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BAMM UK: Modern Life Is Not Rubbish

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BAMM UK is a regular opinion piece from our London-based correspondent. This week: Modern Life Is Not Rubbish …

It’s good to have a hobby. Whether your passion is for stamp collecting, kite flying, model building or analysing the architectural slant of 15th century Tunisian doorframes, you’ve got to do what you love. Take this article in The Guardian, for example – entitled ‘Analogue artists defying the digital age’ – which features:

… a poet who composes on a typewriter, a musician who has built an entirely analogue recording studio [and] a photographer who shuns digital for manual vintage cameras and an artist who DJs on a gramophone.

All of which sound like harmless, fun and interesting diversions. Linking these together, of course, is the retro slant; a love of old technology and outdated mediums. Such a pursuit can be really enjoyable, displaying a love for a certain type of craft or a bygone era. It’s undeniable: there can be a quasi-nostalgic rush from listening to a hissy vinyl record rather than an MP3, or cracking open a dusty old hardback rather than reading something on a Kindle screen.

Ah. Yes. But the thing is … that’s only a tiny part of the wider picture. To these people, their ‘lifestyle’ is more than just a hobby. It’s:

… a dissatisfaction with digital culture’s obsession with the new, the next, the instant. They value the hand-made, the detailed and the patiently skilful over the instantly upgradeable and the disposable.

And:

… a willingness to slow down, to run counter to the furious momentum of digitised contemporary culture, its speed and its pursuit of sanitised perfection.

That’s right. Because – as everyone knows – a vinyl record is a work of ‘true’ art, whereas a digital download is a shallow, forgotten-in-an-instant emblem of a worthless bubblegum culture, isn’t it? It’s the sort of thing a jibbering internet-addled idiot would listen to for thirty seconds before ignoring in favour of a YouTube video about a cat flushing a toilet. Right? Right?

Er … no. To use a British parlance, that’s absolute bollocks. Collecting vinyl records is a great pasttime, sure, but once people start to wheel out the old ‘vinyl is so much better than digital music’ nonsense, I can’t help but be reminded of David Cross in this great Mr. Show sketch (watch from 1:10):

Where does it come from, this bizarre Luddite stance? Just look at things objectively: even a lower-range MP3 player can hold thousands upon thousands of tracks, and can be taken absolutely anywhere at any time. A record player is large, unwieldy, sits in the corner of the room and can play maybe five to six tracks in one sitting. By all accounts, the MP3 player is the winner. And let’s ignore the tired old ‘sound quality’ argument – the notion that vinyl ‘sounds better’ is an abject fallacy.

Y’see, this is basically a big old form of inverse snobbery. Example: let’s say Godspeed You Black Emperor! were around twenty-five years ago. How would you get hold of one of their albums? You’d have to pick it up on a physical format at a specialist record shop, or maybe use a mail order firm. It could take days or even weeks of dedicated hunting and waiting. Now? Now you just search on iTunes and start downloading within seconds.

Above: a vinyl snob in cat form

That’s what the retro snobs don’t like. It’s nothing to do with the ‘purity of vinyl’ or the ‘ambience’ or the ‘preciousness of the physical format’. Nope. What really irks them is that the unwashed masses have broken into their little treehouse club. I mean – how dare they! Such people haven’t earned the right to good music, have they? A true music fan would camp outside Camden import shops in the pouring rain waiting for the latest delivery of Afghan Whigs B-sides … and anyone else is just a philistine! A philistine, I say!

That genuinely seems to be their desperate argument – ‘sure, yeah, the man in the street might have easy access to obscure music these days, but he doesn’t really understand it’. To fully ‘get’ music, it seems, you have to be part of a self-appointed cultural elite. Rather than celebrating the democratisation and opportunity the digital age has to offer, the retro-junkies are too busy wallowing in bitter regret because their mint-condition Sugarcubes EP isn’t an automatic badge of cultural superiority anymore.

So: down with the ‘physical format’ snobs. Music is music, however you choose to consume it, and that’s all that matters. It just so happens that digital downloading/streaming is the most convenient, cost-effective, popular and forward-looking. Get over it, guys.

3 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    To quote a line from High Fidelity (referring to music snobs), “You’re totally elitist. You feel like the unappreciated scholars, so you shit on the people who know less than you…which is everybody…it’s just sad.”

    That said, there are a couple other ways to look at vinyl from the musician’s perspective: bands put out vinyl for a multitude of reasons, one of which is people pay for it. Also, the mp3, massive improvements in home recording technology (which is now relatively affordable), and social network sites have made it very easy to get music (even really, really bad music) out in the world. And this has created a sea of shit from which it has become increasingly difficult to find…well the music that isn’t shitty. Vinyl is one way for a musician to separate from said shit. Even if it’s not new, it’s different. Hey, whatever it takes to get people to pay and listen. For some, that is vinyl.

  2. Tyler says:

    Like it or not, format matters. I’m the owner of thousands of MP3’s, as well as few select pieces of vinyl and even a few tapes. Its true that my digital music files “can be taken absolutely anywhere at any time,” while my record player is large, unwieldy and immobile. However, that doesn’t necessarily make my MP3 player the clear “winner.” Its quite the opposite, in fact, Mr. Davies.

    For me, the vinyl albums that I own only are inherently special. Their medium dictates how, when and where I listen to them. For example, I can only listen to LCD Soundsystem’s “This Is Happening” or James Blakes’ self-titled album at home, on good speakers and with distinct intent. Why? Because these albums RULE and I don’t want to get sick of hearing any one of the songs. As much as I might want to sometimes, I can’t put “Dance Yrself Clean” on repeat on my iPod ad nauseam. Instead, this killer track is restricted to a more special place in my life.

    Am I a snob, uh, yeah… Duh. But, only because I know that the medium is the message.

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