Does The Wax Still Work?
When I first moved back to Glasgow in the mid Nineties there were, between where I lived just off Great Western Road, and the corner of University Avenue and Byres Road in the West End, five or six record shops. Less than five minutes walk from my front door was a place that specialized in second-hand dance music, and a Missing Records that also stocked a fair bit of vinyl. Once you rounded the corner onto Byres road itself there was Fopp – Probably the biggest selection of vinyl outside of Rubadub in the city center – the two Echo shops that dealt with indy and classic rock, and the wee place run by the guy from BMX bandits that was to be found above John Smiths the bookshop.
These days only Fopp is left, and it’s a shadow of what it once was. Much of the shop floor is a testament to the changes that have warped the music retail industry out of all recognition. Gone are the ranked racks of vinyl, replaced by masses of books, headphones and DVDs (themselves surely a product on the edge of oblivion) and although it still sells wax, you would be hard pressed to find any dance music except releases by the very biggest names like Daft Punk, the rest of the merchandise made up of a mix of big name Indy and Neil Young – in short the sort of stuff that was almost impossible to find on vinyl until a couple of years ago.
Many are the news items these days telling us that vinyl is making a comeback, that sales of wax are at their highest level in 15 years. But vinyl has never really disappeared: In dance music it retains the cachet it has always had. To a certain extent at least. And although digital formats have had their locust like effect on House and Techno too, it still seems that the most exciting music is still to be found on vinyl.
I’ll be honest: These days, I don’t have the space to set up a pair of Technics and a mixer. I DJ using software and a MIDI controller, and even though I continue to wish I was playing on a pair of decks I’m also aware of the benefits of this digital method, and it’s place within the greater scheme. I buy FLACS, I buy CDs and I buy records – a lot of records – and I archive the various non digital releases to WAV and then onto FLAC like a sad obsessive.
Aside from the way I listen to music, the way I buy it has changed too. I rarely get to buy music in an actual bricks and mortar store these days. I don’t even get into town to go to visit Rubadub that often, so I buy from a variety of online stores and pay the shipping premiums instead. It’s a costly way to do it, sure, but it’s a better choice than never buying anything.
Over the last couple of years, the relentless march of digital music has taken a bit of a battering. Low prices, piracy and an increased sense of disposability have contributed to falling digital sales and the upsurge of new labels that release on vinyl only – when they can find the space to have records pressed, that is, the plants themselves being full of creating fresh copies of Roxy Music albums – and once again we see people desperate to get their hands on White labels and what not, just like the old days. Even labels that were originally digital only are releasing on vinyl now, and, quite aside from all the hand stamped white labels available at the moment, there has been a bit of a renaissance in cover art and creating an over all package that feels like a joy to buy and own. Witness the likes of Trilogy Tapes, each release with a remarkable cover by label owner Will Bankhead, or some of the beautiful releases by Giegling or Anthony Parasole’s The Corner.
It could – and probably should be said – that only the music should matter, that the format and package are ephemeral to the importance of what they contain. Of course this is true, but it is a glib answer that fails to comprehend that joy you feel when you get a record home, when you open it, and when you play it for the first time: There is ritual to it that transcends the simple fact that you are simply placing a stylus on a black disk.
And the sound? Imperfections colour the emotional response and are as much a part of the package as the artwork or the smell. I’ve got some Acid House records from the 80s that are so crackly I could be listening to broadcasts from another era – and in a sense that’s exactly what they are. And there is the physical connection too – who hasn’t lifted a record from a deck at some time or other only to have that curious fuzz of static pass into your hands? it makes the record feel alive.
Through it all the fact remains that records are important to the scene. When I DJd I went through periods of hating records – they were heavy, easily damaged and could be a bugger to find the right place to drop the needle on in the dry ice drenched darkness of a club, and I disagree with much of snobbery to be found in those who huffily proclaim themselves vinyl only DJs – as if that matters to the people dancing to your set in any way what so ever. I also remain hesitant to declare the current surge of new labels to be a new Golden Age – the real world keeps pushing the price of records up and up and there will come a point where it is no longer practical to create them – but it is heartening to see them, and the joy they can bring, being discovered by a new generation.
And for me? I’m glad I started buying them again despite my protestations that it would never happen. Imperfect and fragile as they are, they still call to me as sweetly as they always have. Now, if you will excuse me, I’ve got a Jared Wilson EP that needs my undivided attention….
…For the fifteenth time.