August 3, 2020

The "vinyl" branding coup: records as collectible merch within status contests, not a musical playback medium

During my little posting hiatus, I finally went back to thrift stores and used media stores for the first time in nearly half a year. I hadn't looked through the music sections much for the previous 4 or 5 years, though, and the abruptness of the transformations there really jumped out at me. It's part of a more general trend since the 2010s, but I'll write more about other cases, and the big picture, later.

For now I'll just focus on the most salient example -- "vinyl".

I've been buying records and flipping through crates at record stores since I was in 8th or 9th grade, back in the mid-'90s. I still have most of them, too. But I never accumulated a large record collection because I bought them for utilitarian reasons -- to listen to music that I could not easily hear on CD, the format that most of my music has always been on.

Maybe it was never released on CD, or the CD was in smaller supply / out of print, or the CD came out after the band's heyday and was only bought by die-hard fans who would never sell it into the second-hand market. Unless you had money to burn, that meant turning to records -- if the album came out before the '90s, it was guaranteed to have been released on LP, in a decently large supply (relative to later CD releases of the same album), and previously owned by a widespread casual audience who were happy to sell it into the second-hand market after the band's heyday was over.

This was even more true in the '90s because radio stations had just made the transition from records to CDs, so all of the old supply had flooded into the used record stores. And unlike a virtual medium like streaming, a physical medium needed to be stored in every radio station that wanted to play it. So there would be multiple copies of an album in a single store, from the many stations in the area that used to play it over the airwaves.

Record-hunters got lucky in the '90s: we benefited from a one-off transition in radio formats, and did not have to rely on "end-users" parting with their treasured copies to re-sellers. (Nightclub DJs were another one-off source of supply getting liquidated into used record stores during the '90s.)

Generally speaking, the copies once stored in radio stations are in far better shape, since they were a business investment, and the owners didn't want to have to buy new copies because the DJs had handled the first copies poorly. Aside from audiophiles, most retail buyers didn't care that much, though, and accepted a somewhat degraded sound over the long-term -- possibly they would be over that band by that point anyway. If you've seen what "thrift store records" look like, you know what I mean.

This history is to remind people that records used to be utilitarian objects, meant to be played, and that they had a similar role as CDs.

Circa 2010, there was a conscious branding coup to supposedly "revive" the record format. Now, with 10 years of a track record to judge from, we see that it was not the revival of an old thing, but the kicking-off of a whole new thing. Namely, the treatment of records as non-utilitarian collectibles, meant not necessarily to be played (occasionally perhaps), but to max out the stats of the collector's collection, in a status contest among other collectors that takes place over social media.

* * *

To demonstrate the role that records now play, we will simply look at how they are treated compared to other uncontroversial playback media -- such as CDs and digital downloads -- and compared to collectible status objects. Across the board, their treatment is in common with status objects, not playback media. I'll focus briefly on four patterns.

Over the past five years, streaming music has nearly replaced other forms of playback. CDs and digital downloads have fallen into oblivion, while records have seen sales volume and unit prices go skyrocketing. Big box stores barely stock CDs anymore, and they're all multi-artist compilations of contempo hits -- but they do stock a variety of albums on LP from both current and classic performers. That parallels the choices in the clothing section, where they have t-shirts of various new and old acts. Big box stores can't sell streaming music, only physical stuff like merch -- and since they stock records, but not really CDs, records are now merch rather than a playback medium.

Records are also sold these days at the merch tables of a concert, unlike CDs or a digital downloading station, but just like concert t-shirts. Concert-goers already listen to the group's music in a utilitarian format (whether they own a CD / digital file, or stream it), but they might not have exclusive merch to boost their fan stats. Just like they might not have a t-shirt exclusively available on tour. Records sitting on merch tables is the most blatant signal of all.

Nobody uses social media to show off their CD collection, their extensive iTunes library, or the sum total of all their Spotify playlists. Those are utilitarian playback formats. But search any social media platform for "vinyl collection," and you'll get inundated with posts and videos showing off their treasure trove of collectible status objects, much like other collections of desirable memorabilia meant to occupy shelf space rather than be used (e.g., concert-exclusive shirts).

