VINYL IS DEAD, LONG LIVE VINYL
Last week, Spesh, Silencefiction, and I drove to the dump and dropped off approximately 1100 pounds of vinyl records. This amount consisted not of our personal collections, but of Loöq Records back catalog material from 1998 to 2002 (the years we were pressing our own vinyl and selling directly to distributors and stores).
Spesh posted a picture of the sad, large pile of records on Facebook, and received a range of reactions. Some people were concerned that we didn’t recycle the material (in fact, SF Recology, aka the San Francisco dump, is a zero-waste facility, and hosts artists-in-residence — experts in creative reuse). Others were horrified that we were throwing out valuable music. Others seemed a little sad, but accepted it as a sign of the changing times. DJ’s play CD’s, or laptops, these days, and buy (or beg/borrow/steal) all their music online. Only the hardcore holdouts, and diehards in Berlin, still play vinyl. Vinyl is making a comeback among indie rockers and the like, but in the realm of dance music its essentially dead (except, as noted above, in Germany).
Back in the day (before digital distribution like iTunes and Beatport) it was hard to estimate how much vinyl to press. You could base your pressing quantity on pre-orders from distributors, but then get stuck with no inventory if the record took off (and thus miss the boat with a slow repress time). You could take an optimistic stance and press a lot of records (often the same price as a lower pressing quantity — most of the costs are in setup) but then get stuck with a large pile of 50lb-boxes of worthless plastic disks. Once in awhile we would press the perfect amount, but usually we’d overshoot on the initial pressing or repressing. This was generally my fault — I hated being out of stock of anything (this was all before digital distribution or high-quality mp3′s — when you were out of stock that meant there was NO WAY TO GET THE MUSIC).
Orders from distributors used to come in for a few weeks after a release — sometimes for a few months (or even up to a year, if a record really took off). Everything left after that initial run became back-stock, or back-catalog. For a while Loöq Records was able to move its vinyl back-stock steadily. Drive to a record store, leave as many records as they would take on consignment. Drive back in a month or two and collect money with about a 50% success rate (usually the records had sold, but half the time the paperwork was lost or the guy who could pay you wasn’t working that day). Surprisingly, we moved a lot of vinyl that way … hundreds if not thousands of 12″ singles. DJ’s liked and bought our records, when they could find them.
Then all the record stores went out of business.
We held onto our precious back-catalog vinyl for years (over ten years, in fact). But over time, the boxes on the shelf started to loom over us oppressively. They just weren’t moving. DJ’s were buying (and we were now selling) all of our music on Beatport, Juno, iTunes, eMusic, and other digital outlets.
When the time came to move out of our old office on Brannan, it was time to let the old vinyl go. We’ve kept some, of course, for the archives, or to satisfy the odd request from Germany, or in case the original artist requests a few additional copies. But the bulk of it went to the dump. Here’s a clip of me hurling a Jondi & Spesh 12″ (Sky City, I think it is), against the wall, shuriken style. Enjoy.
LIMITS TO DIGITIZATION, THE RETURN OF PERMANENT POSSESSIONS, CORE QUESTIONS OF SUSTAINABILITY
I think that people, in general, are better off with music commerce being digitized. Music is now universally available for the price of an internet connection, and quality is simply a matter of bandwidth (I pay an extra buck to download the WAV format on Beatport, and I wish I could on iTunes). Books, and certainly newspapers, seem to be on a similar trajectory. Within a few years (or decades, at the most) physical information formats will exist only for diehards, fetishists, and the eccentric elite.
Music, print, photographs, film, and software products can all be distributed and utilized in a digital format. What about everything else? Are there any general trends worth noting regarding the development of products in general?
I would argue that one significant trend is temporal appropriateness. Most products last either too long (plastic bags) or not long enough (laptop computers). Ideally, I’d like my plastic bags to harmlessly biodegrade after a few weeks, and my laptop to be an indestructible, perpetually useful item that can be passed down through the generations, like a silver pocket watch or a samurai sword (instead, I buy a new one every few years, either because the keyboard gives out, the screen goes black, or the damn thing is just too slow).
