17 June 2011

Meditations on the Death of Vinyl

"And vinyl is dead; it's dead. It's gonna be a special item for collectors, and probably will exist forever in that way, but that's it. It's over. You can really count on two hands who's carrying vinyl bags around the world. It's dinosaurs like Sven Vath or Ricardo Villalobos, and for them it's great because that also makes them special. But at the same time, no one really gives a shit anymore. You have to feel comfortable with what you use, whether it's vinyl, CDs or any digital gadget".

DJ Ali Schwarz of Tiefschwarz, quoted in Golden 2010.

While this was definitely not the first time that the "death of vinyl" had been announced in the history of recorded music, there is little question that 2010 marked an important technological crisis in electronic dance music history, particularly for the DJ. Vinyl DJ culture had already been taking a beating from the increasing popularity among DJs of compact discs and computer-based systems, and at the end of 2009, Pioneer announced the release of the CDJ-2000, a fancy (and overpriced) CD player that many speculated would sound the final death knell for turntables in club installations. Twice that year rumors surfaced on the Internet, finally confirmed in October, that Panasonic would cease production of the Technics series of turntables, including the iconic SL 1200 line that had become so emblematic of DJ culture. Panasonic made the announcement official at the 2010 DMC World DJ Championships, and the DMC, for its part, announced that this would be the last year its competition would be strictly vinyl-based: for the first time, this bedrock of analog culture was opening its doors to users of Digital Vinyl Systems (DVS) like Serato Scratch Live and Traktor Scratch Pro (Samoglou 2011; Tokyo Reporter 2010). And "controllerism" emerged into the mainstream as music conferences and trade shows that year showcased a dizzying array of new devices that allowed laptop performers to manipulate sounds with neither turntables nor CD players. Indeed, it was also in 2010 that one company announced that it would press vinyl records out of recently deceased customers' cremated remains (Solon 2010)—as if to confirm with chiastic cruelty that not only was vinyl now dead; death was now on vinyl.

And yet, even as DJ culture began to grapple with the pace and meaning of technological change, the music industry was celebrating a huge spike in vinyl record sales (Green 2010). Schwarz's interview, in fact, took place only three days before Record Store Day, which saw significant increases in vinyl records purchases worldwide (Cardew 2010). But as DJs are well aware, this recent surge in vinyl enthusiasm was driven far more by hipsters and audiophiles than EDM audiences. Even turntablism subcultures within hip hop—only very recently hailed for remaining "resolutely analog in a digital age" (Katz 2010: 130)—have moved away from vinyl recordings, if not yet from the turntables on which they spin.

DJ Hideo Sugano, recognized in the Los Angeles hip hop scene as "the hardest working DJ on the west coast", passed away from cancer on 24 April 2010. I knew Hideo from the Los Angeles branch of Scratch DJ Academy, where I had taken a number of classes and been part of an emerging community of hip hop DJs and turntablists since 2005. Scratch DJ Academy had for me epitomized the ideals of vinyl culture; aspiring DJs were taught how to handle records first and foremost before mixing skills were addressed. Instructors and students alike prided themselves on their ability to manipulate wax and their almost fanatical devotion to collecting it; nevertheless, one of the last times I saw Hideo playing, he, like most of my Scratch Academy colleagues, was using Serato's DVS technology, and he had even demonstrated controllerist techniques on a Vestax MIDI controller at a major trade show in 2009.

I informally polled several DJs about the issue at one of Hideo's memorial events and their responses were the same—they still carried a handful of records to gigs for backup, but when they played out they consistently turned to DVS rather than actual vinyl records. This was usually admitted in a tone of shame and loss, as if confessing a fraud, as well as a reaffirmation of their preference for wax. They used DVS for the convenience of not having to schlep around bags of records and the ability to access large libraries instantly (though some begrudgingly acknowledged the advantage of being able to more extensively manipulate sounds in the digital realm with loops and cue points and the like), but made clear that they preferred the sound, feel and physical virtuosity of the older format.[1]

Such reactions were manifestations of a crisis in the relationship between technology and identity that had for some time been mediated by discourses of authenticity and virtuosity rooted in the vinyl format. In EDM culture outside of hip hop, a similar crisis had passed some years earlier with the wide acceptance of CD players designed for DJs. Hip hop DJs, on the other hand, emerged into the digital world somewhat surreptitiously—DVS technologies allowed them to spin music from digital collections without giving up the tactile dimensions of the performance interface—DVS DJs play digital music using vinyl records and turntables as their primary interface.[2] It is clear from the expressions of anxiety surrounding the shift (not to mention the vehement denunciations among the vocal minority who hadn't made the leap to digital technologies of any sort) that within perceptions of the format lay an as yet unexamined crisis of identity.