Finally, there's no zero-sum relationship between owning a song on record and streaming it. If both were playback media, there would be some degree of favoring one over the other. Back when records were a playback medium, they fought with CDs -- you already own the album on LP, so why buy the CD? Or you already own it on CD, so why buy it on LP? Ditto for the zero-sum fight between CDs and iTunes in the 2000s.

Listeners try to avoid intentionally piling up duplicates not just within a medium but across media. Yet record collectors go out of their way to buy albums on LP that they already own (CD / mp3) or rent (streaming). The only case where someone would have bought a duplicate copy on LP, back when it was a playback medium, was if it had something unique, collectible, and merch-like, that the CD or tape lacked -- an impressive fold-out poster, it was signed by the band, or whatever.

For newly released albums, the status contest may not involve the entirety of your music tastes, but your ranking within the fandom of a single performer. You may not be an overall "record collector," but you do own records of all the albums by your favorite performer, like Taylor Swift. Here, the LP is treated as collectible "merch" that only the elite tiers of the artist's fandom are willing to pay top dollar for. And not only at concerts, as already discussed, but in big box stores, Urban Outfitters, etc. Records allow fans to buy their way into higher positions on the fandom totem pole. And even then, some pressings are more elite than others.

"Wow, you claim to be a Taylor Swift fan, yet you don't own 1989 on vinyl?"

Or, "Oh don't get me wrong, your ordinary vinyl of 1989 is amazing, and if I were just getting into vinyl, I'd for sure jump all over it, too. But trust me, the clear & pink vinyl version released exclusively for Record Store Day is actually worth the endless hunt to track it down."

* * *

In those not-so-imaginary remarks, we see three of the hallmarks of this new era of records as status objects.

First, the release of "small batch" pressings, in non-black colors, to appeal to status-object-chasers. This trend speaks for itself, and I'll just add that the only colored / patterned vinyl I have is from indie / alternative / punk bands from the '90s or earlier. But all copies were pressed that way, it was not used to create multiple versions to collect. The unusual coloring reflected the outside-the-mainstream musical style of the group, whereas now the unusual color shows that it's a rare edition of a mainstream-styled album.

Second, the relentless re-branding of "records" or "LPs" as "vinyl". They're different objects, with different purposes, for a different sort of owner, so they can't very well be called by the standard old names.

Hard as it may be to believe, nobody ever used the term "vinyl" back in the day (i.e., before 2010). "Records" or "LPs" were used to refer to the format overall, individual copies, and the section of a store where they were located. For a single store's name, and for the entire class of stores that sold them, "records" was the only term.

An example with all usages: "Unable to find it on CD, I finally found Fear of Music on record -- and the record is in really great shape, a former promo copy from a radio station. I picked it up from the record section of Joe's Record Paradise, easily one of the best record stores out there."

Since the shift of 2010, these usages are now covered by "vinyl," although the individual copies are reluctant to be called that. Vinyl is a mass noun, referring to the material that the copies are made out of, not a count noun that could refer to a particular copy. Still, that doesn't stop the strivers from inserting their shibboleth via the term "vinyl records" (as opposed to records made out of some other material?). And on at least one YouTube channel that I browsed, she said "my vinyls" to refer to individual copies (she was a Millennial who collected albums released after 2010).

So now, an anecdote will be more like: "I mean, I already have 1989 in my Spotify, but I just had to pick it up on vinyl, too. It's quickly becoming one of my most prized vinyls. I got it from the vinyl section of The Vinyl Countdown -- which, not gonna lie, the most amazing vinyl store of all time."

As far as this non-striver is concerned, the only usage of "vinyl" is for the material that records are made out of -- "180-gram vinyl," "red vinyl," etc., are all fine.

