The demise of vinyl has been predicted many times, particularly in the 80’s when the record industry moved from the ubiquitous 12” LP format to the Compact Disc that was ultimately much cheaper and easier to manufacture and lighter to transport.
The introduction of the CD with a lot of propagandistic exaggeration (this included ludricrous claims that you could eat fried eggs from it and it would still play as well as before) in the 80’s has pushed vinyl aside in the mainstream area, but it found a strong niche in the dance music scene. As this scene has fragmented, vinyl sales have apparently been shrinking in the last few years, but it is unclear if this is in overall numbers or because there are so many more different productions. It also remains a popular format in some sub-sections of the punk and metal scenes, and remains a sought-after collectors item with the nimbus of being an original artefact, something the CD has somewhat lost since it’s possible to copy, and something downloads will never acquire, because there is no such thing as downloading an original: The process consists in copying the commodity from a server.
Some consumer’s desire to hold an “original” item in their hands, and the fact that many don’t buy into the concept of paying for a digital copy anyway (especially since it’s easy enough to get the same throw-away commodity for free on the internet), is contributing to a certain resurgence of vinyl even in the mainstream, although it is still outsold by CD’s by a huge margin, and overall sales of music is dwindling.
There have certainly been a staggering number of collapses in the world of independent dance distribution as well, Integrale, Alphamagic, Hokus Pokus, Watts, Nemesis and Syntax (the last three having been the largest dance distributors in the US) all went under, as did Lowlands and Target, two distributors selling dance as well as broad sections of independent releases.
In many cities, especially the ones with high rents, many physical record shops have closed, either completely, or to concentrate on online sales.
There is no doubt that the crisis has hit different segments of the music scene and in different ways. The commercial “mainstream” has failed to support and/or absorb substantial “talent” and has produced so much trash that it’s hard to believe that they are now surprised to see it treated just as that by the consumers.
While it doesn’t mean that music is automatically better if it’s released on an independent label, it is practically unavoidable that anything of some substance will be put out independently in a market that is not only shrinking in terms of outlets, but also where the competition is exploding: While there are just four majors left, still controlling the huge majoritiy of the overall music market, there are thousands and thousands of labels catering for all kinds of niches.
A quick look back:
After the first phase of innovation through techno and rave nearly 20 years ago, there followed very quickly a phase of recuperation. Indeed it turned out to be possible that the DJ could be turned into a star as well, and there were many that were all too ready to play that role. The old hierarchies were not abolished, but reinstated and rejuvenated. Instead of destroying it, electronic dance gave the music industry a new lease of life.
But there was also resistance against these developments on different levels, on the one hand against formulaisation of the music in different sub-genres, against the commercialisation through pre-conditioned cycles, the creation of tracks according to blueprints.
When the general development of electronic dance music tended in the direction of trance and thus conformism, it made even more sense to radicalize its form.
And it made just as much sense to change the structures of distribution. Such initiatives also came (amongs others) from Spiral Tribe who had just made their experiences with the music industry in the early 1990’s, dealing with the partially major label owned Big Life.
There was the plan of a new network where the artists would distribute each others releases and cut out the middle men. An initial meeting in Den Haag congregated a quite diverse crew of sonic dissidents, most of who didn’t end up being an actual part of the network.
Network 23 alone produced 50 records under that name and dozens more under other monickers. These were not distributed through the normal channels, but largely directly to the public at parties and festivals, or would be swapped with friendly labels.
It was not unusual that sound systems would have a record dealer or running their own stalls.
Of course one can criticize in this strategy that the production of cultural artefacts can never completely escape the mechanisms of the culture industry. Vinyl is a product of refinement of raw oil to start with.
But the idea to swap records and sell them locally was not necessarily naive in this respect. Rather it was a strategy to keep the money in our own scene by cutting out the middle men.
Nevertheless this could only work for a while, to the point where Network 23 had created its own market and had to supply it with its products. A very specific sound became prevalent and created its own sub-genre.
Recuperation mechanisms set in, there were commercial “The Sound of Teknival” compilations etc., pay-parties advertising themselves with the “spiral sound”, causing schisms and bitter splits in the scene.(1)
Some of those involved were getting more and more unhappy and created an alternative network called subnet, promoting a more heterogenous and harder sound.
Adventurous developments were spiralling off from there (so to speak), but by the end of the last decade or at least the beginning of this one, we could see a development towards atomisation as well as resurgence of more traditional (marketing) strategies, as well as – going along with that – a “professionalisation” of the labels.
So much so, that in the “breakcore controversy” from 2005 started with a Praxis Newletter a large percentage of people apparently didn’t have a clue what the main thrust of the argument was supposed to be about.(2)
An ironic backlash against those trying to continue with vinyl as a carrier of subversive ideas was that a lot of buyers in the last years apparently preferred to complete their collections of “legendary” 90’s material rather than buying new records. Once this market (Network 23 records easily fetched three-digit prices on eBay for a while) was again neutralized by re-presses, it still didn’t mean that new interesting records were bought, but that there was another avenue (the represses) for exploiting the desire to buy into the counter culture of a bygone age.
There is no doubt that there are still forces at work that propell music into the kind of “positive futurism” envisaged by TechNet more than a decade ago. Music will still make the future audible…
But how is it making itself heard?
One has to wonder if music has largely become an accessory, or the accessory of an accessory, such as a mobile phone with a built in speaker. Clearly such a mobile only manages to emit a tinny sound that is far inferior to the sound my first mono cassette player in the 70’s made, still it seems to be a way that music is consumed in groups on the street today.
Real noise appears to be very muted right now.
Let’s be clear: We don’t care if vinyl is the ultimate carrier of it or not, but it seems to be the best one so far.
(1) see Demag – Hardcore Underground zine.
(2) Praxis Newsletter 18, also posted here: