First Floor #23 – The End of Vinyl?

a.k.a. Maybe it's time to reevaluate our relationship with electronic music's favorite medium.

Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, my favorite new tracks and (usually) some of my thoughts on the issues affecting the larger scene / industry that surrounds the music. If you haven’t done so already, please consider subscribing to the newsletter by clicking the button below.

ON MY MIND

Last week, a fire broke out at a warehouse in Banning, a small desert city located a couple hours outside of Los Angeles. The building, which ultimately wound up being a total loss, was home to Apollo/Transco, one of two lacquer production facilities in the entire world. Lacquer discs are essential to the vinyl pressing process, which makes this fire potentially devastating for a significant swath of the music industry, especially smaller labels releasing vinyl in the United States. As of now, it’s not known when—or if—Apollo/Transco will manage to get up and running again; their website states “We are uncertain of our future at this point and are evaluating options as we try to work through this difficult time.” Even worse, the world’s only other lacquer production facility, MDC in Japan, is not only smaller than Apollo/Transco, but they’re reportedly not accepting new clients at this time.

All of this is very bad news for the electronic music industry. There’s an entire eco-system of labels, distributors and stores that relies on vinyl to survive, and it’s hard to imagine that network not being severely disrupted in the months ahead. Some labels will undoubtedly switch to a different vinyl production process, DMM, which doesn’t require a lacquer disc, but global capacity is limited and there are also concerns about sound quality. The lower frequencies of DMM-produced records tend to suffer, which is obviously a problem for electronic music.

Even before the Apollo/Transco fire, vinyl production was facing serious problems; while recent years have seen a much-ballyhooed “return of vinyl,” the business of actually manufacturing records has been creaky at best. Existing facilities—at all steps of the production process (and there are several)—are struggling to keep up with demand, their capacity often limited by old machines. Things are so tenuous that when a machine breaks, replacement parts often aren’t available, and instead have to be fabricated. Even worse, there’s also a severe lack of people with the technical knowledge of how these machines and processes work; over the past few decades, many of the most knowledgeable folks have literally passed away, often taking their expertise with them.

Knowing this, it’s no surprise that production delays have practically become standard operating practice. This is why vinyl release dates have become so fluid, especially for smaller labels, and even an orderly production process can often take six months or more. And while it’s true that global capacity has slowly been increasing thanks to old machines being refurbished and new pressing plants coming online, the Apollo/Transco fire is a perfect example of the vinyl industry’s pronounced vulnerability.

This is madness. I know that vinyl is practically a sacred medium for electronic music, but perhaps we’ve reached a point where it no longer makes sense to try and maintain this rickety status quo. Just yesterday, I saw this tweet from Scratcha DVA, an artist whose unique brand of wisdom is always entertaining:

He’s right. The time required to make vinyl is borderline ridiculous. And why exactly are we still fetishizing this medium? It’s expensive, both to make and to buy. It’s a petrochemical product that’s terrible for the environment, as the Guardian reported just last month. It’s also highly impractical, both for personal and professional use. Most DJs these days (especially the ones that tour regularly) don’t even play vinyl. Obviously there are exceptions, but in the aggregate, most artists have switched to CDJs, and even the DJs who do buy vinyl regularly are often just ripping it to digital.

I understand the appeal of vinyl. I used to collect it myself. Those discs come with a lot of sentimentality, and they offer something more permanent than a folder of digital files. There’s undeniably something satisfying about having a physical release in your hands, especially when an artist or label has gone the extra mile with artwork, liner notes, etc. Vinyl may be expensive, but some people see the cost involved as a sign that these releases are inherently more valuable, as the investment required supposedly helps ensure that only the best music is being pressed on to wax.

That’s a nice idea, but let’s be honest—it’s bullshit. Although the rise of digital production and distribution has undoubtedly led to a sizable increase in the overall quantity of music being released, the idea that vinyl releases are inherently better is not only dubious, but willfully ignorant of how music is being made and consumed all around the world. At this point, vinyl has practically become a luxury good, yet it’s still being held up by “underground” music circles as a totem of legitimacy. Music journalists are certainly complicit in perpetuating this idea, as vinyl releases continue to be regarded as more “serious.” Although attitudes are slowly changing, there’s a lingering sort of disdain for digital releases, which are widely seen as less important and less worthy of consideration.

Don’t believe me? Take a quick scan through the news or reviews section of any electronic music website, and see what percentage of the coverage is devoted to releases that are coming out on vinyl. It makes no sense. Thanks to the rise of streaming culture, most readers aren’t actually consuming music on vinyl (this is doubly true for the ones who aren’t DJs), yet the press is still using the medium as this odd benchmark of who deserves our collective attention.

