Forget the rise of mnml, the revival of deep house, the Berghain, civil rights vocal samples, the very existence of Richie Hawtin — was there any more rift-causing development over the last couple of years than the ascendence of digital technology in dance music production, dissemination, and DJing? While the vast majority of club revelers probably couldn’t have cared less what was happening behind the DJ booth, DJs and the journo-bloggers who obsess over them spent the years after Serato Scratch Live (the hardware/software package that most successfully merged a ones-and-zeros music collection with the technique and physicality of spinning real vinyl) debuted in 2004 wringing their hands over what this all means for dance music. We wouldn’t have the word “techno” without “technology,” but is soul not an equally weighty part of the equation? And isn’t vinyl culture a pretty big part of techno’s soul? To paraphrase what practically everyone inclined to grapple with such a thing grappled with: When we put the quality of the tunes aside, can a 300 gigabyte drive stuffed with ID3-tagged files not too fundamentally different from Word documents begin to approximate, to use Dapayk & Padberg’s phrase from their 2007 album of the same name, the indominable “black beauty”?
I think about this decade’s format war a lot, probably to the point of obsession. Perhaps it’s because I stand in a funny spot. As the younger brother of two music-obsessed and much-older siblings, I tagged along (before I could bike or drive there myself) on myriad trips to my hometown record shop, foisted myself upon its staff, and eventually landed a summer job there as a used vinyl restoration tech. Needless to say, my love for these places runs deep, and I have a difficult time separating the experience of acquiring music from the experience of browsing through physical rows of physical product, asking spontaneous questions of physical employees, and trying to parse the clerk’s expression for some sign of how many cool points my purchase was earning me. At the same time, my first weekly gig as a budding DJ — my humble, relatively short-lived WNYU show — coincided with my being a broke-ass student in New York City. I had to play new music every week without being able to afford new wax every week, and that now-ubiquitous, USB-fired black box, coupled with a Beatport account, just made too much sense. When Todd Hutlock wrote pejoratively in a 2Q report for this website of “a whole generation of club-goers and music fans out there who think nothing of seeing a DJ work on CD decks or a laptop,” he was ostensibly pointing his finger straight at me. But he was letting his “disconcert,” to paraphrase him, lead him to the conclusion that we kids were being lazy. I, along with probably the vast majority of laptop-toting kids, was just looking for a way into this astounding world. Whether because of financial concerns or because they didn’t have parents or older siblings making vinyl relevant for them, the kids went digital. I can’t speak for the format favored by youngsters like Joy Orbison or Joker or Kyle Hall, but if their 2009 output has proven anything at all, it’s that you really want to give youngsters a way into this music.
Officially a degree-bearing, paycheck-receiving denizen of the real world (and thus a possessor of insanely good luck in these hard times), I’m not quite as broke as I used to be. And if you’ve been following vinyl, you’ll know that 2009 was a very good year not to be broke. As the New York Times recently noted, it was something of a bumper year for vinyl: retailers recorded a 35% increase in sales over last year, making 2009 the best year for vinyl since at least 1991. The article makes use of statistics that likely don’t include the sorts of records we’re most interested in, and vinyl’s renewed relevance in mainstream music circles seems like much more of a fluke or gimmick than it would in dance music, where the 12″ was the style’s bread-and-butter pretty much through the advent of downloading. But anyone following new releases has surely collected enough anecdotal evidence pointing to something curious — and depending on your vantage point, maybe even exciting — being afoot. I’m certainly not saying that “vinyl kills the mp3 industry”; it ain’t scientific, but I’m pretty sure I’m saying something like the opposite, that digital music has finally made vinyl its bitch. To put it a bit nicer: the ubiquity and growing acceptance of the digital download has given vinyl a new lease on life, but it’s also caused us to look at vinyl through a digital lens. In 2009, vinyl has been forced to embody that which a computer file absolutely cannot be.
