John Harris

Journalist & Author

The antidote to rampant capitalism? 33⅓ revolutions per minute | John Harris

Sales of tablets (the digital kind) are 1,000% up, but a quiet rebellion is growing as people rediscover the joy of vinyl records

If you’re fortunate enough to be somewhere smattered with Christmas presents, and also in the company of a certain kind of music freak, look around and marvel. As well as the stuff of digital consumerism (more of which in a moment), their haul of gifts may include a few objects that were meant to have been thrown into the dustbin of history a couple of decades ago. You’ll know them if you see them: big, coin-like things encased in glossy cardboard holders, which reproduce sound thanks to a technology that was invented towards the end of the 19th century.

For thousands of people, vinyl records have returned as the acme of listening pleasure. The relevant numbers are counted in the tens of thousands rather than the music industry’s customary millions, but one thing seems clear: though the business writ large is in a dire state, increasing quantities of records are being bought – both secondhand and in souped-up, remastered editions. Witness the season’s must-have item for Beatles fans, who either saved up all year or are toasting the end of the 50p rate of tax: their beautifully presented vinyl catalogue in a deluxe giant box, which goes for around £300.

We await conclusive British figures for 2012, but last year there was a quantum leap in sales of new vinyl albums, which were 44% up on the figures for 2010. Anecdotal evidence suggests the consumers responsible are not just hard-bitten types – men, usually – of a certain age, but much younger people. And the phenomenon extends across the industrialised world: the same pattern is evident in the UK, the US, Australia, Germany – and even cash-strapped Spain.

This piece was written at a desk around 2ft away from a turntable I now use every day. When the grimmer aspects of daily life – deadlines, flooding, Danny Alexander – start to get a bit much, I reach for a record, and take 40 minutes or so to give it my undivided attention. So as to be kept in its original condition, it must be carefully played as its creators intended, and also divided by the lovely pause for reflection in between sides one and two. The sound quality is way better than anything digital; there is an obvious Proustian thrill to the deep click from the stylus that begins the listening experience.

Now, compare all this to the easy delights of music either streamed or downloaded. No one was ever going to miss the charmless compact disc, and when the iPod era ended with the arrival of the streaming service Spotify, the infinite jukebox of millions of dreams was made real.

Here, though, is the problem: as I distractedly jump from song to song, am I actually listening, or merely hearing? And if most of us now listen to music in a state of twitchy impatience, what happens when that feeds back into the art itself? We already know the answer: modern pop has little time for delayed gratification, so intros must be quickened, choruses brought forward, and the most banal buttons pushed.

All this stokes a quiet anti-digital rebellion, and reflects an impulse that is growing, not just in the culture, but in everyday life.

When the vinyl renaissance first became clear, there were allusions to the Slow Food movement, and Carl Honoré’s 2004 book In Praise of Slow. By way of a warning about what happens when such advice is ignored, then – eventually – came Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, the text that bemoaned the online world’s “cacophony of stimuli”, and “cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning”.

Not surprisingly, then, there is rising interest in the notion of living offline, or at least reducing one’s immersion in all that noise and chatter. An American tech-journalist called Paul Miller, for example, is halfway through a year cut adrift, one early report of which found him in the midst of an evening when “he had an unusually long conversation with his roommate and” – get this – “listened to some records”. The account went on: “They stayed up talking until 3am, he said, and ‘I was completely in the moment and having a good time’.”

Now, compare that mode of existence to habits that this Christmas will have taken to new heights. Never mind austerity: some retailers claim that sales of tablets – digital ones, that is, rather than uppers, downers and antidepressants, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a correlation – are up 1,000% on last year. All, then, is frantic: both the pace at which yesterday’s must-have device must be replaced by today’s supposedly vast improvement, and the insane tempo at which everything is intended to be used. Not for nothing, perhaps, did one marketing agency recently try to rebrand Christmas Day 2012 as “tablet Tuesday”, a sacred occasion when we “redeem digital vouchers to fill up new devices with games, music and video”. Hosanna in excelsis, and all that.

It doesn’t matter if the profiteers responsible wear saggy casual rather than tophats: this, surely, is capitalism taken to such an extreme that the only thing to do is reach for Guy Debord’s prophetic text The Society of the Spectacle and boggle at how, 45 years later, every word has come true: “Consumers are filled with religious fervour for the sovereign freedom of commodities whose use has become an end in itself … The proliferation of faddish gadgets reflects the fact that as the mass of commodities becomes increasingly absurd, absurdity itself becomes a commodity … All this is useful for only one purpose: producing habitual submission.”

I know, I know: a mere vinyl habit probably isn’t any kind of cure for the modern malaise. Indeed, if you’re paying what some people earn in a week for a set of Beatles albums, you may have more to do with the problem than the solution. Then again, as a quiet act of refusal, there still seems something unshakeably symbolic about sticking with a supposedly outmoded technology, spending time focusing on one thing rather than hundreds. And, better still, making one’s choices in isolation from the ever-watchful eye of digital marketing machines, so that algorithms cannot calculate what to sell you next – if you want to follow Adele with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, that’s up to you.

In that spirit, I’ll start Boxing Day hopeful that I might carve out a couple of hours to listen to a few of my vinyl Christmas presents.

Elsewhere, enjoyment might be measured in kilobytes per second; here, a kind of stubborn solace comes via black plastic, rotating at a subversively glacial 33⅓ rpm.

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