Again, attitudes about this have been changing, especially as a generation raised on digital music and streaming continues to gain a foothold in the electronic music industry. But maybe it’s time to significantly speed up the process. Making vinyl was already expensive and time-consuming before the Apollo/Transco fire; in the months ahead, it’s bound to become even more costly. Recent years have seen the music industry repeatedly congratulating itself about the so-called return of vinyl, but in the electronic realm, the truth is that most labels are struggling to sell even 200 or 300 copies of their releases. The potential profit margin for even a successful limited-run release is razor thin, and most small labels are losing money every time they put out a record. Of course there are exceptions, but if we look at things through a wider lens, most small labels are only functioning thanks to the willingness of their owners to continue pumping in money, and that money usually comes from another source (e.g. DJing, a “real” job, being a rich person). Is this kind of economic barrier to entry really worth defending? Think about all of the music being made—especially outside of Europe and North America—that never gets taken seriously, just because releasing it on vinyl isn’t economically feasible. (In many places, it’s downright impossible.)

Things don’t have to be this way. While I’m certainly not advocating for the death of vinyl, I do think it’s time to consider a major reevaluation of the medium. For starters, could we do with a lot fewer vinyl releases? Absolutely. I do realize that any sort of major reduction would negatively impact a lot of people, and while I bear no ill will towards label owners, vinyl distributors or record shop proprietors, let’s stop kidding ourselves—the writing is already on the wall. The vinyl industry, in its current form, is not just unsustainable; it’s impractical, elitist and out of step with many of the morals and ethics that supposedly underpin electronic music culture.

That said, fixing things isn’t as easy as just ditching the vinyl format. Music culture has been eagerly tearing down gatekeepers over the past decade, creating a vacuum that has largely been filled by tech companies and their algorithms. We certainly don’t need to give them more power, and simply eliminating the “vinyl = important” benchmark could easily do just that. (There’s also the stubborn problem that digital streaming isn’t exactly good for the environment either. As the saying goes, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.)

Truth be told, I don’t have a definitive solution, but perhaps we could start with a wholesale attitude shift. As members of the electronic music community / industry, we need to redefine what makes a release “valuable” or “important.” We’re all living digital lives, so maybe it’s time to recognize that digital-only releases are no less legitimate than physical ones. And if we do want to continue fawning over physical releases, perhaps it’s time to stop looking at tapes, USBs or other mediums as “lesser” formats. After all, if a physical release is just being purchased to look nice on a shelf (and let’s be real, that’s what’s happening a lot of the time), then a cassette can do the trick just as easily as a piece of vinyl, and at a fraction of the cost. And for the audiophiles out there, digital storage has reached a place where WAV, AIFF and even FLAC files can be easily stored, swapped, sold and shared, and they all sound great.

It’s funny, electronic music is supposed to rooted in notions of futurism. We like to tell ourselves that our community is fair-minded and forward-thinking. But so many of our practices are rooted in sentimentality and notions of “this is the way it’s always been done.” Traditions can be a good thing, and I’m not the kind of person who regularly advocates for “smashing the system,” but when it comes to vinyl, we’re long overdue for a change. The Apollo/Transco fire is a major bummer, but it might also be the catalyst we need to make some real changes.


REAL QUICK

  • Pantha du Prince has a new album on the way. Entitled Conference of Trees, the LP was apparently rooted in a desire to spend more time outdoors and get away from the computer. Writing on what he calls “natural” instruments (i.e. physical wooden instruments that he built himself), it was only later in the music-making process that electronic elements were added to the mix. The album’s official release is set for March 6 via Modern Recordings, but in the meantime he’s shared this video for tinkling LP cut “Pius in Tacet.”

  • You Want is the new album from Omar-S, and last week the beloved Detroit rascal released a charmingly raw music video for LP cut “Second Life.” The one-take clip (which seems to have been recorded with a smartphone) finds him heading into a liquor store with fellow Motor City artist John FM (who sings on the actual track and intermittently lip synchs in the video). Calling this lo-fi would be understatement, but it’s undeniably entertaining. The confused faces of the other liquor store patrons alone make it well worth a watch.

  • Otik isn’t a household name just yet, but his bass-techno hybrids were some of my favorite discoveries of 2019. Particularly good was “Actress,” his contribution to the Orbitration compilation EP on Midland’s Intergraded imprint, and now he’s lined up a full release of his own for the same label. It’s called Wetlands, and though it’s not slated to arrive until February 27, the title track is already streaming here.


MY WIFE HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO

My wife Dania is a wonderful person, but she has little regard for my taste in electronic music. As the head of the Paralaxe Editions label, she often describes the music I like with words like “cheesy,” “simple,” “predictable,” “boring” and, worst of all (in her mind), “happy.” In contrast, I think she has a fantastic ear, and I’m constantly amazed by the obscure gems she unearths, both from record bins and the dark corners of the internet. Given that, I’ve asked Dania to share some of her finds with the First Floor audience. Each week, she highlights something that she’s currently digging, and adds some of her thoughts as to why it’s worth our attention.

