I think about vinyl a lot. You might have already figured that out. I’ve written about my digs through the used bins. I’ve interviewed other collectors, as well as some of the people behind some of L.A.’s longtime record stores. Plus, organizing my own stacks is a never-ending task that sometimes turns up old tunes that sound new and end up in the occasional all-vinyl DJ sets I play.
But, the main reason I think about vinyl is because of the weird trajectory it’s had. I hit my teenage years around the time that cassettes were giving way to CDs; vinyl was already presumed to be on the way to obsolescence. Yet, it still had cult followings across genres. Punk and indie bands sold 7” singles at shows. DJs played 12” singles with mixes made specifically for the clubs. Virtually every mom-and-pop store stocked new full-length releases on vinyl and had bins overflowing with used finds.
Since I was (and still am) very much an indie music fan and started DJing at a young age, I dived into into the vinyl bins. New releases often cost less than their CD equivalent and used records were frequently super cheap. Older friends just gave me their records when they digitized their collections. Most people didn’t want vinyl. Now I look up those same records on Discogs and I’m floored by the price. (No, I’m not selling anything right now.) It’s wild how coveted some of these records are.
I have a theory about this so-called revival of vinyl. A lot of people do. They’ll tell you it’s about nostalgia or some marketing scheme that worked or a social media trend or whatever. I think that’s all wrong and humbly submit that people didn’t actually want to rid vinyl from their lives. It’s a very good format. If you love album art and liner notes, this is the superior format. If you want to focus on listening to music without the distractions that your computer, phone or tablet pose, giving a record a spin on your turntable is ideal.
For DJs, vinyl always was a solid way to go. For many years, turntables were much easier to manipulate than even the CD players made for DJs. If you got distracted, you could figure out where you were in the song by looking at the grooves in the vinyl. Those same grooves could also help you gauge the volume while you were cueing up a song. Even in the digital DJ age, vinyl is better for certain kinds of gigs, particularly those where you’re playing music that was only released in that format. There are some drawbacks with vinyl. Lugging around crates with enough music for a four hour set is not fun. Vinyl is also a more delicate format, susceptible to skipping and damage.
The thing about life under the thumb of late capitalism, though, is that it doesn’t matter if a format is good. What matters is what the corporations want you to buy. So you upgrade, even when you like what you have, because you’re told that you will be irrelevant if you stick with the same tech that you’ve been using for decades. Eventually, the stores where you once bought your preferred format close. The players become harder to find and nearly impossible to fix. The things you love are forced into obsolescence.
For some reason, though, vinyl never completely went away, even after DJs switched en masse to digital controllers and CDJs. It became a nerd thing and then a hip thing and then an influencer thing. Now, indie bands have a hell of a time trying to get their records pressed because the major labels think everyone wants to buy reissues of dollar bin finds on a fake shopping holiday or collect limited edition colored vinyl from pop artists who probably don’t know how to change a needle.
This post, though, wasn’t supposed to be about vinyl. It’s supposed to be about forced progress. We’ve seen this play out over the past few decades with virtually everything that’s even loosely connected to technology. We’re pressured to constantly upgrade our devices, migrate to the most popular social network, pivot to the next big thing. We may not want to do any of this, but, we’re told, we must, lest we find ourselves tucked in a used record bin, collecting dust until today’s babies are old enough to declare us relevant again.
This incessant push to re-adapt seemingly every few months is embedded into both of my jobs. As a journalist, I hear, “Learn to use ChatGPT or you’ll lose opportunities.” What opportunities are those? I didn’t go to J-school to edit stories cobbled together by AI.
“You should promote on TikTok, everyone is there!” is what I hear from people on the DJ front, usually folks who don’t understand that hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands of “views” doesn’t mean anyone actually gives a shit about what you post. So, no, I’m not going to clown for the camera while my gear DJs for me just to feed more “content” into the machine.
At some point, we have to draw the line. We can’t let big business continue dictate our lives. We’ve already sacrificed the environment, our privacy, job stability and probably a good chunk of our mental health and physical well-being in the name of this forced progress.
What did we get in return? The sense of dread that weighs down on us every time we open an inbox crammed with unread messages. A to-do list that swells whenever we consider one more side hustle to make ends meet. A litany of viral hits and microtrends that we’ll forget after a week of scrolling through the endless stream of content. A constant, nagging urge to post something just so that our friends don’t forget we exist.
Maybe we are better off hiding out in the use record bins. Vinyl is resilient. It withstood 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs and MP3s. It will likely still be around when people realize that Spotify playlists aren’t music collections. Vinyl always finds its people, no matter how many forces try to declare it irrelevant. We should be more like vinyl.
Check out Los Angeles-based DJ Liz O. at one of her upcoming gigs.