vinyl makes us hipsters feel better about ourselves, or, why I love vinyl

Hipsters everywhere love vinyl.  The sound is “warmer”, they say. What is warm sound?  Far from a music theorist, I will try to describe what it is about vinyl that turns the hipster into an addict of vinyl.  I currently have thousands of songs in my iTunes; I also have an affinity for vinyl—even going to the Brooklyn Vinyl Fair.

I am guilty. I am an aspiring hipster.  I love records.

As I pull my copy of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago out of its place on my shelf, gently take it out of its sleeve, place it on my record player, lift the manual arm of my record player, and place it on the record—eagerly waiting to hear that second in which it touches the  Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) disc—, I think of the connection I physically make to music. The sound comes out of my little wooden box, and instantly the “warm” sound fills the room. There is a “pleasantness” to this (see Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Post-Contemporary Interventions).

Vinyl sales were up 39% in 2011. You can find all the latest hipster records on vinyl at your local Urban Outfitters. It’s sort of “a thing”.

For me, the vinyl experience is something akin to going to a concert.  Instead of creating playlists, which deconstructs the work of various artists, through the vinyl experience I am encouraged to listen to the work all the way through.  Perhaps, knowing that fans appreciate this “completeness”, is why artists still create full albums, rather than just releasing individual singles constantly.  Perhaps, this is the same reason we still read poetry as written collections, rather than as  individual poems.

If post-modernity has fractured everyday life, perhaps listening to vinyl can be a sort of feeble attempt to reconnect with some mythic past in which music was “whole”—to be sure, it never was, we just like the thought of it. Haven’t we been collecting pieces of information and reassembling them since at least the enlightenment (see: Robert Darnton’s work on The Literary Underground of the Old Regime)?  We see vinyl as a connection to the past—the way things used to be.  We want a “purer” sound.

If in post-modernity everything is fragmented and deconstructed, perhaps this affinity for a “complete” work is reflective of our attempt to start a process of re-construction.  We want to connect to an experience that is shared and intentional. This is not inherently wrong.  However, this comes with a cost.  In order for us hipsters to have our “warmer” sound, there must be a sound with which to compare it.  If everyone had vinyl, than that idealised “warm” sound we seek would be just like everything else—we wouldn’t know any different.  That said, in order for us to experience the pleasure of vinyl, we inherently have to have another sound with which to compare it—the sound of the masses: digital.

One cannot dismiss the fact that purchasing vinyl (especially a new album) is more expensive, and is reflective of an ability to spend money on such a frivolous expenditure —what makes buying records “hipster” or post-modern bohemian—an irony that is both fulfilling and hypocritical.  The hipster must have the resources to be able to partake in this exclusive activity—similar to the concert experience.  To be sure, I don’t mean to shun frivolous expenditures, I’m just asking that we pay attention to why we make those expenditures, and how are those expenditures reflective of a privileged lifestyle. I would argue, conversely, that all people should have the ability to have frivolity in their lives.

So the question becomes, do we feel this “warmth” because we are somehow excluding “others” from this audio experience—making us superior for staying “faithful” to the true format of the album. Perhaps, listening to vinyl makes us feel better about ourselves.  We live intentionally; we experience this “warmth” in sound because it is a rejection of normativity. However, through our attempts to transgress normativity we are still stuck in a post-modern trap.  We love the sound of the vinyl—it is different. We value it because there is another option; we are able to afford to be different.  The paradox becomes inescapable.  The same way privileged peoples consume organic food, or create wardrobes to better “express” themselves and their values, we still come to the essential problem that is: for us to live better, to experience “pleasantness”, we have to have someone not experience it. We have to have an “other”. Listening to records has become a bourgeois activity.  In order for us to maintain our status, we have to partake in activities that are less accessible for the average person.  Is this why we listen to vinyl? Does listening to vinyl legitimate our social status. (See: Wikipedia’s page on the concept of “the Other”).