Music technologies have always been cathected with discourses of authenticity and virtuosity. Of course, these discourses are intertwined: a "real" DJ is defined in part by his or her technical proficiency with the instrument. What is at issue, however, is the "instrument" itself: both the format of the musical recording and the interface through which that recording is manipulated. Sarah Thornton's studies of club cultures have shown that the dynamic of authenticity and technology is fluid rather than fixed; new musical technologies are first perceived as phony and threatening to the "truth" of musical virtuosity. They may be skeptically incorporated into musical subcultures in the beginning but they carry audible traces of inauthenticity in the sounds they produce, sounds that audiences find unnatural, even unsettling. "Once absorbed into culture", however, "they seem indigenous and organic". Underlying this movement is "the fact that technological developments make new concepts of authenticity possible" (1996: 29). New technologies, in other words, undergo a process of authentication that is tied to the emergence and consolidation of new subcultural communities. These communities—Kenney (1999), following Paul Valéry, calls them "circles of resonance"—legitimize new conditions and standards for what is considered musical expression and skill. Eventually, as the new technology is incorporated into larger circles of resonance, it no longer sounds artificial and unsettling at all. This sequence of events has accompanied developments in music technology at least since the invention of the phonograph (Kenney 1999).

The only thing new about the current crisis is the speed of technological change. Vinyl DJs had been frowned upon by mainstream musical culture until the turntable could be authenticated as a performance instrument in the 1980s (Schloss 2004). These same DJs, threatened by digital technologies in the 1990s, looked down upon CD-DJs and decried their efforts as inauthentic and unoriginal. DVS technologies emerged in the early 21st century, with many DJs, both vinyl and digital, expressing disdain for this latest innovation. In just a few years, DVS has been authenticated in some communities, with some of its users now questioning the authenticity of a new generation of performers increasingly known as "controllerists". And even these new button-pushers were outraged seeing their own authenticities under attack when in April 2010, Rana June Sobhany, a "social media maven" with no DJ experience at all, suddenly went viral with a YouTube video declaring herself "the world's first iPad DJ", and proceeded to book gigs at major venues thanks to the backing of shrewd publicists in the technology industry.
The phenomenon of the iPad DJ in particular seemed to take the question of authenticity to its most absurd extreme. Here was a young woman with rudimentary DJ skills at best (but plenty of marketing savvy) generating a storm of press (and landing coveted gigs) for DJing with nothing but a couple of video screens.[3] Many DJs and controllerists alike felt her sudden popularity made a mockery of the skills a DJ was supposed to have. Some blamed the technology—of all the instruments one could be known for playing, Sobhany had perhaps picked the one most symbolic of the increasing technological mediation of everyday life—while others pointed the finger at her skillset and criticized what they perceived as her arrogant appropriation of the "DJ" title without the requisite proficiency. Don't blame the tools, some argued; in the hands of a true virtuoso, the iPad could be a very effective DJ instrument.

Whatever the skills of this or that performer, the history of recorded music generally and DJ technology in particular confirms that nobody holds the corner on authenticity—new technologies appear deceptive at first but they can be authenticated within particular circles of resonance.

Nevertheless, this authentication takes place within a material physical context. While we can dispense with the idea that one technology is inherently more "truthful" than another, we can perhaps say that it can be ineluctably so. The materiality of recorded sound as physical reality is often missed in academic discussions of digital DJ technology in perhaps too quick a rush to avoid technological determinism. For analog and digital recording technologies are materially quite different, and the notions of authenticity that emerge from the different subcultures involved are tied to these differences. As Rothenbuhler and Peters (1997) argued in a remarkable essay on "phonography", the physical traces of sound required in vinyl recording have a direct and non-arbitrary relationship to the reproduced sounds themselves. Farrugia and Swiss (2009: 42) write off Rothenbuhler and Peters' analysis as a value judgment against CDs, misapprehending the material basis of their argument. For the vinyl record, the relationship between the sound being reproduced and the technology of reproduction is a relationship governed by the laws of cause and effect—the grooves of the record press were carved by a needle vibrating to the frequencies of the sounds being recorded.

