Presumed Dead: the curious case of the vanishing vinyl record
Posted by Dresonic on April 22, 2007
Mobile Music in Liguanea doesn’t sell them, neither does Music Fair in Premier Plaza “We don’t sell them any more. Is only the white people [read foreigners] that really ask for them now,” was the comment to SunDay from the store attendant at Music Fair.
Just down the road, at Be-bop Records, the answer is qualified, but slightly more optimistic.”Yes, we sell vinyl, but only old vinyl from 1996 back,” the attendant advises, adding: “We get a good deal of interest from the Japanese as well as some local collectors.”
Truth is, you’ll have a hard time finding vinyl 45s or LPs (the long-playing format used for albums), in record stores these days. The vinyl record – or more precisely the phonograph- was an invention that came about somewhat by accident. Thomas Edison was trying to go one better on Samuel Morse (as in Morse Code) and Alexander Graham Bell (you know, the telephone guy) by introducing a better telegraph unit, when he ‘accidentally’ ran a piece of tin foil under a stylus; the speech-like noise that resulted encouraged him to look into producing a sound recording-reproducing device.
But it was not until 1889, while Edison and Bell were at each other’s throats (almost literally, by some reports), that a German by the name of Emile Berliner developed what would become the first commercially viable phonograph, or graphaphone (Berliner shortly adopted the term Gramophone).
In the succeeding hundred years or so, sound recording and reproduction has undergone many changes but up to the issue of the CD, the basic technology of grooves on a physical disc prevailed. Over the last ten years, CDs themselves – which at various times were blamed for hastening the death of vinyl – have been steadily overtaken by non-tangible digital formats, such as MP3s and Internet downloads, whether online from legal sites like iTunes or eMusic, or the multiple illegal sites that cater to less scrupulous music lovers. The album, or collection of songs, the de facto way to buy pop music for the last 40 years, has never seemed more old-fashioned or endangered.
But before we commence funeral rites for the venerable format, consider, first of all, the case of those aforementioned collectors. As much of Jamaican popular music output came on various vinyl formats even in the early years of the CD’s introduction, it’s understandable why the sounds of the ‘golden age’ ie late 1960s to late 1970s (and otherwise ) is prized by a largely roots-loving audience in Japan, Europe and – to a lesser extent – the US.
Then there are resident collectors, with significant, even staggering, stockpiles of vinyl titles (some dusty and mouldy, some almost store-fresh), with numbers in excess of 5,000 units not uncommon. While not native to Jamaica, Pierluigi Ricci, of north coast Italian restaurant Toscanini, has “over 5000 vinyl albums and 45s” covering everyone from Bob Marley to Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis. “I started collecting years ago,” he told SunDay, while also recounting how a guest noticed that his collection of Rolling Stones LPS was “missing one” and on his return overseas, promptly sourced the missing unit and sent it for him. Album covers like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain and U2’s The Joshua Tree now cleverly serve as adornments for the walls of the restaurant.
Such missions may actually now be easier via the Internet, with sites like Dusty Groove and a number of smaller portals stocking vinyl records (alongside CDs) or discerning audiophiles. Indeed, even many sound-system selectors have long graduated to the CD turntables (even capable of the “scratching” technique that developed in tandem with hip hop music) as well as the fancy iPod consoles, some still rely – and even swear by – what they describe as the “warmer, more human feel” of vinyl.
On the supply side, several local outfits, notably Sonic Sounds, still press and sell vinyl recordings, though they’re the first to admit that the market is becoming more and more specialised, ie narrowly defined. One merely has to look around on the streets to confirm that the youth, long the ‘sweet-spot’ of the record-buying public, have left the tangible formats behind for the non-tangibles.
But as long as there are persons with a love for music, one suspects there will be a space for the scratch and hiss, the wobble and repeat (when the record is ‘stuck’) and, most of all, the powerful memories evoked by the vinyl record. So no, vinyl isn’t dead; it’s just gone underground.
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