Campfire Songs/Spin the Black Circle

To Ayelet, from the drop of the needle to the innermost groove. -Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

Important things happening this week:

Wednesday shindig at Borough for the launch of the digital download for Ang Nawawalang Soundtrack (direct translation: The Lost Soundtrack; translating from the movie: The Soundtrack That Isn’t There). In a few weeks, the same album will be pressed on vinyl, but on the same night, Up Dharma Down are releasing their third album, Capacities. Also on vinyl.

And then there’s this:

It’s funny that something as antiquated and antithetical to the tenets of modernity as vinyl could thrive, slowly building a cult around its eventual resurgence, tracking the seemingly arbitrary movements of the local music market. We’ve moved into the age of portability, shuffle buttons, and genius playlists, and *plonk* here’s a medium that is fragile, cumbersome, and requires both hands to play. But this isn’t just about a handful of Rob Fleming types rifling through crates: the willingness of local musicians and producers to risk pressing albums on vinyl once again signifies not only the marketability of nostalgia. The figures involved in shipping the stuff alone are enough to contest that theory. This isn’t even about the music industry (in the aftermath of a sharp decline) making an ironic reference to its golden age by returning a former relic to the shelves. So what are we really paying for by choosing vinyl?

Someone (actually, a lot of someones, I just can’t pinpoint exactly who) mentioned that vinyl, unlike anything formatted digitally, comes with a warm fuzz, a crackle that literally interrupts the air in the room; and it was that same crackle that punctuated my earliest memories of listening to music I actually liked. I can’t even remember how old I was when my sister taught me to count the tracks on the side of a record just to play the song I wanted, but I do remember it requiring the kind of coordination and presence of mind that now seems absurd, especially now that the norm is letting your iPod decide what you want to hear. In this case, the motions of putting hand to needle and needle to record actually deserve to be romanticized; because, unlike most of what we consider human activity right now, vinyl requires you to connect with the material in a mental and physical capacity that can only be outdone by actually playing the music live. In the most simplistic terms: a record won’t spin on its own, you have to be there.

Yeah, I see what you did there, Beck

My earliest example of a DJ was my dad, who stopped letting me go through his crates of records after he found that I’d drawn a mustache and horns on his Barbra Streisand LP (I’m sorry. What he still doesn’t know is that I did that same thing to his John Denver record [again, I’m sorry]). I can’t really say that he actually “spun” anything on that old Sansui, at least not in that respect. He may have been too drunk to really know what he was doing, but he always bothered to ask me what I wanted to hear next, and that made a huge difference. It created an atmosphere that was strikingly different from casual consumption–think elevator music or Top 40 shit. My dad didn’t tell me what to listen to, he opened the floor for what I actually enjoyed listening to.

Of course at 5 or 6, I had absolutely no idea what was in those crates that lined the shelves in our living room. And consequently, he would end up playing whatever he felt like listening to. This was usually at the end of a long day*, so there was a lot of Donovan, Jefferson Airplane, and The Byrds (Because “Turn, turn, turn”?).

But I remember my dad would watch my face while I was listening, and that made all the difference. From there, he knew which records were safe to keep on the lower shelves, and which ones were in danger of getting their sleeves violated by my Mr. Sketch markers.
It wasn’t just about capturing audiences, but captivating listeners–even if I was just one person, even if I was just 5 (or 6 [Pinatubo, so I had to be about 6]), how I felt about what came out of those speakers actually mattered.

Maybe we don’t realize how transparent we are about liking what we hear, or maybe some people are just better are realizing it for us. I was watching my friend Diego spin one weekend, and thinking about how spinning and storytelling bear striking similarities. There are calculated ways to do these things. The math is there, but the equation is never fully completed until you’re in that booth, hand to needle, letting it thread itself through the tracks. It’s not just about getting people to dance, but creating an atmosphere evocative of the earliest campfire or concert hall. I’m sure DJ-ing is a fun job, but that doesn’t make it any less of a job – an ongoing experiment in manipulating the air in the room.

The whole act of playing a record–from the burden imposed by the clunky equipment to the size and price of the record itself definitely begs questions about the resurgence of vinyl not only as an acceptable, but a desirable medium for selling and consuming music. It’s also possible that we’re asking the wrong questions, especially now that the experience of listening to music has simultaneously come to demand so little of us, while going to extremes. There are people who will do (and pay) anything to see a song they downloaded “illegally” played live.

Maybe the resurgence of a medium like vinyl is not to be discussed within the polarities of supply and demand, consumption and desire, in which every segment counts. Granted, the connoisseurs will pay more and treat it like a bigger investment, but this isn’t about one medium displacing another, but understanding what drives consumption in the first place, especially in an increasingly fragmented market. Moreover, this carries an optimism, not only for the music industry, but for the kind of culture that is propagated when ideas move from head to hand to medium.

And if that optimism doesn’t come naturally, then it needs to be cultivated with the same attentiveness involved with watching your audience and registering the looks on their faces.

As cheesy as it sounds, what people do both critically and creatively is an opportunity to come together. There is a non-negotiable degree of generosity and mutual respect in anything done creatively and done well; and treating it as an investment–not only in money, but in time and energy–is a necessary act of optimism.

Because here’s where the potential threats lie: the same platforms established to elevate creation have also made it easier to just go about, reacting to things at random. The same avenues that allow us to connect also grant us the anonymity which makes just as easy for us to destroy each other. Given a space in which everything could be an open love letter to the things that make life more bearable leaves audiences just as capable of trashing the place – with the comment box allowing us to spew bile at the slightest offense. And the ill feelings may leave or you can numb yourself to whatever pain they cause, but the poison remains.

And so it needs to be repeated: creation is—or rather, creation should be—an act of mutual respect, in which we neither diminish our audience nor treat them as a means to glorify a product. What I do as a person who writes is the end result of pushing buttons, but it always begins with putting pen to paper. There is a particular kind of satisfaction that comes with getting in there, moving things around by hand and feeling the warm crackle of ideas as they move from head to hand. It signifies not only the willingness and capacity to care about small things, but the need to make them bigger than what you are.

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