And what better defines vinyl in 2009 than the small-press, occasionally hand-stamped white label? While hardly a new development in techno, these tiny releases exercised an oversized influence on the imaginations of critics and DJs alike this year. They also managed to turn the front page of the website for Hard Wax, Berlin’s legendarily taste-defining record shop and the distributor responsible for a sizable handful of these releases, into something closer to an ultra-relevent mp3 blog than a straight mailorder destination. Whether cut with the tracks of famous producers operating under thinly-veiling aliases (Rene Pawlowitz’s Wax and EQD projects; Actress’ Thriller series), of potentially famous producers staying relatively well-cloaked in a fog of their own making (Traversable Wormhole; Frozen Border/Horizontal Ground), or of named artists intent on self-releasing their sounds (New York’s Halcyon-related labels like Novel Sound and Deconstruct; Do Not Resist The Beat!; Hauntologists/Cheap and Deep Productions), these records all shared a musical and physical aesthetic hellbent on emphasizing the rawest iterations possible of house, techno, or dubstep. Production-wise, analog hardware-derived sounds (whether spit from real or feigned analog hardware) dominated stylistically, and high fidelity — traditionally one of vinyl fanatics’ biggest talking points — often went out with the trash. What resulted were sonics whose modus operendi was roughing you up. “Raw,” taken literally, implies touch, and every white label release I can think of this year, by way of sound and form, just begged to make real human contact.
Dance vinyl reasserting itself in this way and in this year seems like no accident: we’re witnessing the format stripping itself down to a curious set of constituent parts — namely, those traits (save being cut with a tune) that are mutually exclusive from a digital file. When I pull out my vinyl copy of Levon Vincent’s “The Medium Is The Message” (Marshall McLuhan reference 100% intended), released on Vincent’s Novel Sound label this year, I hold in my hand a white paper sleeve and some rubber-stamped information in as simple a font as possible (shit ain’t even serifed!) on an otherwise matte white label. It takes up space on my shelf; it requires that I take time out to put it in my record bag if I want to play it at a gig; it cracks and pops when I put the needle down if I don’t first give it a brush; it slams just a little bit harder than a WAV would when I play it on a good system.
But really, what does it or any other white label released this year offer that a digital file doesn’t? “The Medium Is The Message” provides me with no more information than a properly tagged and sorted digital file does. I’m not getting any cover art or other physical adornment (another ever-popular pro-vinyl argument); I’m not getting an object that’s likely to last any longer (techno critic and mnml ssg Peter Chambers has talked fondly about vinyl records “needing our care” and these sassily cardboard-sleeveless releases almost dare you not to scuff them); and if I’d ordered it from a site like Juno, whose vinyl [http://www.juno.co.uk] and digital [http://www.junodownload.com] sites feature nearly identical interfaces, I wouldn’t be getting a more tangible or personal consumer experience. But I’m getting something that absolutely requires an entry fee, something that can’t be turned into an infinite number of identical copies. The object carries with it the thrill of making me one of only four or five hundred people carrying it. I’ve bought a lot of these white labels this year — it’s how a good deal of house music from my neck of the woods has been released, and the Hard Wax records have made for some of the best techno on the market this year. But what are these limited run, hand-stamped white labels but ultra-authentic mp3s?
It’s not as if these white label tracks can’t exist in the digital domain, and a fair number of them have eventually been released that way. I had my first contact with Milton Bradley’s “Dystopian Vision” on Do Not Resist The Beat!, one the rawest and most underground techno records released this year (if not this decade), as a digital file — a WAV purchased from a commercial download site, if you must know — and its ear-splitting physicality was hardly lost on me. I played it at my DJ residency at Manhattan’s Club Love this spring, and its punishing low-end and no-fi brutality still took the booth’s space shuttle-style meters dangerously into the red. Unable to justify spending nearly $15 on a 12″ I might never find a context for at the sort of gigs I get (and which hardly makes for home listening), I opted to download Marcel Dettmann’s “MDR 06″ and put the $5 or $6 I saved toward something I could. Though the physical music white labels have offered in 2009 finds parity with the physical product on which it’s primarily delivered, I’ve found it pretty difficult to argue seriously for format precluding the use or enjoyment of a fantastic tune. Everyone who’s likely to care about this sort of thing has a nightmarish laptop DJ story (“The DJ hadn’t mastered her record rips correctly and her set was too quiet!” “He looked like he was just playing FreeCell back there!”), but look at Surgeon: he made a thrilling comeback this year playing white-label-y stuff, and he did it on Ableton. The Sandwell District guys, proprietors of something not too far removed from a white label, have also grabbed the digital bull by its horns, interestingly and inspiringly blurring the line between DJ set and live performance. There’s tradition in vinyl, and I’m a huge fan of the sort of DJ sets two 1200′s, a mixer, and nothing more breed. But we’d be fools to deny the future that lies beyond them.
