Revive The Vinyl: Music, Medium and Mediation

For the past weeks, we have examined the poignancy of a particular text, whether it was Daft Punk, Andy Warhol or “Ayo.” This week, we devote our conversation to the artifacts that allow our senses to consume this content, information or media, if you will – the medium. The manner in which this content is transmitted to and from analog and digital formats is through mediation. One medium that I am steadily becoming fascinated with is the vinyl record; partly, because I’m a minimalist and partly, because my mom’s 45s are sitting in my living room, begging for some airtime.

The mere discussion of vinyls in the age of mp3 files and Bluetooth-capabilities for music playback is reflective of how a technology – more so, a medium – cannot be eradicated. Dialectically speaking, one cannot die when it is constantly being acknowledged in comparative discourses. As Professors Ribes and Irvine discussed, Apple and Adobe became one another’s archrivals based on the functionality of their respective products. And while both appeared to be on the opposite ends of the spectrum argument, their interaction proved them both to be a part of a broader ecosystem – a media system.

While digital music files and playback lessen the need for tangible artifacts, the transformation of the medium has altered the art form. As McLuhan’s tetrad of technology lays out, just as we advance, we risk obsolescence. I believe the current minimal effort behind listening to a musical composition devalues its essence. I may be negating myself a bit here, but in making the access to music more efficient – placing it on our mobile cellular devices – we intensify the immediate gratification, quick-triggered satisfaction/obtainment of an art form. There’s something sweet about listening to an entire album untouched, no clicking or tapping of a screen, as you would with a vinyl record. It is this appreciation for tangibility that has sparked a resurgence in vinyl record sales. Similarly, it is a richer experience to indulge in a live acoustic performance versus running over to YouTube to catch video of the same event. And while the cost of concerts and vinyl records may be a deterring factor in its competition with mp3 sales, the quality is at the heart of the matter for most of these traditional aficionados , not the quantity.

Some digital music playback systems – specifically Pandora – display album art as songs play. Therefore, it is not just sounds, but visuals that are being mediated. Prior to music videos or recorded live performances, there was an ambiguity attached to music where the artist’s identity was either implicitly or explicitly hidden. Some record companies did not allow for many artists to have their faces on album covers according to their race and the musical genre. How did the idea of race as a social construct infiltrate the impact of music and of producing album art?

Vinyls also contributed itself as a galleria artifact — a thing to be admired or envied upon display. Cover art for records like The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Stevie Wonders’ Songs in The Key of Life and even Fugees’ The Score has made it on to lists for “Best Cover Art of All Time.” How do these artifacts compare to posters sold in retail shops? My parents and other relatives often mocked me for getting posters out of magazines, insisting that “nothing can compare” to using vinyl art as bedroom décor. Has the significance of album art diminished since the employment of digital music online? Do artists and record companies even focus on creating visual masterpieces to complement their aural work? How do the visuals of music — be it music video or album art — affect the manner in which it is mediated? This interplay between audio and visual can either strengthen or dismantle our notion for signs can be delivered. [Ex. Remembering the shock of seeing Teena Marie and Bobby Caldwell for the first time, as they performed hits like “Square Biz” and “What You Won’t Do For Love?” respectively.]

My dream entertainment room | Source: Pinterest

My dream entertainment room | Source: Pinterest

teena marie robbery cover

Lastly, the dissatisfaction with an aspect in the media system can influence one’s mediation decisions. Case in point: the cost and monopolization of media consumption, be it film or music. As Professor Ribes pointed out, Apple has been accused on filtering out competitors within its own products in terms of searching. How does one’s ethical decisions affect companies on a larger scale? Are we more cynical in terms of accepting larger brands like Apple, Google or even Walmart? Mediums like vinyl records are more readily associated with mom-and-pop shops while digital music files have no definite identity, except for Apple’s iTunes store or sites like Pandora, Soundcloud and Spotify. I find myself anticipating self-started web series as opposed to guaranteed blockbusters, and even watching more public television stations. (Much of this has to do with the scandalous, over-publicizing of mainstream entities.) I wonder if   instances of distrust in mainstream media will create a surge in vintage or underground art and content.