, or garage sale in the land. Barring that, try the nearest Dumpster. If you don’t have a turntable, you can just as easily pick up a used CD (or cassette or 8-track, for that matter). The Gambler, as Rogers’ publicist is proud to point out, has been certified platinum five times over. There are millions upon millions of spare copies floating around the globe, just looking for a home. Or at least a landfill.
Granted, if you want to hear The Gambler that badly, you can simply listen to it on Spotify, Rdio, Sirius, Pandora, YouTube, or the nearest karaoke bar.
I have nothing against The Gambler. I grew up on that record. And I like Kenny Rogers, enough to have given his recent memoir a favorable review. I also love vinyl. At the height of my record-collecting mania a decade ago, I had amassed more than 6,000 LPs. I like vinyl for many of the same reasons I like Kenny Rogers: the nostalgia, the warm sound, the, um, large packaging.
When I saw a press release for the new, deluxe LP reissue of The Gambler, though, the thought hit me: Has the vinyl revival gone too far?
Soon after the turn of the millennium—as the economy was hitting its first post-9/11 slump and the music industry was feeling the squeeze of file-sharing—vinyl hit rock bottom. In 2002 I was just finishing up a 10-year stretch of employment at Wax Trax, a fiercely independent record store in Denver. Wax Trax specializes in vinyl. In the early ’00s, it almost went out of business. Many of its brick-and-mortar brethren across the country didn’t make it. Vinyl sales had seen a steady decline since the introduction of the CD in the ’80s, and it seemed logical that the LP—like so many other formats before it—had finally become obsolete. After all, the 21st century was upon us. What could be less futuristic than a spinning slab of plastic scratching against a needle?
Vinyl, however, did not go gentle into that good night. Crate-digging DJs and producers kept the flame alive, imbuing used vinyl (even beat-up old copies of The Gambler) with the sacred aura of archeological artifacts. This, in turn, sustained demand for new releases on vinyl. Fans of punk, hardcore, and metal—many of them somewhat reactionary by nature, which I know because I am one—also refused to let vinyl slip away. Even indie-rock labels got back into the vinyl game, issuing download codes that could be redeemed by purchasing new LPs by, say, Spoon or Animal Collective. By the time 2010 rolled around, CDs were still declining in sales, but vinyl was on the upswing.
Record Store Day played no small role in that. First “celebrated”—in the same way that Black Friday is celebrated—in April of 2008, the annual event was created as a way to draw attention (and customers) to brick-and-mortar record shops. This was accomplished by offering exclusive, limited-edition vinyl releases. Split 7-inch singles, reissues of out-of-print LPs, and extravagant boxed sets became available for one day only, and only at your friendly neighborhood record store. It didn’t matter that speculators swooped in and bought up as many of these instant rarities as they could, which would then pop up on eBay for exorbitant prices. Neither did it matter that this was a manipulative marketing scheme, plain and simple. If this is what it took to keep vinyl alive, fans convinced themselves, so be it.
Something happened, though. Record Store Day got big. It became an event. Major labels and mega-successful bands—who were in on the “holiday” from the start—began to play a larger and larger part. The grassroots veneer fell away, and it became more transparent: It had always been a way to herd consumers into stores, devised by an industry that keeps clinging to outmoded models of the past rather than learning to innovate and adapt to new technologies.
No one’s twisting anyone’s arm, and I’m not saying people are getting ripped off. But when things like the deluxe Gambler reissue are being timed in anticipation of Record Store Day—this year’s falls on April 20—I can’t help but feel that the vinyl revival has jumped the shark. Even The Onion recently poked fun at the fact that ubiquitous works like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours—a far better album than The Gambler, to be sure, and one with far more millions of copies in existence—are now being treated like holy objects. It’s a fucking record. Seriously, Rumours? I adore it. But when I worked at Wax Trax, I also used to fill our dollar bins with it. Last time I stopped by, they were still there.
I’ll admit, I don’t buy vinyl anymore. The reason is simple: After 15 years as a rabid, almost religious collector of LPs, I realized I was spending way too much money on it. That realization had hit me many times before, usually when I was trying to scrape together rent money—even as my tiny studio apartment was mostly devoted to groaning record shelves, while my bed and TV were kind of shoved in the corner as an afterthought.
But I realized something else: I just wasn’t an audiophile. Like some people who say they have fibromyalgia or gluten intolerance, far more vinyl collectors think they’re audiophiles than actually are. Owning a decent turntable does not turn your ears into trembling flowers, unable to bear the bitmapped harshness of digital. It began to dawn on me—me, someone who had preached the sanctity of vinyl from my record-store pulpit for so long—that I couldn’t really tell the difference between a 7-inch and an MP3. Or rather, I could tell there was a slight difference, but it wasn’t enough to justify the huge portion of my income that I was spending on vinyl. Not everyone who buys records is an ersatz audiophile; the physicality of records is always cited as a major reason for their continued existence, not to mention the more substantive packaging and artwork. The cover of The Gambler, after all, is pretty damn sweet. But as a collector, I knew when to walk away, and I knew when to run.
That said, I don’t want vinyl to go away. I still applaud the vinyl revival, in theory if not always in practice. There’s a whole new generation of ravenous young record collectors coming of age right now, though, and they’re going to face an even tougher time than I did. Which is a shame. I’m reminded of this passage from Bob Mould’s autobiography, See A Little Light, where he reminisces about record stores in the ’80s and the vital role as human bulletin boards that they played in the music scene:
Nothing is more telling than when someone pulls that one-square-foot piece of cardboard out of a bin […] If he pulls 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle, you perk up and take interest in what he might pull next. We’d do this dance around the record store with each other, and that was one way to find like-minded people. We don’t do that dance now. Now you read someone’s blog or use a search engine or do social networking.
Or go to a Bob Mould show. But seriously: Record Store Day helps propagate this kind of connection and community, and for that I appreciate it. But dealing with today’s prices, and with so much engineered scarcity, record collectors are at risk of burning out a lot faster than they once did—especially with so many cheaper, more practical listening alternatives constantly beckoning.
Like any other human resource, vinyl collectors are finite. The same goes for vinyl itself. If LP collecting is to survive into the 21st century, it needs to be sustainable. Hell, even on a strictly green level, shouldn’t we be buying—and thereby recycling—all those used copies of The Gambler, rather than pressing hefty new ones on 180 grams of petroleum product? The market bears what it will, true, except for when it won’t. In any case, strip-mining the fans—and, yes, fetishizing vinyl too much—is what might turn the vinyl revival into little more than a gamble.