The greater concern, one I’d imagine keeps serious producers up at night, is how format shapes music collections. Any digital DJ worth his or her salt will pay a premium to download uncompressed digital files — mp3s just don’t sound good enough — and coupled with the proper organizational and exploratory ethic, such a collection doesn’t have to be soulless in and of itself. Techno fandom, of course, isn’t made up solely of such types, and the right price easily erodes good habits. In the context of an Internet-derived (read: ganked mp3) collection, you can afford to freak out, to get behind the hype without thinking too much, because you can cull it as consensus shifts seemingly by the hour. Should you want it back one day (or even later that day), it’s easily accomplished. You can share it with friends; you might even share it with total strangers. It requires a minimum of space, and thusly compressed, it sounds somewhere along the spectrum of utter shit. Forget about not having paid for it: it’s probably not worth having a stake in anyways.
No one has elicidated this better, albeit veiled in mega-irony, than Hipster Runoff douche-blogger Carles, whose subtly brilliant skewering of the mp3 has made for some of the most relevant and insightful music criticism out there of late. “Is Atlas Sound (ft Panda Bear),” Carles asks with his reliably deadpan naivete in the title of a blog post from this summer, “the MP3 we have been waiting 4 all year?” Insert practically any artist (“bloggable,” to use Carles’ terminology, or not) in at the start of the sentence, and his thesis remains intact: there’s something intrinsically ridiculous about getting excited over a non-object, a pseudo-thing so expendable. The kind of recorded music culture Carles chides doesn’t breed collections; it breeds holding pins for half-tastes. White label releases take pains not to let you live like this, but just barely. A few extra steps (or an errant mp3 promo) can throw vinyl-only releases into this cesspool, of course, but on principle they stand apart, a bulwark against the decade’s worst excesses of music dissemination — things you can’t acquire and be rid of in an instant, a “serious option for serious DJs.”
But in 2009, we’re not really talking about vinyl vs. digital, object vs. pseudo-object, soul vs. chilly ones and zeroes. Aren’t we just talking about how best to present this stuff to ensure that it’ll matter? Vinyl forces this music to matter; it forces the consumer to literally take ownership of their music, to find a place for it in their lives. But all this heroism can cost a lot of money, especially if you live on the wrong side of the Atlantic, and I’m not sure that in this year of all years it’s at all appropriate for authenticity come only in the form of a luxury item. If this music can be procured fairly and legally in a form that costs a bit less money, who can criticize? And if you can’t bring yourself to love your music files, to have some kind of meaningful relationship with them, then who’s really being lazy?
I realized I needed to recalibrate my “record”-buying habit after I interviewed Marcel Dettmann, that most dedicated of vinyl buyers, this past July. When I asked him what new producers excited him, the first name out of his mouth was Levon Vincent, a dude I’d been sleeping on for months because I couldn’t buy his tracks digitally. When Marcel Dettmann tells you to check someone out, you check him out, so later that weekend I rode my bike across Brooklyn to Halcyon in DUMBO, ground zero for Levon Vincent releases. It was the first time I’d set foot in a dance record store since a disappointing trip to Halcyon nearly a year before, back in those dark days when Hutlock had offered his lamentation on the purported death of vinyl culture. Grabbing a stack of records, I saddled up at a listening station, just like old times. I brought my selections up to the counter and had a nice conversation with the clerk before checking out. I walked out of there with her party flier, her assurance that she’d stick new records aside for me if I started making regular trips to the shop during her shift, all the Vincent records they had in stock, and a few other slabs I might not have thought to download (if they’d even been available for download). As a techno writer, I get a fair amount of music sent to me digitally for free, and all these effortlessly-attained promos make my WAV collection feel not so special sometimes. Visiting Halcyon felt a bit like coming home, and I’ve started making record store trips as often as time and my wallet allow. It’s not a matter of saving vinyl or saving record stores or staying true to techno soul. Frankly, it’s personal: I do it because I live in a borough of a city with a few really fantastic record shops, and not many people can make such a statement at the end of 2009. And I do it because I grew up with these places. Though they are for me, real live records aren’t intrinsically a part of this music anymore. At the end of the day (or, if you’d prefer, at the end of this year or this decade), every fan of this music — be you a DJ, a promoter, a producer, or just a serious listener — needs to find the relationship that keeps him or her, and only him or her, living and breathing the stuff. Forget about mine or anyone else’s; what’s yours?