If we keep making disposable, non-biodegradable stuff, then we’re going to drown in a heap of our own garbage. Annie Leonard discusses the ins and outs of this cycle in some detail in The Story of Stuff (my friend Ariane turned me on to Annie Leonard’s work). I buy industrially produced products — I’m part of the problem. I’m not sure how NOT to be. If there was a laptop out there that would last a hundred years, I would buy it (if I could afford it). My friend Thor Muller‘s thesis is that we’re currently entering a long recession, and that one positive effect of long-term lowered consumer demand will be that product quality will actually improve; things will once again be made to last. I, for one, would love to buy a laptop that doesn’t break after three or four years, even if I DO always type like I’m angry (I’m not, I swear, I just like definitive keystrokes).
Even if we — human beings — drastically reduce our ecological footprints, carbon gas emissions, and toxin-spewing industries, we may still run into the problem that there are just too damn many of us. Seven billion and counting? Even if we manage world peace, sustainable ocean management, zero-emission vehicles, giant solar farms, vast areas of protected old-growth forests, high-rise greenhouses, intensive soil-enriching polyculture, and a 99% non-renewable resource recycling rate, we may still run out of food, space, energy, and raw materials.
Is this likely? Probably not. Humans are fairly clever — we’ll find a way to muddle through and survive. The rate of population increase is already decreasing due to factors like higher literacy rates, availability of birth control, and the fact that it’s frikking expensive to raise a modern child. What worries me more is how we’ll deal with the eventual, inevitable decrease in human population. It’s not likely to be pretty — our entire global economic system is based on perpetual growth, and how can you sustain perpetual growth when you aren’t adding new people to the system?
The character Daniel Aoki thinks, writes, and acts on these questions in my first (and as yet unpublished) novel, A Falling Forward Motion. One possible escape route for humanity he hypothesizes (escape from the closed system of living on a single planet with limited resources) is for humanity to evolve “into the box.” Virtual people — not simulations but discrete instances of human consciousness — living in full resolution virtual worlds. The Matrix, more or less, but without the secrecy. A next step for humans after a full lifetime of corporeal living. I think that after a century or two on this planet in the same body (even if I manage to rejuvenate and maintain a perpetual 25-year-oldness, Aubrey de Grey style), I’d probably be ready to change it up a bit. Presented with the option, I would totally upload into a digital reality where I could switch bodies, fly at will, teleport, and perform any other tricks that the programming allowed. As long as I could still experience myself as a human being, why not?
THE TYRANNY OF STUFF
Right now I have renter’s envy. I’m engaged in several kill-me-slowly projects. I mean home-improvement projects. Things not in their place, cans of paint lying around, half-assembled IKEA furniture waiting for a missing wall-mount screw … it’s death by a thousand cuts. OK, I exaggerate. I have a sensitive psyche. But I don’t understand how people manage things like getting their kitchen remodeled.
One element of our home improvement efforts consisted of the recent destruction of half our storage space (in order to make room for an additional home office). Getting rid of old stuff in storage requires a great deal of mental energy (why am I keeping this? will I ever use it? will I ever be featured on Hoarders?). But it’s ultimately rewarding when you take the leap; give something away, sell it, recycle it, or chuck it. Straight up chucking it is underrated in this eco-conscious day and age. It can be satisfying to send certain objects straight to the landfill (once again, I’m part of the problem). The ex-roommate’s furniture that you never liked but somehow ended up with. Electronic toys that make awful noises that someone gave your toddler (and your toddler left out in the rain). You know the kind of stuff I mean.
Unless we’re vigilant, we accumulate stuff throughout our lives, kind of like the way our DNA accumulates cumulative damage from minor replication errors. This crap weight us down; it oppresses us. Buying a bigger house, renting storage space — these things might temporarily mask the symptoms of having too many things but they don’t solve anything.
This method won’t do anything for the landfills, but it might lift a layer of detritus from your abode (like a face lift, or chemical peel, for your house). The idea, introduced to me by my friend Stephanie Morgan, is to get rid of 10 things a day for 10 days. Easy enough to do — for the first pass you can probably wander around your place almost selecting objects at random — but after a few days there is a noticeable decluttering effect.
What else? Next holiday season, why not conspire with your loved ones to engage in a Buy Nothing Christmas? Or pool your resources and make a charitable donation to Heifer International, Doctors Without Borders, charity:water, or another organization involved in good works?
My next big purchase … I’m still considering it. I’d been thinking about picking up a PS3 (ever since my XBox got 3ROD’ed — my DIY repair only lasted a couple months). But you know, that’s just another piece of crap that’s going to break or be obsolete in a few years. I should buy something that can stay in the family for generations; a permanent possession. Something like this.