The internet is full of advice for young bands. How to “get noticed”, how to “reach the next step”, how to “willingly reduce yourself to a cheerless brand” etc. There’s not a lot of advice for their fans though. And yet now more than ever the link between artist and audience is a two way relationship rather than a top-down content funnel. Surely if you’re going to foster a partnership like that you both need to be on the same page?
Every time I see a band tweet something like “So excited, we’ve just finished recording our debut album” you can pretty much guarantee it will be followed by a comment from a well-meaning audience member saying “Will it be on vinyl?”
But if someone says “I’m so happy I’ve just passed my driving test” do you immediately ask them if they’ve got a pilot’s license?
So this is my advice to audiences: If you want to support these people then give them a break. Vinyl is expensive and nowhere near as popular as everyone says it is (in my experience a lot more people talk about liking vinyl than actually buy the stuff). It’s impossible to make a profit on small runs without grossly inflating the price, it takes ages to get pressed, it clogs up the release process, it has to be mastered separately (thus doubling that particular cost), it’s a pain to tour with, it takes up loads of space, most artists will be lucky to break even (and are far more likely to be drastically out of pocket) and it’s just generally a faff. One bit of the industry is telling everyone to constantly release new music, to keep firing out content in order to never fade from view; the other bit of the industry is counseling its artists to spend months in an order queue while a perfect piece of grooved nostalgia-in-waiting is lovingly churned out of a hopelessly overworked and under-maintained factory in Eastern Europe. Ooh, that lovely warm sound, it’s so worth it.
I understand the appeal, honestly I do. I have several releases on vinyl that I’m very proud of (and am reminded of that pride every single day by the unwanted surplus littering my surroundings). It’s lovely and big and authentic in a world of relentless tacky fluctuation. It sounds like bottled youth and makes everyone who touches it feel like a real person rather than some synthesized iHuman. And I realise in a world of streaming and downloading and non-ownership that if you’re going to opt for a physical artifact then obviously vinyl is far superior to CDs. I get it. But you’re not helping.
I have been a DIY musician at various levels of functional obscurity for about seventeen years and a fulltime one for about eight. At the start the difficulty was getting my songs from a Tascam Four-Track recorder (and subsequently a Zoom eight-track recorder) onto a CD before home computers routinely had disc-writers. Then the problem was getting the songs onto a glass mastered CD that would work in all systems. Then the problem was getting onto iTunes (cue the rise of digital aggregators). Then it was getting onto Spotify (before everything was homogenized into one distribution platform). Basically there was always something that carried with it the perception of a quality filter to separate so-called-amateurs from so-called-professionals – you smash through one wall then another one would pop up. Then when Bandcamp came along everything became wonderfully direct, the sales cut was reasonable and the process immediate. A sustainable DIY career was finally a reality. But we had to go and spoil it all by suddenly resurrecting an interest in bloody vinyl. Now, in order to look like serious players, a band has to put all their savings into pressing a few hundred discs when they should really be buying a tour van. The first option provides no return but looks cool, the second is functional and helps the group make a real income and expand their reach for years to come. Seems like a no-brainer. Yep, most bands apparently have no brains.
It’s the fear of seeming amateur that fuels this. That’s what all bands try to avoid – being viewed as hobbyists. We all feel like pretenders but so desperately want to be taken seriously. And if forking out thousands for niche formats will absolve us of this sin then so be it. All the other developments I listed above had cheap solutions based on the natural progress of technology. Then vinyl re-emerges like some angry tax on authenticity and suddenly everyone who should be embarking on a modest promotional tour has blown every penny they have on something that only six of their fans will buy.
I’m not saying people should abandon their interest in vinyl – we should all have the choice to enjoy art in whatever way works for us – and indeed if this is the way we keep record shops open (and, by association, the local hubs for music enthusiasts) that is absolutely fine by me. And of course if a band is doing well and can afford to expand their merch range then good for them. But if you are a fan of a small independent band who are clearly trying to find their path in a notoriously complicated, expensive and exhausting industry then help them out, spend the price of a pint on the download of their EP and let them work out the next steps from there, don’t issue them with demands about how you want to consume their music and pressure them into releasing on a format they can’t afford.
You’ll also be helping me out because I’m tired of receiving press releases that begin with sentences like “out now on limited edition pink vinyl…” – it’d be great to bring the conversation back to music rather than endlessly rambling on about formats. Now that would feel like real progress.