Anatomy of a Habit

Having been starved of music buying for a couple of weeks I finally got myself a fresh hit on the back of a generous birthday present and the arrival of some interesting looking records. the last month or two had been a bit lean for genuinely quality releases, and here we are again about to feast after the famine.

As I went through my basket, trying to decide which titles to cull in a vain attempt to keep it decent, I realised I had a marked tendency to cut the ones which were either fairly straight House or too left field. Although not one of the records I ended up buying could really be described as anything other than ‘predictably underground’, something about my purchases seemed ever so slightly safe – a collection of records from producers and labels I liked from previous experience or because they tied in with something I already enjoyed. Nothing genuinely new.

This, of course, is how most people buy music, the majority of people who want to hear music they like by people they like. We, my friends, are not normal people though, are we? We are a strange crew; we listen to music as part of an extended whole. We seldom hear the start or end of a tune except in the headphones as we wind it in and out-of-place with whatever its supposed to mix with. DJ’s are supposed to be masters at crate digging, of finding something that few others have found and using that new acquisition to do great damage.

The more I pondered this the more I came to realise it is something I only do with vinyl. When I buy digitally I lean heavily towards the more experimental edge, and I seem more likely to take risks on producers I would probably never buy on wax. Some of my favourite releases of the last couple of years have come my way on FLAC: The debut albums by Austin Cesear and Patricia stand out in particular, but there have been a pile of others that left an indelible mark on me that I might never have gone for had I stuck to vinyl.

Perhaps it is the cost. An average 12″ can run from about seven quid up to eleven. An album might well be twice that. Digitally, things are much lower of course (with the concomitant reductions in royalties to the producer, unfortunately) and maybe because of that I’m more likely to take a punt of something I would normally miss? Partly, I suspect, but I’m not sure this tells the whole story.

Is it that record labels themselves are more conservative, putting out records only by those artists it thinks are most likely to sell a run and therefore cover costs? Going for a sure thing? Doubtful: it might have been true a few years ago but now, in the midst of a vinyl revival, the slump in digital sales and the sense that one of the better ways to combat piracy is a physical product, I think there is more genuine underground talent getting released on vinyl than ever before.

I suspect the answer is simply that I’ll buy the records I like the most, that I’m most comfortable with, and that have something about them that make them worthy of the permanence of vinyl and a place in a physical collection, and its in that implied significance a physical object has over an etheric digital release that we have the crux. Records, like books, have importance as both objects and holders of memories. They occupy a psychic space where emotion is the dominant form of gravity, and where we seldom make decisions based on the musical content alone. As DJs, as users and abusers of music, we sometimes look to buy records based on some criteria or other, like how it will fit into a set (don’t lie, you know you’ve done it), or how absurdly underground it is (30 copy run – handed to those who ‘in the know’). It sometimes comes as a shock when you remember you can buy a record because you like it, not because you feel you have to, and because you want to return to it time and time again as part of a weird ritual involving a turntable and a needle. And that’s reason enough, I think.