Vinyl on the brain

In planning to write a blog on vinyl records, I was responding to recent personal experiences and insights on this topic. Then events somewhat overtook me, as I learned of the death this past weekend of Philip Jeck (more on him later). So this post has taken on a slightly different tone.

Image sourced from Vintage Everyday

The initial trigger for this blog came from the realisation that I’ve been spending more time on Twitter engaging with fellow vinyl enthusiasts – and of course, this interest has been amplified by social media algorithms and their “preferences” and “recommendations”. In my experience, most people who post content about music in general (and vinyl in particular) tend to be much nicer than those who indulge in the didactic venom and unfiltered hate speech that passes for “social commentary” these days. But this just goes to prove that you find your audience (and your confirmation bias?) where you choose to seek them.

Part of this on-line engagement is prompted by a passion for collecting, and a love of sharing. Yes, it could merely relate to showing off one’s vinyl stash, and may reveal fetishistic tendencies – but frankly, there are far worse vices. A lot of the commentary details successful crate-digging, charity shop bargains, and re-discovered hidden gems. In fact, the prospect of finding an over-looked classic, unearthing a valuable rarity, or simply completing a gap in your collection often drives this obsession. So much so, that recently I found myself dreaming of records which I know don’t exist, but in so much detail that part of me thinks these artefacts must be out there somewhere!

Like many music enthusiasts, I was first exposed to vinyl records via my parents’ and then my sisters’ collections. For a time in the late ’60s, my dad used to visit EMI on business, and would sometimes come home on a Friday having picked up a new release or two, most memorably the first few singles on the Beatles’ Apple label. I probably got the collecting bug more than my siblings, and still recall the key albums I bought with my own money: “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk, and “A Clockwork Orange” by Wendy Carlos – which probably confirms my personal bias for instrumental, electronic and soundtrack music.

Then, I started playing in bands with mates from school, an interest that was further fueled by the arrival of punk rock, and the realisation that there was more to music than the Top 40 and old hippies singing into their patchouli-drenched afghan overcoats. One group I was in, Greenfield Leisure, received an airing on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 programme (the Holy Grail for aspiring musicians at the time), but mostly these bands existed on home-made demo tapes, and were only ever heard (and rarely appreciated…) by our long-suffering families. Later, I worked in a chain of infamous second-hand record stores in London, which, if nothing else, revealed some of the weirder ends of the vinyl-collecting public. It also helped expand my musical knowledge, but at the cost of a fair chunk of my paltry shop wages.

Vinyl is not necessarily the most convenient format of music – it’s not as portable as digital, and not as robust as CD. Records get scratched, they warp, the grooves fill up with dust, and the sleeves get battered and torn. So, despite advances in technology, and the huge market for digital music and streaming services, why have vinyl records endured?

The continued and renewed interest in music on vinyl cannot be explained by a single factor – this phenomenon is as multi-faceted as the genres of music people listen to.

First, whether or not driven by events like Record Store Day, limited edition releases, box set retrospectives or physical copies being shipped with download coupons, vinyl sales are steadily on the up. But as a proportion of how people listen to music each week, purchased music (physical and download formats) comprises less than 10%, while streaming formats account for two-thirds of our listening.

Second, the tactile nature of vinyl records, plus the opportunity they present for creativity in their use of artwork, design and packaging, can generate a more engaging and long-lasting experience. As someone said recently on Twitter, you probably don’t remember the first music you downloaded or streamed, but it’s very likely you remember the first record you bought.

Third, quite apart from the vast amount of artist and label back catalogue being reissued on vinyl, more and more new and contemporary music is being released on vinyl as well as digital – sometimes, there’s not even a CD edition.

Fourth, swathes of back-catalogue can only be accessed via original vinyl editions, having never been re-issued during the hey-day of CDs in the 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, even where current and past releases have been released for streaming and/or download, the vagaries of geo-blocking can mean that this digital content is not available in all territories.

Finally, the economics of streaming (and to a lesser extent, downloads) have revealed that artists receive just a tiny proportion of the subscription revenue generated by Spotify, Apple and others, which can make vinyl purchases more attractive to music fans. This dynamic has also made direct-to-buyer platforms like Bandcamp more appealing to artists and fans alike.

Back to Philip Jeck, a sound artist who transformed piles of dusty old records into a musical experience. Using techniques he gleaned from watching hip-hop DJs and post-modern turntablists, he curated (rather than composed) sound collages built up from layers of seemingly forgotten and anonymous recordings, turning them into live art. I was fortunate enough to see him perform twice. The first was in 1993, when he presented his magnum opus “Vinyl Requiem” at the Union Chapel in North London. The second was in 2008, for a much more intimate solo performance at The Toff in Town, Melbourne. In both cases, the use of streaming could not have resulted in such a strong creative process or delivered such immersive listening.

