Vinyl: Creating Meaning in an Uncertain World

Samuel Aldersley

It would be an understatement to argue that 2020 has been a wild year. Not least for those employed within music and the arts, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every aspect of our lives. The ‘new normal’, features as a common cliché that we are hearing continuously in the media, on the shop floor, and street corners. With many of us locked indoors, live music, in particular, has suffered considerably. It is estimated that £1.1billion will be wiped from live music’s contribution to the UK economy (Radcliffe, 2020).

In addition to the material impact of COVID-19 on live music, many of the social benefits emanating from the attendance of live performances have also been compromised, including the ability to generate social solidarity through (physical) rituals. Despite these issues, however, data reveals that vinyl record sales in 2020 were the highest they have been since the 1990s, a ten percent increase from the previous year (Sweney, 2020). In this short piece, I argue that this resurgence of vinyl has partially been brought about by a desire to ‘create meaning’ in an uncertain world.

Meaning and catastrophe

The notion of meaning is a central concern for sociologists. In defining sociology, Weber (1914) claims that “action is ‘social’ insofar as its subjective meaning takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course” (Weber, 1914: 4). This meaning is subjective because it is constructed through our own experiences. It is the role of the sociologist to interpret meaning, with a view to how it is shaped and reshaped in certain contexts. Weber uses the example of a wood-cutter, noting how the actor’s motivations may be for recreational purposes, a supply of firewood or to work off a fit of rage. Meaning is dynamic in this sense and not immediately ascertainable to the sociological researcher purely by direct observation.

With the death toll in the UK surpassing 100,000, the COVID-19 pandemic clearly symbolizes a catastrophe.  Much like a war, natural disaster or a terrorist attack, social solidarity is weakened due to the loss of its members. The emotional impact of these events thus threatens the community, and as a result, society undergoes a period of reflection, rethinking the values which provide the ‘glue’ to a cohesive society. As Durkheim explores (1912), rituals play a key role in mourning the death of members of a group. In coming together, the group recuperates and reaffirms its solidarity. The pandemic is no exception, indeed, there have been acts of solidarity through the practices such as Clap for Carers and minute silences.  

Notwithstanding the flexibility of meaning illustrated by Weber[1], I will proceed to show how one facet, physical relations, may be brought about by the revival of the vinyl record.

Creating meaning

The prohibition of ‘physical’ relations has permeated society for the last ten months, especially via social distancing measures. For many music fans, physicality plays an integral role in listening to music, most notably in communal situations which involve close contact with other individuals. Following Durkheim, Taylor refers to his concept ‘collective effervescence’, which is brought about by emotions which bring “people out of the everyday” and put them in touch “with something exceptional” (Taylor, 2007: 482). These emotions are coupled through the tangible properties of music, namely the ‘physical’ vibrations and the social dimension of communal social action, for example, enjoying a gig with friends.

To compensate for the absence of corporeal relations in music, I claim that the vinyl experience, to a certain extent, reifies the physical element of music that is ostensibly lost in times of COVID-19. Whilst the physical components have been researched extensively by cultural sociologists such as Bartmanski and Woodward (2015) in the past, these meanings take on an accentuated form in times of crisis.

Physicality and rituals

Although admittedly it is not quite the same, through the vinyl, users can feel ‘closer’ to the artists they love. With the music playing in real time, its perceptive qualities are brought to our attention. To invoke the work of Benjamin (1939), the vinyl captures affinities with his concept of the ‘aura’. We can see and feel the music move in real time, bringing us closer to the “here and now” (Benjamin, 1939: 253). This is not merely illuminated by its presence, but through the actuality that we can ‘touch’ the vinyl. This tactility is what distinguishes it from digital audio formats such as OGG Vorbis and AAC, used by Spotify and Apple Music, respectively. Unlike these mediums, the user cultivates a multitude of physical connections. This involves the rituals of taking the record out of its sleeve, the movement of the needle to start the music and the practice of ‘flipping’ the vinyl to listen to the second half of the record.

