ArticlesDatacide 13

Vinyl Meltdown

In the first of two parts, the dialectic of noise as both pacifier and intensifier is set against the ongoing transition from vinyl to digital sound carriers.

‘music represents at once the immediate manifestation of impulse and the locus of its taming’ (Adorno; 288)


Vinyl as a format for distributing cutting-edge noise is continuing to decline. Trying to find more than a handful of releases to review for this issue of Datacide made this clear. Preference has always been given at Datacide to reviewing physical sound-carriers, and in particular vinyl, as it offers the best possible reproduction of sound. Noise reveals itself throughout history as having the ability to pacify or stimulate listeners, and therefore the production and distribution medium of noise can be viewed as a site of struggle. How should the move from vinyl to intangible sound carriers be viewed in terms of the potential for intensification?

1. We don’t sell music; we sell programming

The recently announced dissolution of the Muzak brand brought to an end a history that stretched back over 70 years, with the brand first appearing in 1934. Although synonymous with influencing the behaviour of consumers, Muzak spent much of its formative years manipulating workers on the factory floor with vinyl transcription records.

Muzak recorded thousands of 12″ and 16″ discs, building up a large library of material. In the 1930s artists’ songs were usually recorded at Muzak studios in a single take and cut straight to a lacquer master ready for duplication. In 1934, one of the first Muzak releases to be recorded featured the ‘National Fascist Militia Band’, a touring Italian brass band. During this session over 25 songs and marches were recorded, including ‘March on Rome’ (Anthem of the young Fascists), and ‘To Arms’, (Fascist Anthem). It is unclear whether this recording of the ‘Pan American Brass band’ (as the band was later aliased for release) influenced the direction that Muzak was to take, but what is clear is that around this time Muzak saw in the disciplining function of music commercial opportunities that they argued would assist companies and factories in increasing worker productivity.

Up until the mid 1930s Muzak had been distributing music to hotels and restaurants, but in 1936 they started to target factories and offices with the idea that worker productivity could be manipulated and regulated using programmed music. Muzak began developing what it later called ‘Stimulus Progression’: background music that was played in fifteen minute blocks. Each segment was made up of five or six tunes, with particular segments timed to coincide with particular times of the day, calming or upbeat sounds were played when deemed appropriate. Muzak successfully encouraged workplaces to wire in Muzak amplifiers, backing up their marketing spiel with scientific research that claimed to show that by piping ‘functional music’ into workplaces worker fatigue could be suppressed, ‘petty grievances forgotten’, and productivity increased by up to 11%. Using vinyl records as sound sources Muzak was essentially distributing an extension to the principles of Taylorism, whereby the worker as cog was held in place and worker efficiency was kept at optimum levels using a mixture of cutting-edge technology and a crude type of what would later become known as industrial psychology.

After the US became involved in WWII in 1941 thousands of shipyards and factories were signed up to receive the benefits of Muzak on the production line. Muzak’s marketing materials from the 1940s used the reactions of labourers forced to listen to Muzak as a way of touting for new business. For example the Employee Union President is quoted as saying: ‘Muzak is an outstanding fatigue-killer, especially when they hit the slow time around 3:30. It’s the best morale builder they’ve ever had in our plants. You can notice the people on the night shift. They used to drag when they came on for their ten-hour shift. Now they practically dance up to their machines.’

Muzak carefully chose the tracks that were played to workers, avoiding those that led to workers’ active engagement with the sounds they were hearing; the focus was on music as background noise that washed over, but at the same time regulated the listener. Occasionally Muzak misjudged the tracks selected and the focus of workers attentions shifted to sounds they were hearing affecting the levels of production: for example, workers were noted as clapping to the tunes they were hearing instead of working. This worry for the Muzak programmers is captured well by a remark from one of their executives: ‘Once people start listening they stop working’. Engaged listening connoted system failure. The manifestation of impulse that the Muzak Corp sought to suppress was later exploited by DJs as a potential means for intensification.

2. Technics and dialectics: vinyl as intensifier

The dialectical nature of music as both a controlling and liberatory force has a long history. Brueghel’s painting ‘Carnival’s quarrel with lent’ is used by Jacques Attali to illustrate the antagonism between the spirit of Carnival and the culture of abstinence and piety of the Catholic church. The noise and life of the carnival procession winds round, clashing with the sombre muted churchgoers. Attali suggests that: ‘“Carnival’s Quarrel with Lent” is a battle between two fundamental political strategies, two antagonistic cultural and ideological organizations’ (Attali; 21).

This struggle was taken up some 20 years ago by the Teknival and squatrave scenes that followed in the spirit of festival and carnival. Soundsystem noise activated spaces and the gatherings of listeners therein. DJs inverted the methodology of the Muzak Corp using vinyl records to transmit radical noise that aimed to intensify the listener and the situation. Viewed in contrast to Muzak’s aims to mute workers’ desires on the assembly line, collective experience momentarily removed the atomisation of everyday life. The record in this instance was a carrier of critical noise, a consumable whose use-value was emphasised and exploited for its counter-cultural possibilities. The vinyl medium functioned as a tool that intensified sound, ideas and networks.

A linear process pointed from artists and labels through to the listener and collective experience at soundsystem. Over many years the experience of dance music culture refined parts of this process with the interactions between artists and cutting engineers ensuring that the record became the most effective format for reproducing radical frequencies.

While the vinyl medium was being pushed to its limits producing an increasingly powerful sound, print media such as Datacide, that was conceived to document and interact with the radical elements of this scene, highlighted the recordings whose content overflowed boundaries and pushed into the margins. Increasingly broken hardcore developed at a rapid rate during the last decade of the last century. The pace of technology accelerated the speed with which ideas were developed and recorded and within the space of a few years the soundtrack to the most adventurous spaces was becoming increasingly noisy and fractured.

Of course records as commodities have exchange-value, hide a fetish character, and are fetishised. As distribution networks moved the releases around, microcultures were generated around the stores and sellers of vinyl. The DJs were consuming audio objects, but they were also part of a concrete network that reproduced itself through the flow of tangible objects. For a short period these networks were self-sustaining drawing resources into a counter-cultural situation.

3. Channeling flux

Just over a decade after laptop DJs began to appear in the dance, the shift away from vinyl as the primary DJ tool toward intangible sound objects now seems part of a wider cultural realignment that has seen the virtualisation of commodities and social-relations. Major labels have been scrambling to make sense of and control the marketing of a consumable that is without physical manifestation. Here is not to lament the passing of a format, but to bring into focus the urgent need to adapt critical processes and concepts immanent to the current configuration.

Adorno, Theodore W. “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Continuum, 1982. 288-317. Print.
Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1985. Print.
“Consider This | Straight to Plate.” Consider This | Straight to Plate. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2013.

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