What if everyone were able to listen to vinyl, eat organic (and live healthier lives), and experience travel to foreign countries, would we value these things the same way(s)?  Arguably, all these “frivolities” can lead to an improved quality of life (depending upon what you value, or don’t value, of course).  Why aren’t we doing more to make access to such “frivolities”, rather than obsessing over our vinyl collections?

We like the “warm” sound of our vinyls—rejecting the “cold” sound of digital—the sound of the masses.  Choosing vinyl, becoming a part of a socially constructed, mythic music élite, allows us to validate our taste, and to feel superior.  It allows us to think that the way that we listen to music is superior to others. It allows us to separate ourselves from “uneducated masses”.  Listening to vinyl gives us cultural capital.

That is the cynical perspective.  I’m still not giving up my record player—post-modern paradoxes and paralysis. Maybe it’s not just about the warmer sound per se, but also about the warmth, or affect, that we feel when we listen to the music.  Putting on a vinyl record is a personal act—in a way that clicking a play button on a computer never can be. Perhaps, we listen to vinyl in hopes that we can actually bring back something that is lost in the cold digital remasters of music we love.


Also see: Pierre Bourdieu ‘s  The Field of Cultural Production, or read the Wikipedia article.


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  1. Louie Louie, I think that you are assuming things about “hipsters.” Those people who are really into vinyl go spend 50$ on vinyl but are getting 40-50 records. Who wants to buy Lil’ Wayne for 30$ when you can get Billie Holiday for 1$? Maybe the people buying these extremely expensive records don’t know what’s out there, and that you can beef up your collection for pennies. The only reason to buy a more expensive record would be if something is re-released, such as Tom Waits, but even then, you really have to pick and choose–unless you are a real DJ (not the kind that use CDs-what is that?)

    Most of my collection I got for 2$ or less a piece, or free. I think the most expensive one was probably The Mars Volta back in the day. But I don’t think it’s safe to assume that most vinyl junkies are buying the latest, most expensive records. Not only that, but what is a “hipster”? The new white-belt hipster of the last 20 years would probably take their parents’ money to buy all the latest vinyl on UO, just because it’s soooo cool and retro (and really, these people are not getting the real vinyl-buying experience), but the old-fashioned hipster is probably elbow-deep in crates in the basement of some old cat who just died and left a wealth of records behind. I can only categorise myself as a music elitist, I don’t think I’m hip in the old or the new, but that just means that old music is better than new music, and I can buy a gem with what I find in my couch.

    There were a lot of songs I had on vinyl that I couldn’t find on YouTube or iTunes–and if I did, I would have to pay for one song what I spent on 10+. It became better when gadgets were released to help you put your vinyl on digital stuff–those are worth the money, but it’s all out of convenience, as you can’t play records in the car, so that treasure chest of vinyl still is a part of your life.

    Lastly, about the idea that vinyl is exclusivist–aren’t most things? I don’t think that people who go to graduate school, for example, are thinking “wow, so many people are not in grad school, this is so cool.”

    Longest comment ever? Maybe :)

    • Well, with a very broad net, I’m considering myself hipster—and I’m playful with that term. Also, I’m not sure I know anyone that would buy a ‘Lil Wayne vinyl—hopefully! I think it’s awesome that you find such great deals on records—perhaps I’m also jaded by New York City prices, where it is difficult to find vinyl for 2 dollars or less.

      Re: the exclusivity of vinyl. Sadly, yes, most products evoke a sort of exclusivity (especially when we mark ourselves as being somehow élite for owning such products). That’s the problem I’m trying to point to—Are we okay with this exclusivity and creation of a music élite?

      I’m not willing to give up my vinyl collection. I’m also finding it difficult to give up my privilege in other areas as well (ahem, I’m working on a Ph.D. after all). The piece is more a critique of myself, as a “hipster” who spends too much time being a music elitist. Those of us with the cultural and financial capital to partake in vinyl obsession should be thinking less about how we are “better” than digital listeners, but should also be paying attention to how this capital affects our experience. Should we feel that much better than others, just because we *know* the sound of vinyl is much better than digital?

      Maybe I’m just suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and this is the real reason for my vinyl addiction—just trying to keep myself “honest”.