Indeed, the vinyl record is the music, and, in this sense, it symbolises an “iconic good” permeated with “high sensitivity” (Bartmanski and Woodward, 2015: 59). Rather than taking on a purely auditory meaning, which is often abstract and difficult to articulate, the vinyl affords users with something concrete and tangible. As social beings, this physicality is something that we long for. Even in times of the ‘digital age’, the pop singer Bjork remarks “people will always hunger for physical experience” (Bjork, 2011). In times of COVID-19, her words resonate deeply. The vinyl, and the physical rituals associated with it playing, might provide a little something to reaffirm this physicality through aesthetic experience. Though, in contrast to Durkheim, these practices manifest themselves in more privatised settings, such as our living rooms at home.

Physicality and control

I argue that the vinyl record, and its associated physicality also affords a feeling of control which neutralizes the lack of power we feel in current times. Crucially, the interaction is mediated between the user and the music itself. The relationship is one of mutual cooperation, because the practice of placing the vinyl onto the turntable eliminates third party threats that we are all too used to in current times, such as a dodgy internet or Bluetooth connection. Threats, of course, are present, but they are largely a result of the individual who uses the vinyl. The onus is on the individual for maintenance, to prevent scratches, fingerprints and warps. Control is, as a result, reified through the materiality of our relationships between individual action and objects. This points to a relationship which is concrete and observable. To riff off Durkheim again “collective feelings become fully conscious of themselves only by settling upon external objects” (Durkheim, 1912: 421). It is through our relationship between emotions and the material world that we begin to assign meaning to society and its discontents.

In this sense, I use the vinyl as an analogon for society, symbolizing a fragility which similarly imbues it with something sacred, as something to be nurtured.  This fragility could perhaps indicate the increasing precariousness of the contemporary world, from which the user now has greater mastery. This ‘mastery’, of course, should not be taken literally. The vinyl is not, in practice, synonymous with society but something which provides a useful analogon, a symbolic illustration of much wider phenomena that is brought about by a desire to create meaning in an uncertain world.

In a world which, particularly now, seems to be overwhelmed with ‘virtual’ Zoom meetings, the revival of the vinyl symbolises a manifestation and desire for sensual experience which is becoming increasingly devoid. In contrast to unpredictability of current times, we know that when the curve of the needle reaches the ridge, the music stops. This may provide the security of a temporal narrative which society, in current times, undeniably lacks.

Samuel M. Aldersley is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield. His research explores how the use of digitally compressed audio formats affect the meaning of music in everyday life. Contact him at smaldersley1@sheffield.ac.uk or on Twitter @SamAldersley.

References

Bartmanski, Dominik and Woodward, Ian. (2015) The Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age, London: Routledge.

Benjamin, Walter. [1935] (2006) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Eiland, H and Jennings, M. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, (Ed) trans. Jephcott, Edmund., Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, pp. 251-283.

Björk. (2011) ‘In conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist’, Electronic Beats Magazine, Vol. 27, link available:https://www.electronicbeats.net/bjork-hans-ulrich-obrist-interview-2011/ (accessed 15 February 2021).

Durkheim, Emile. [1912] (1995) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, New York: The Free Press (translated by Fields, Karen).

Radcliffe, Maya. (2020) ‘Industry warns of COVID-19’s catastrophic impact on music business’, PRS, 11 May, link available: https://www.prsformusic.com/m-magazine/news/industry-warns-of-covid19s-catastrophic-impact-on-music-business/ (accessed 11 March 2021).

Sweney, Mark. (2020) ‘Back on track: UK vinyl sales heading for best year in three decades’, The Guardian Online, 21 November, link available: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/nov/21/uk-vinyl-sales-gigs-covid-record (accessed 15 February 2021).

Taylor, Charles. (2007) A Secular Age, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.

Weber, Max. [1914] (2012) ‘Chapter I: Basic Sociological Terms’, in Bruun, Hans and Whimster, Sam (ed.) Collected Methodological Writings, London: Routledge, pp. 3-22.

Notes

[1] The vinyl, could therefore, mean a variety of things, depending on why, where, and how it is used. I am not discounting or disregarding its other uses, but focusing on one meaning (physicality), which may be accentuated by the unique times we are living in.

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