Getting the groove back
Call it irresponsible parenting, but I am really pleased that I got both my children hooked on what will probably be an addiction for life — vinyl records.
A month ago I took my 15-year-old son for lunch. When we got home, he started hassling me to get my classy but dust-covered Linn turntable serviced because the spacious coffee shop we went to, Warm & Glad in Craighall Park, sells brand-new, freshly pressed imported vinyl. It has a small collection, but orders records and gets them quickly. “I like records,” my son told me and my heart did a drum solo.
I feigned being harassed but was thrilled when he told me his first record should be the Beatles’s Abbey Road. To avoid sibling envy, I ordered Catch a Fire by Bob Marley for my daughter who studies out of town, so it would be here when she arrives for her winter vacation.
“The idea behind Warm & Glad is to offer a space in which to relax and have something to eat, drink a coffee, buy a magazine or interesting book and peruse the vinyl for sale,” said Jon Shaw, who opened the already thriving shop in March. He used to be a DJ who played strictly drum ’n bass, but these days, as is reflected in his stock, he also loves hip-hop, soul and jazz.
Started in February, the Record Mad Store in Linden is more old school and lo-fi, like in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. There are a few guys, bent like question marks, intently ruffling through the extensive vinyl collection.
“I always liked the idea of owning a 100% record store as opposed to mostly CDs and a few scratched vinyls,” said owner Kevin Stuart as he turned over a 180g reissue of 1970s Yoruban funk band MonoMono’s record, Give the Beggar a Chance. His new stuff includes deluxe reissues by Afrobeat king Fela Kuti and a range of current singer-songwriter and indie records.
“Business is good, but not about to put me in that house in Houghton.”
After the introduction of CDs in the early 1990s, South African record companies stopped pressing vinyl. Worldwide sales of records dropped to 0.3-million copies in 1993. But sales have steadily grown ever since, picking up significantly since 2008. Last year, vinyl sales increased by 39%, according to media research agency Nielsen Soundscan — from 2.8-million units in 2010 to 3.9-million units in 2011.
It suggests that “the consumers’ desire for a tangible product” is the driving factor, according to dance magazine Mixmag. “In the past few years more mainstream acts have begun to release on vinyl again, meaning the format’s resurgence has moved from a nostalgia-fuelled hipster phenomenon to something with mass-market appeal.”
It is difficult to say how many of these records are sold in South Africa. “I believe that vinyl sales are increasing in South Africa, but I can’t quantify it,” said Shaw. “I was quite impressed with the reaction when we put our first shipment on the shelves. The records moved pretty fast, so we ordered again and keep doing so. My sense is that there are a lot of record-lovers out there.”
Stuart said he had two types of customer “but both are addicts”.
“You get the completists, who just seem to collect for the sake of collecting. They say they like music, but I’m not so sure. Then you get people who are open to most music. For them it is the sound of analogue that attracts. That’s why they buy records.”
As an obsessive music collector, especially of MP3s — there are 32 095 musical “items” that will take 105 days of non-stop listening just on my iTunes at last count — my relationship with music has changed radically over the years with the evolution of technology.
My record stores — some where I pay, others where I get the music for free — are now in my laptop. The songs, if I get to them, are merely a click away.
I started wondering whether I have become like Kenneth Goldsmith, founder of the file-sharing website UbuWeb. In a recent article in The Wire he wrote: “It’s all about quantity … I’m drowning in my riches. I’ve got more music on my drives than I’ll ever be able to listen to in the next 10 lifetimes. As a matter of fact, records that I’ve been craving for years are languishing unlistened to.”
Goldsmith believes that the ways in which culture is distributed have become way more intriguing than the cultural artefact itself. “What we have experienced is an inversion of consumption, one in which we’ve come to prefer the acts of acquisition over that which we are acquiring, the bottles over the wine.”
Having these two new records stores in Johannesburg is certainly quenching my nostalgia for a time when we had incredible stores, such as Street Records, Hillbrow Records and Kohinoor, with knowledgeable clerks. And with regained access to new records, my relationship with music is about to change again — for the better.
With the tactility of records, I am forced to engage with my music again. It will become less about consumption and more about appreciation, not only of the sounds but also of the size and art of long-players.
Last Sunday we had a vinyl day at home with the children’s new LPs, my gleaming Beastie Boys, Curtis Mayfield and Beach Boys spinning on the as-good-as-new serviced turntable. I showed them the record-playing rituals: how you slide the record from its inner sleeve, how to lower the tone arm gently so that the needle does not damage the record. I resisted smelling the vinyl like a cigar, though, because they would have found that a bit weird.
And when the warm, organic sounds flooded from the speakers, their smiles told me they were hooked on the needle, the black gold, its magic grooves and, of course, those rituals. And like James Brown, I felt good.