You may already be a consumer stooge!
Today, we’ve got the first of an ongoing series which will discuss the role of money in music, and the relevancy of garage/punk as a community, with an eye towards consumption and production of physical and digital media. We hope to update this series fairly regularly – record reviews will continue to be posted as they typically are.
I spend stacks on records – it’s almost a compulsion; scarcely can I pass a record shop without stopping in to flick through at least one bin of 80’s cut out derivative new wave crap or countless 70’s bands otherwise consigned to oblivion. Of course you listen to them, but why bother? Mp3s are identical, suffer no wear and tear from regular use, and are infinitely easier to store and collect, not to mention
free potentially free, if you’re a lawbreaker. Even though I keep a decent collection myself, I’m certainly not a top-level collector. I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than 50 dollars or so for a single record, and even that one was a triple LP imported from Holland. But, there’s still records which fetch absurd sums of money; probably more than the band made on the original first pressing. I just have to wonder – picking up these records sets a person back so far, can you even play them in good conscience? And even then, is a slab of plastic ever worth more than maybe 20 bucks? Are we all sick in the head? They say there’s no accounting for taste, but still – what the fuck, guys?
I guess we could even argue over the nature of a record itself – of course we know what it is in an immediate, physical sense – it’s a big plastic thing that spins and makes noise. This is probably beyond debate, but should we actually consider it a work of art? It’s a collection of songs, it’s a complete artistic statement, it’s got a pretty picture on the front, but is it actually a work of art, more so than the live performance? Where’s the art – in the playing or the manufactured reproduction? Walter Benjamin, demigod of the Artsy Marxists, discusses the concept of authenticity, a word which is the dark cloud of a shitstorm brewing on the horizon of any discussion of music – and punk in general, in terms of a quality called ‘aura,’ which is similar to ‘authenticity’ or immediacy. A live performance is auratic or authentic because it can be tailored to a specific audience (jam sessions, audience banter), whereas a record isn’t auratic at all (it’s a series of takes edited and layered together to create the illusion of a whole performance). Lack of authenticity, Benjamin says, is characteristic of mechanically reproducible works of art – eg. records. The lack of authenticity isn’t a bad thing, though – it means that records can be disseminated further than ‘authentic’ works of art, and ought to make art far more democratic, since now everyone can have them and experience them, rather than the way it used to be, where you had to travel to a museum to see a painting, or find a living musician to hear a performance.
What the lack of aura means is that there’s nothing special about an individual record – he tackles this most directly with an example from photography: “from a photographic plate, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” Since all photographs are identical, as an inherent feature of the technology, it’s silly to want the original print and not the 500th copy…yet, this is exactly what we do as record collectors. Original copies of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” fetch sums as high as $4200 for 5 fucking minutes of music – this is lunacy. The beauty of records is that we can make an infinite number of copies with no detriment to the original – recent SST pressings sound every bit as good as the original one. What makes mechanical reproduction so fantastic is that everyone can own a copy of Nervous Breakdown, rather than having to go to some museum to see “THE” original. Since records are mechanical reproductions of works of art, there’s no real distinction between records. They’re all used in the same way, they all look more or less the same…all copies of “Nervous Breakdown” ought to be completely interchangable, since they all contain the same recorded performance – but clearly they are not.
There’s nothing special about this record versus that record – it makes no sense for us to pay more for one record over another, but the way we determine prices is even stupider. Inevitably for online auctions, “MINT” is always appended to the “ULTRA RAER MOLDOVA PUNK KBD TERMBO TY OH SEES LIPS SEGALL HOLY FUCK.” It seems natural that we would value a record in good shape better than one in bad shape. However, it seems like we consider an original pressing of a record more valuable because of it’s ‘authenticity,’ or ‘aura’ as Benjamin characterizes it. He argues that an ‘authentic’ item justifies its value by “bearing the mark of history.”
Is record authenticity self-contradictory bunk?
The authenticity of an object is a slippery idea, but if he’s right, it seems like an object ought to demonstrate that authenticity by its condition. If we’re given an old, beat-up Model T made in the 20’s and a modern, shiny reproduction, we’d probably point to the older-looking one as the ‘authentic one’. If an object is authentic, it’s a product of a singular moment in history – all copies after are imitations of that original moment, and are different from it. Therefore, we would determine an object’s ‘authenticity’ by looking for signs of that history – bumps, fade, bruises, scratches. Given that the most valuable records are mint condition original pressings. If records derive their value first from their ‘authenticity’ (being the original document of a seminal band, say) and secondly from their condition (lacking the marks of time and wear), then the most valuable records are the ones most indistinguishable from a new one.
Why pay more for records? Why care about pressing? It’s all black wax, man. If ‘authenticity’ is bullshit when we’re talking about infinitely reproducible objects, and we base our notion of value off of lack of historical marks, then it seems like we’re simply paying out the nose for nothing. We, the anti-corporate, anti-‘system’, DIY punkers, are totally happy to shell out big bucks to buy a record which is special because it’s the closest to a brand new one, without actually being a new one? What is achieved by this practice, save for fostering a spirit of tribalism, elitism and exclusion, to the detriment of the spirit of music as a communal experience?
What was once marked by a defiantly anti-commercial spirit is now plagued by the same pointless consumer hysteria that grips fat, privileged harpies in Best Buys on Black Friday. I welcome examples to the contrary, but it seems like attention to label, pressing, color, ‘special edition’, ‘rarity’ is all just a big empty wind carrying a lot of money away with it. A genre so stuffed to the gills with screeds ‘against the system’ or ‘the machine’ or ‘the man’ is now content to pay outrageous sums for a Turdburglers 7″ from 1972 or whatever vinyl gimmick Jack White is shilling this week. Records are marketed as being ‘for true lovers of music’ or ‘the way it was meant to be heard,’ and punk has presented itself as being ‘another way’ or ‘for the love of it’ or somehow divorced from ‘The Music Industry,’ which is seen as perverted or wrong. But are we subject to the same perverse consumerist virus that infects the system we strive to break away from? Are we just deluding ourselves and killing our wallets? It’s difficult to say what to do here; I’m not out to discourage the nascent vinyl revival, because I am in favor of it. I don’t want to tell anyone to do anything, but this tendency in the community is too weird to ignore or pass over. After noticing this, I can’t stop thinking about it when I pass a record sale, but at the same time, I’m not about to stop buying records, and will still probably buy old pressings over new ones – maybe I’m just a fucking idiot. It’s been said by people wiser than me before – “never mind what’s been selling…it’s what you’re buying.”