Next week: Music with literary leanings

A Music Buyer’s Guide to Japan (or Crate Digging in Kobe, Kyoto & Tokyo…)

For serious music collectors, Japan is like an oasis in a desert of digital downloads and streaming services. Not only does Japan still have bricks and mortar record shops, it also boasts a couple of well-known chain stores, in the guise of Tower Records and HMV, although both brands operate under local licenses totally unconnected with their original US and UK parent companies.

A Crate Diggers Paradise....

A Crate Diggers’ Paradise…. (Picture sourced from Facebook post)

On my recent tour of Japan, I spent several hours visiting some of the crate-digging hubs of Kobe, Kyoto and Tokyo. I barely scratched the surface, but still managed to come across some interesting finds.

“Big In Japan”

Whether it’s the country’s aging population, the love of tactile objects combined with a strong design aesthetic, or just that national obsession with detail and authenticity when it comes to pursuing hobbies and interests; whatever the reason, Japan has established a reputation for being a paradise for lovers of vinyl records, CDs and cassettes.

For collectors like myself, it seems like all the unwanted and discarded records from around the world have ended up in Japan’s second hand music shops to be (re)discovered and appreciated by audiophiles, hipsters and analogue enthusiasts.

Here is just a small glimpse of what dedicated music lovers and crate-diggers can experience in Japan.

Kobe

The Motoko market (a series of cramped arcades underneath the railway lines) has at least a dozen second-hand music stores stuffed with vinyl. A few of these shops specialise in particular genres, and some also sell new independent releases. What they all have in common are over-stacked racks and heaving shelf units shoved close together, forcing shoppers to crab-walk very carefully between piles of records, at considerable risk of triggering a vinyl avalanche.

Some of the stores arrange their stock meticulously by type and artist, but not much help if you don’t read Japanese; others seemed to have given up cataloguing the stock, so if you are searching for a specific record, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

At times, it felt like this was the end of the line for many of the items on display – if they can’t find a buyer here, there probably isn’t much hope for them anywhere. No doubt there is a lot of on-line trading behind the scenes, and prices were generally reasonable, so maybe the shops are more like warehouses open to the public?

Poring through some of the 70s vinyl was something of an education, as I came across albums I had never seen before, even though I worked in a second-hand record store in London in the late 80s. I resisted the temptation to buy some of the older Japanese pressings (especially at Wild Honey Pie), even though they have a reputation for superior sound quality, but I did pick up a Japanese edition of the first Y.M.O. album on CD at Freak Out Records.

Kyoto

Armed with a handy crate-digging map of Kyoto, I checked out several shops located near City Hall. Unlike their Kobe counterparts, these were neat and orderly boutiques, and were easy to browse. None of the stores are at street level, so navigation can be challenging. The map lists stores by genre and other specialisations, although some of the music categories can seem bewildering.

I spent most time at 100000t alonetoco (I think it means something like “100,000 tonnes of records”?), which has a good range of vinyl and CD, from classic rock to contemporary sounds, from soundtracks to electronica, plus books and other memorabilia. The owner stocks numerous Japan-only releases by independent US and UK artists, many of which are highly collectible. Speaking of which, I found an absolute bargain – a 1987 compilation CD of the 2nd and 3rd albums by The Pop Group, which was only released in Japan. Copies of this particular pressing are currently listed for sale online from A$145 – mine cost a mere 600 yen….

Also worth checking out is Prototype, which leans toward reggae, soul and funk.

Tokyo

Around the hip Tokyo suburb of Shimokitazawa are a cluster of hi-quality specialist stores, including Jet Set, which is also a label and distributor for local and international releases, mainly indie, techno, beats, ambient and electronica. There are a couple of branches of Dorama, a chain of second-hand CD stores (plus comics, magazines, graphic novels, games and DVDs). Well worth checking out, especially for promotional releases, box sets, jazz, classical, Japanese pop and electronica, and alternative international rock. I managed to find very cheap (less than 300 yen each) and long-deleted Japanese releases by United Future Organization and the late Susumu Yokota. For the latest independent Japanese releases, the Village Vanguard book store has an intriguing music section.

Further towards the city, in Shinjuku, is the institution known as Disk Union (and not Disc Union as my Australian guide-book spells it…). With 10 branches in the Shinjuku area alone (plus more than 20 others across Tokyo and in Osaka), it would probably take several days to check them all out. While they do stock selected new releases, the real attraction of browsing in Disk Union is the sheer breadth of second-hand, deleted and promotional items on sale. A case in point being the special Japanese edition of the recent David Bowie “Five Years” box set – looks wonderful but too rich for my wallet.

Finally, no trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to Tower Records in Shibuya. This landmark, multi-storey superstore is constantly being upgraded, even though sales of physical albums are generally on the decline. It caters for most tastes, and many new releases are discounted, making it popular with locals and tourists alike. It’s great for finding the Japanese pressings of international CDs, as they usually feature additional music or limited editions not included in the European or US releases. There’s now even a section just for cassettes, both new releases and re-issues. On this occasion, I found a couple of very limited edition albums by Japan’s Silent Poets, both on sale at regular price, but which I’ve since found listed online for upwards of A$50 each…

Next week: Another weekend, another hacakathon