This relationship is in some ways the shadow of the physical dimension of visual art that Walter Benjamin (1968) once described as the "aura" of the work of art, an aura that allegedly had been lost in an era of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin, too, has been misread as arguing for the inauthenticity of film and photography; such readings ignore the fact that his idea of the "aura" is explicitly tied to physical processes, as well the ways in which the work of art's liberation from this aura opens up new possibilities for art as a vehicle of social change. Rothenbuhler and Peters (1997: 246) explain that in the world of recorded music, digital technology stores numbers:

These numbers are related to waveforms by a convention arrived at in intercorporate negotiations and established as an industry standard, but they could be anything. . . . By contrast, the phonograph record and the analog magnetic tape do contain physical traces of the music. . . . The hills and valleys of those grooves are physical analogs of the vibrations of the music. . . . When we buy a record we buy music, and when we buy a CD we buy data. If that key claim is true, then the end of the age of phonography will be marked by the spread of attitudes and practices that take advantage of that difference (emphasis added).

Their essay was written in the 1990s, when CD distribution had become very widespread and a very different "death of vinyl" had been announced. While it's clear that vinyl never really "died", the "spread of attitudes and practices that take advantage" of the new technologies have clearly been embodied in the practices of digital DJs. While digitization of recorded music separated it from the material conditions of the production of sound, it also opened up possibilities for musical expression that could only be dreamed of by vinyl DJs.

The fact that a vinyl recording is indelibly linked by natural physical processes to a specific moment in space and time makes the phonograph a medium in the spiritual sense: vinyl records are literally a window into another world. Vinyl may not be dead, but the dead speak to us through vinyl. Indeed, it is telling that among the earliest suggested uses of the phonograph was the preservation of the voices of deceased loved ones (New York Times 1889). "The phonograph speaks from 'the other side,' as if in a séance" (Rothenbuhler 1997: 245). The DJ is an interpreter of the past, and when s/he works with vinyl recordings, s/he works with literal reproductions of past events. As Jeff Chang (2010: 119) writes, DJs are "historians of the future. Who knows better the possibilities of the past than the one who will plunge a needle into it blind?"

On the other hand, to work with digital media—whether CDs or MP3s—is to work with reconstructions rather than reproductions of past events (Rothenbuhler 1997: 252). The digital medium cannot physically hold a piece of the past the way a vinyl record does; it can only hold symbols that have an arbitrary relationship to that past. While one is tempted to mourn the loss of the reproduction and declare digital media inauthentic, it bears emphasizing that while a reconstruction is not necessarily a reproduction, a reproduction is always a reconstruction. In other words, the vinyl recording is also an approximation of reality rather than reality itself; it's just a different kind of approximation, one connected by physics rather than symbolics. One can just as easily read digital technology not as the "death of vinyl" but rather as liberation from the physical limitations of the natural world. This liberation allows for the manipulation of sound in ways that simply aren't possible with vinyl. It wasn't very long at all after the invention of the phonograph that George Prescott (1878: 858) mused about the possibility of developing from it a "musical kaleidoscope, by means of which an infinite variety of new combinations may be produced from the musical compositions now in existence". While the phonograph may have opened the door to thinking about such possibilities, digital technology offered tools with which to implement them. Electronic musicians have explored the possibilities of the synthesizer and digital sampler for many years now; DJ culture, in many ways, is perhaps finally taking stock of these developments.

