There’s a well known article by the photographer and critic Allan Sekula which points out that from the beginnings, photographs posed a problem of archiving. You’d go on vacation, take some pictures, send them off to be developed, and they’d come back in an envelope, or as slides. Then what? For most people, it was “put them in a shoebox and put the shoebox under the bed/in a closet/in the attic.”
The photos were an organizational burden. What was the subject? Was it “Yosemite vacation, 1981?” or was it “Timmy, age 8?” Was this a picture of El Capitan, or of the vacation, or of mom and dad? Lots of parents would set up an album for each kid. But then what do you do with a picture that has Timmy and Susie in it? You need a duplicate, or if it’s Timmy and Susie at Yosemite, triplicate.
Sekula points out that photographs were instantly useful to political authority–as a record of events, as a way to track identity, as a way to observe racial and eugenical differences in immigrant populations. There they posed the same kind of problems, on a magnified scale–is this a forger, or an Italian, or an example of atavistic physiognomy? How do we file this?
This was always an issue with records. They were heavy and bulky and visible in your room: they made a record not just of a musical performance, but a record of your personal taste, an archive. You had to think about how to organize them. Alphabetical order, sure, but really, do the Beatles really belong between Bach and Art Blakey? It made more sense to organize records by genre: this is rock, this is folk, this is jazz, this is folk rock, this is fusion, this is gospel, this is contemporary gospel, this is traditional gospel, uh oh a contemporary gospel artist just released a traditional gospel album.… Eventually, you’d run into the problem of the boundary transgressing animal, a record that was both or neither, and really, you’d need two of that one.*
You could just shove them on a shelf in any order, and of course people did, but the vinyl archive was deeply personal, a record of taste and experience. Barry Levinson summed it up poignantly in this scene from Diner, in which a young married couple is not having much luck figuring out how to live with each other.
This is a moment enabled by gender politics and the specific form of vinyl. He’s deeply obsessed with records and their “metadata” and she could not care less. Appropriately, the comments on the scene on YouTube include this:
What’s really funny about this scene is the camera focuses on the label of the record playing– a turquoise Capitol label that would accompany a Gene Vincent or Tennessee Ernie Ford Capitol label LP. But what is playing? “Having Fun” by Memphis Slim, recorded for Chess Records, which would have been on a black label with silver lettering.
Records always posed this problem of archiving and category making. If you had more than a dozen, they compelled you to come up with some kind of organizational scheme, and as Levinson points out, those organizational schemes could be deeply important. Visiting someone’s house and perusing their record collection told you all sorts of things about them–not just that they preferred disco to classical, or preferred the obscure and the odd to the popular, but that they had imposed a structure of meaning on the music.
I’d be inclined to argue that the form of the record itself compelled this kind of organizational obsessiveness. It’s physical shape and size mattered. The carefully chosen cover art, twelve inches square, reinforced this. It the record against various cultural personae: earnest folkie, groovy swinger; honky tonker; jazzbo.
Jazz lovers will easily recall the cover of Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess: stylish, racially transgressive, ambiguous, hip, sophisticated.
You couldn’t put this next to a country and western record, or an R&B record, or some folk music.
Records were carefully chosen by their owners; they were commodities that marked out the bounds of the buyer’s self. The vinyl record needed to be ordered and classified and stored: needed to you to place it, both physically and mentally, and that placement was a personal statement.
Here’s a youtube clip of a person explaining his record collection–because other record collectors had asked him to:
This looks pretty obviously like gendered behavior; where women might occasionally pull the family snapshots out from under the bed and organize them into meaningful photo albums, this kind of obsessive record-organizing seems to be mostly a guy thing.
But the photo album and the obsessive record-categorizing stem from the same impulse, the desire to make consumption more meaningful. When you take commodities and re-organize them, re-purpose them, you’re trying to give them meaning. Maybe you’re simply reinforcing the meaning assigned by whoever is selling the commodity, and insisting that Ray Charles is a R&B singer, regardless of what he thinks, or jazz must be thought of in the way the Porgy and Bess cover demands. Or maybe you organized the records because you liked drawing up aesthetic taxonomies and chains of “influence.”
But the act of organizing is an act of thinking about what the commodities mean and how they should be understood. Vinyl buyers wanted to impose taxonomies on their records, or reinforce existing categories, and they’d use the physical objects to map out the differences between individual performers and different kinds of music.
At the same time, record-organizing looks like what Max Weber described as the rationalization of life. Weber argued the late nineteenth century. Modern methods of information storage and retrieval that makes possible larger systems of management. If you go to the Building Museum in DC, you can see how someone tried to manage millions of pension records before the invention of the vertical filing cabinet. It’s a not quite modern building.
In his essay on photography Sekula points out how photographs served the state’s need to organize and classify its citizens–police records, passport photos, public health programs with a eugenical bent. File cabinets full of photographs were both a tool of the state and an organizational dilemna.
We can see traces of the state all over that Miles Davis album cover: the woman flirtatiously touching his trumpet speaks to role assigned to women as muse, not creator. Her racially ambiguous character speaks to the culture of segregation. The music itself was enmeshed in cultural politics, a jazz version of an opera based on southern African American folk themes by George Gershwin, the New York-born son of Jewish immigrants. Choosing that record, and placing it in the jazz category, both reinforced the commercial meaning of jazz and placed the buyer in some degree of opposition to prevailing racial norms and categories the state acted to reinforce.
But digital media just completely eliminates these problems/complications//pleasures. A single digital file takes up no physical space: it doesn’t need to be displayed–in fact really can’t be displayed, if it’s not on a cd–and doesn’t invite perusal. You can tag an mp3 file as whatever you want, as multiple genres, because it doesn’t have to occupy physical space; it can be simultaneously country/jazz/rock. There’s no need to categorize it in a fixed way, because it doesn’t have much of physical existence. The whole tiresome obligation of the archive is discouraged or eliminated, and so to the conscious negotiation with the state’s needs and demands. It’s been automated. Instead of actively working to classify the object, the mp3 can come to the listener as part of an algorithmic matrix of personal preference, mapped by Pandora or Amazon.
One comparison might be to time and timekeepers. When standardized time didn’t exist, people needed public clocks to track time, being on time, tracking the time, was a conscious effort and a relationship with a physical object, the watch. Today thoroughly standardized time is everywhere, and automated. Watches are now like vinyl records; unnecessary, nostalgic hipster status objects.
This may be one reason why music sales have declined. The record imposed or enabled the “value added” of making categories. The categories were deeply meaningful both personally and politically, as Barry Levinson pointed out so well. They spoke to who you were in relation to the realities politics imposed. The mp3 more or less makes that process pointless, and it makes the stakes much lower.
*I feel like I need to proclaim that I don’t own any records and don’t have a turntable and don’t want one. If they sound better I don’t care. While I loved the record covers, storing and maintaining record albums was a pain in the neck. And I don’t want to tangle with genre formation. This isn’t a nostalgic post, just an effort to figure out what the difference in different technologies means.