If you doubt the evolution, see this video retrospective of Amoeba Music, a group of record stores in the Bay Area and L.A. The section signs inside the stores all used to say "records" or "LPs," but by the time when there are customers wearing full hipster beards -- i.e., the 2010s -- you can see some signs like "clearance vinyl". As recently as the 2001 opening of the L.A. store, the exterior neon sign had to say "LPs" rather than "vinyl". (Naturally the YouTube channel is vinyl-branded -- called "Vinyl Eyezz," with a "Vinyl Rules" poster prominently displayed in the video's frame.)

Third and finally, the central role of Record Store Day in morally laundering the re-branding coup of elite PR / marketing / advertising firms contracted by the corporate cartel of record labels. The annual event began in the late 2000s, though I don't remember hearing about it or noticing that the local college-town record store was participating in it until 2010, when I gave it a quick plug here on the blog. I figured it was all about going to physical stores instead of downloading mp3s from iTunes, supporting local hang-out places rather than big box stores, and keeping some kind of music scene going.

As early as 2014, a commenter here chimed in to say that Record Store Day had begun as a supposed attempt to promote local / indie record stores, but had turned into a marketing bonanza by the major labels who got to release RSD collectors' editions for strivers. He said that was noticeable by 2010, although I don't remember that about the particular store I was going to at the time. At any rate, over the course of the 2010s, Record Store Day came to be more about the record format (the big labels re-branding it as collectible vinyl, and strivers piling into the stores to scoop it up for status points), and less about the record stores themselves (as a community focal point and hangout for non-striver music lovers).

I'm just glad I didn't play a role as a blogger in hyping up the vinyl branding coup. To the extent that I ever discussed records as a playback medium, I always said they're fine, though I preferred CDs since they have greater dynamic range and are easier to get ahold of for less money, but both were preferable to lossy compressed digital downloads (let alone even lower-quality streaming, which I have barely commented on). I never discussed "must-owns" on vinyl, never shared a "recent epic vinyl haul," or any other striver-collector kind of treatment of records.

The big labels could not directly promote the new way of behaving toward records -- the strivers who make up the campaign's target audience like to believe they're non-conformist, that they follow independent stores more than corporate chains, and so on and so forth. The labels had to go through a trusted establishment like the local, independently-owned record store. And the branding of the event itself was not part of the main re-branding campaign -- it contained the word "record" rather than "vinyl," and it seemed to be more about the brick-and-mortar stores rather than the format of recorded music. Only after you went inside the store were you bombarded by the "vinyl" branding that tried to shift your mind into striver-collector mode.

I haven't looked into how aware the record stores themselves were of this re-branding campaign as the central motive for the annual event. Maybe they were aware but were desperate to enjoy any increased foot traffic during the era of digital downloads and then streaming. Or maybe they were unaware, taking it as a sign of good faith by the labels that only local / indie stores were being chosen for the events, and not Walmart, Target, etc.

In any case, the PR coup required trusted "brand ambassadors" like the local indie record store to disguise the ulterior motives of both the corporate labels on the supply side and the striver-collectors on the demand side, whether or not the stores were aware of their larger role in the shift away from records as a playback medium to vinyl as a collectible status object.

* * *

Further posts in this series will tie this trend into others like it, to see the big-picture change since the 2010s. One will look at the insane price inflation that has accompanied the shift from treating records, video games, and other tech-related things as utilitarian to treating them as collectible status objects. Another will tie all of these separate trends into the overall picture of the generational structure of status contests. And we'll also look at the timing of these changes to see why the 2010s was the pivotal time for striver-collector mania to take off.

12 comments:

  1. The term "vinyl" has always been used in the dance music community, dance music DJs were one of the last groups of people to migrate away from vinyl to digital (circa 2005 with the rise of Beatport).

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  2. Another contrast is the presence of bonus tracks on CDs but not records, for new releases. Take 1989 by Taylor Swift again.

    The "deluxe" edition CD has 3 bonus tracks, including one of her best, "New Romantics". The LP has no bonus tracks. These bonus tracks are also available for digital downloading and streaming.