For the vinyl DJ formatist, of course, there is another discourse at work here that concerns not just the medium but the interface between the medium and the performer. Part of the vinyl DJ's virtuosity lies in the way that s/he negotiates the risk of "trainwrecking"—of failing to match beats accurately and destroying the energy on the dance floor. But a lot of the computer software available to DJs today eliminates this negotiation, or, more precisely, removes it from the performance situation. The notorious "SYNC" button allows DJs to match tempos perfectly, without having "paid their dues" with the months of practice it generally takes to learn beatmatching by ear (Golden 2008a). Some argue that the SYNC button eliminates the one technical skill that constitutes the DJ's virtuosity (van Veen 2002); others say that if that's all there is to the DJ in the first place, then good riddance. DJ Lorin (aka Bassnectar) said as much in an interview, after declaring beatmatching "obsolete":

Although I can beat match as instantaneously as the next DJ, I don't give an at's rass about doing it and making people watch me do it. I'm rather much more interested in creating and collecting awesome sounds, and layering, combining and broadcasting them as a means to conjur [sic] up an energetically cathartic experience for other humans (Golden 2008b).

While the debate over such software will likely continue, it is worth reminding ourselves that new instruments have always been viewed with skepticism in the world of music. Jim Samson reminds us in his study of Liszt that "our puritanism echoes Plato, who regarded instruments as an excess". He continues:

instrumental music deals with a material base that needs to be penetrated and transformed by 'collective human action,' to be purposefully humanized and socialized, before it can become music. However it can also resist that process, allowing the mechanical to stand in opposition not just to the natural but to the human, notably through a reification of instrumental technique (Samson 2003: 85).

The SYNC button is of course the ultimate reification of instrumental technique, and many would argue that it functions precisely in this manner—the antithesis of musical experience. But for controllerists, new techniques and ultimately new virtuosities are developing around the new tools, "humanizing and socializing" them so they can be considered instruments for musical performance.

Ultimately, when we focus on authenticity in relation to technologies we tend to ask the wrong questions. New technologies will always face a dynamic of authentication within circles of resonance, and old technologies will never really disappear. It behooves both the scholar and the DJ to consider the possibilities of new technologies without getting caught up in taking sides and choosing weapons. I was not close to DJ Hideo, but I count myself among those touched and influenced by his spirit. When he died, the people around him made a conscious decision to celebrate his life rather than dwell on what the world lost. The qualities that he brought to the world were not buried with him; his friends and family made those qualities a part of themselves as they celebrated his memory. Similarly, rather than mourning the death of vinyl, we should celebrate its life even as we explore new technologies and new possibilities.

Author: Bernardo Alexander Attias


I am grateful to vinyl junkies Anna Gavanas and tobias c. van Veen for pressing me on the arguments in this essay as well as for constantly reminding me to take heed of the physical dimensions of the art. I'm also grateful to the teachers and community at Scratch DJ Academy in Los Angeles for continuing to promote the values and skills of vinyl DJ culture while preparing students for the digital age in which we live. This piece is dedicated to one of those teachers, DJ Hideo Sugano.

Author Biography

Bernardo Alexander Attias (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is Professor of Communication Studies at California State University, Northridge. His research is primarily in cultural studies, performance studies, and critical theory; his current projects focus on the legal, aesthetic and cultural implications of the phonograph. He has been a DJ for over twenty years, spinning eclectic sets incorporating house, hip hop and drum 'n' bass as well as funk, jazz and swing. He occasionally blogs at .


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———. 2008b. "To Sync Or Not To Sync". DJ Tech Tools. 18 May: (accessed 8 May 2011).

———. 2010. "Tiefschwarz Interview: The Death of Vinyl and Big Labels". DJ Tech Tools. 14 April: (accessed 14 April 2010).

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[1] The evidence here is anecdotal, to be sure, but these assertions are quite consistent with published research on the issue; see, for example, Montano (2010), Ferguson (2009) and Katz (2010).
[2] Digital vinyl systems work through standard turntables and special "timecode" vinyl records that are played as one plays any other record. Instead of music, however, the record contains a high-pitched sound that can be read by computer software in order to determine the position of the needle, its direction, and its speed on the record. This gives the DJ to manipulate the sound of a digital file housed on a hard drive with virtually the same physical actions as playing or scratching an actual record (see Kirn 2008 generally).

[3] Technically, she used a mixer as well, though as is evident from some significant gaffes in the YouTube video, the mixer is hardly an instrument she is familiar with.

From: http://dj.dancecult.net/index.php/journal/article/viewArticle/96/138

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