    Ditto for her album Red. The deluxe CD has 3 bonus tracks, which are also on digital downloading and streaming services -- but not on the LP.

    So, the playback media are CD, digital download, and streaming. The bonus tracks were not included on the LPs, because that format is not meant for playing music, but serving as collectible merch.

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  3. If it was the DJs talking amongst themselves, that could've been professional jargon for insiders.

    Retailers never used the term "vinyl," nor did the buyers, whether they were casual or hardcore fans, nor did the music media. Today, they all do.

    Club DJs were a great source of 12" singles in the used stores. The 7" were a dime a dozen, but not the 12" (still true in thrift stores or used stores).

    I actually managed to find a pair by Stacey Q in a thrift store as late as 2014. "Insecurity" and her dance classic "Two of Hearts". Can't get those extended mixes or other mixes anywhere else. One of the outer sleeves has a handwritten label with "140 Insecurity," probably some old club DJ's own cataloging system, since I haven't seen radio station promo copies with handwritten labels.

    Sadly, 12" singles are something you rarely see these days. There weren't as many club DJs as there were radio stations.

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  4. Vladimir Berkov8/4/20, 2:16 PM

    One thing that I think adds to the unique striver potential of LPs is the requirement of extra gear in order to play them back. Most striver activities feast on this sort of thing, like expensive tennis racquets, skis, sailboats, racing bikes, etc. It's not enough to do an activity that activity has to have all sorts of arcane and expensive paraphenialia essential to it which can be endlessly debated, boasted about and shown off. During the peak era of the LP as the dominant recording medium from about the mid 1950s-mid 1980s, is when you see the development of massive home stereo hi fi setups, often at great expense or limited production (better if even both!). Even a lower middle class house would have some sort of record player or turntable setup from Radio Shack or whatnot, it was just something everyone owned in some form like a TV but with the freedom at the high end for massive spending and boasting. As CDs then streaming took over that sorta died out. Most homes don't automatically have some sort of component stereo system at all anymore, let alone a turntable. But for LP collectors you really still need one. Collecting a lot of vinyl and not owning a turntable setup is too poser even for a bigtime poser I think. So where the status striving still exists for audio gear is with these modern collectors, since nobody else buys LPs to listen to anyway so why own a big expensive turntable taking up space when a phone and a bluetooth speaker work better?

    Another note, the LP itself was sort of a striver medium even from its inception after WW2. The 45 slightly predates it and has roughly the same sound quality but was cheaper as were 45-only machines. But after the LP started taking off, it became the "adult" option. 45s were for kids, real adults listened to albums on 33rpm LPs, which not coincidentally were also more expensive, more cumbersome, and usually catered music-wise towards a more adult audience.

    Source: being a longtime record collector, although of an even earlier format, 78s.

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  5. Yep, I'll be covering that angle in future posts. Vintage audio is another related area where collecting and price inflation has skyrocketed over the past 5-10 years. Thankfully not so much for CD players (except for quirky formats like the original Sony Discman models that were made in Japan).

    It's part of the lifestyle striving mode of status contests -- you're not just a collector of vinyl, part of your regular routine or lifestyle is playing vinyl on a turntable. Or if it's for persona points, you're the type of person who is drawn to turntables and vinyl, and include them as decoration for your character's home setting.

    Of course, they don't play them often, since they're just merch, and so is the hardware. But it allows you to project a certain lifestyle or persona over social media for status points, and that's all that matters.

    Retro video games require the old hardware, cables, controllers, etc. Even higher striver points if they're PC games -- then you need an old desktop, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and operating system of the period.

    Vintage film cameras require the lenses from that era.

    And so on and so forth.

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  6. Catcalling is back, as Me Too keeps dying. This time from me to them! Well, more like an affectionate honk-honk from the car, since I didn't want to call out over the music already playing -- "Smile" by Avril Lavigne, which I had just picked up on CD (more chick catnip, just like Miley Cyrus).

    There was a small pack of college girls strolling down the main drag near campus. No staring down at phones or screens. One had flowing black hair, olive skin, and was letting her thicc azz just barely peek out under her high-waisted daisy dukes.

    Her validation was low, his libido was high. Can I make it any more obvious?

    I know the school of thought that says don't encourage the thots, but I only respect that rule online, where they mainly operate (for social media points). If you're strutting your bod in public, you're opening yourself up to at least some degree of social interaction. You're taking a risk by putting yourself out there.

    When the alternative is them thot-cocooning in the social media swamp for clicks, I'd much rather they angle for attention IRL, where the stakes are real.

    So it's not encouraging thottery per se, but rewarding them for logging off of social media and joining the human race, whether or not they happen to be seeking attention at the same time. Baby steps out of the cyber-swamp...

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  7. How times change. Avril's 2007 CD has a MySpace URL, but her 2011 CD has Facebook and Twitter URLs instead. Barf!

    At least there's no Instagram URL.

    Next time I'm at a used media store, I should check out the CD covers for 2009 albums to see if MySpace URLs died in that year or 2010. Facebook only overtook MySpace among users in 2009, but probably a year later out West, where the recording industry is located. (Facebook migrated slowly from the East Coast.)

    Jesus, I hope I haven't introduced a new collectors' target that will inflate prices even further -- major-label albums with a MySpace URL on the cover or liner notes. Gotta catalog and catch them all!

    Sike, collectors don't care about CDs anyway (thank God).

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  8. MySpace URLs appear on Taylor Swift's '06 and '08 albums, but not 2010 and after.

    Lady Gaga's '08 album, but not the '09 Fame Monster or '11 studio album and after.

    The latest examples I found are actually from 2010 -- Teenage Dream by Katy Perry, and Animal by Kesha. Way to keep the fire burning longer than the others!

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  9. Found 3 more, noticing a gay icon / big-voice diva trend. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black, '06. Pink, Funhouse, '08. Adele, 19, '08.

    As a reminder from an older comment, there are MySpace URLs on One of the Boys by Katy Perry, and Breakout by Miley Cyrus.

    Not all gay icon divas, though -- Britney's albums from the late 2000s lack a MySpace URL.

    Strangely, none of the emo / scene bands put their MySpace on the cover (and you know they all had one). Fall Out Boy, Infinity on High? Nope. Metro Station, self-titled? Nope. My Chemical Romance, Three Cheers...? or The Black Parade? Nope and nope.

    Not an exhaustive search, but still odd for the bands most associated with MySpace to not have a URL on their album somewhere.

    So far, no examples from rap or R&B.

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  10. Worst offender so far is Maroon 5's V, which has everything but MySpace -- Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Came out in 2014, well into the social media era.

    But they DID have a MySpace URL on their 2007 album It Won't Be Soon Before Long. That disappeared by their next one in 2010, Hands All Over.

    Worth noting, though, since it's the first I've found that isn't a woman, and that is a rock band rather than dance / pop.

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  11. I actually liked the early version of Facebook, where there were no status updates, just a barebones profile with pictures and allowing other people to post on your board. Always thought the FB template was more aesthetically pleasing than MySpaces.

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  12. Try antique malls for low-cost records worth buying. They're the last place I've found with a good selection and prices no higher than $5.

    There may be a music specialist vendor who does price things more in line with the insanely inflated prices, currently $8 per record. But I found several booths that had a crate or two mixed in with the rest of their stuff.

    Picked up 4 records all for about $3 each, only one that I already had on CD (Madonna self-titled). The rest I've rarely or never seen on CD in all my years of browsing used media stores -- Peter Gabriel's '82 self-titled (the one with "Shock the Monkey"), Big Country's The Crossing (only found their greatest hits on CD), and Nu Shooz's second album Told U So (already had Poolside on CD).

    Except the Madonna album, none of those are collectibles for me, but utilitarian things to play since I can't find them on my preferred format of CD.

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