CS + Kreme “Faun” (The Trilogy Tapes)

I’ve come to the realisation that I really enjoy narcotised songs, and the beginning of this particular CS + Kreme track (off their forthcoming album Snoopy) is probably what samba sounds like on propofol. I’m very much into this track, especially ¾ of the way in when some baroque organs come through—patience pays off. My favourite track from the new LP, however, is “Slug.” I believe you can preview that on the Boomkat website; it’s slow and provocative, just the way I like it.

Follow Dania on Twitter, or check out her monthly radio show on dublab.es.


NEW THIS WEEK

The following is a rundown of my favorite tunes that came out during the past week. Click on the track titles to hear each song individually, or you can also just head over to this convenient Buy Music Club list to find them all in one place.

June “Vortex 21” (Mannequin)

Back in November, I attended the the inaugural edition of Ombra, a great new festival here in Barcelona that’s focused on various forms of industrial, post-punk, synth and wave music. A lot of great acts performed that weekend, but June was my favorite new discovery. Hailing from Greece and armed with a fleet of vintage synthesizers, he’s been active for the past decade, and while he’s previously appeared on labels like Suction and Mathematics, he’s now landed on Mannequin with Silver Demon, his third full-length. The new LP touches upon new wave, EBM, post-punk, cold wave and other synth-centric sounds, and the blistering arpeggios of “Vortex 21” are a perfect window into his artistic vision.

Against All Logic “Penny” (Other People)

Nicolas Jaar has taken a surprisingly militant turn with his Against All Logic project. New album 2017 - 2019 literally features a military man on the cover, while the music within is rooted in brawny, distortion-laced techno (or at least techno-adjacent) sounds. “Penny” is one of the LP’s more melodic offerings, and though its crackling static and fleet-footed rhythm are potent enough to maintain a raw dancefloor vibe, it’s the song’s dreamy, almost seasick melody that really stands out.

Beatrice Dillon “Clouds Strum” (PAN)

An early contender for electronic music journalists’ favorite album of 2020, Workaround really is a fantastic record. At its core, Beatrice Dillon’s debut full-length is rooted in dub, although she’s much more interested in the genre’s framework than its traditional sound palette. There’s a strict rhythmic scheme in place—the entire album is locked at 150 bpm—yet her percussion wriggles and writhes, playing a fascinating game of cat and mouse with the music’s thick, loping basslines. Despite Dillon’s obvious interest in low-end dynamics (and the long expanse of the hardcore continuum), the album feels positively light on its feet. “Clouds Strum” is particularly frisky, its synth stabs and perky drum patterns bringing to mind Classical Curves-era Jam City.

Perko “Stutter” (Numbers)

Perko “The Reason” (Numbers)

Numbers has kept a relatively low profile over the past couple of years, but I’m really enjoying their quiet transformation into a reliable outpost for more experimental sounds. Perko has appeared on the label once before, releasing the adventurous NV Auto EP in 2018, and now the Copenhagen-based Scotsman has returned with a new record that’s both better and more daring. Much of The City Ring consists of brief melodic / ambient interludes, but “Stutter” sits somewhere in between Aphex Twin and ’90s rave, with some wonky, electro-funk basslines thrown in for good measure. “The Reason,” on the other hand, is all about percussion, sounding like a stripped-down take on jungle that values pensive rumination over going wild. There’s a lot of promise here.

Paul Haslinger “Berlin 86-11” (Artificial Instinct)

Coming from a former member of Tangerine Dream, this one is surprisingly minimal. Taken from his new album Exit Ghost, “Berlin 86-11” is a piano-driven lament, a melancholy little number with little more than some morose keys and what sounds like some time-stretched strings quietly groaning in the background. There’s not much to it, but I still found the track rather moving; it’s the sort of thing that might soundtrack a poignant movie montage after a beloved character dies unexpectedly. This cinematic flair makes sense, as Haslinger’s main gig these days is making music for film and television; his recent-ish work for Halt and Catch Fire was particularly good (as was the show itself).

Massimiliano Pagliara “Accidentally We Rushed” (Permanent Vacation)

Hands down, this is the most uplifting song of the week. Berlin-based Italian Massimiliano Pagliara sounds a lot like Todd Terje here, unfurling a brightly colored synth riff that’s bound to make people smile. In fairness, he doesn’t go completely over the top, diverting from the obvious pop route to indulge in a few detours and weave in a variety of melodies. As such, the song’s energy level caps out at eight instead of ten, but that might be for the best; “Accidentally We Rushed” is still a lot of fun, and nobody is going to roll their eyes when comes on.

Doc Sleep “We Left at Dawn (Roche’s Zen Center Remix)” (AGIYNI)

This one makes me a bit nostalgic for San Francisco. Roche has long been one of the city’s best-kept secrets, a skilled hardware manipulator whose synthy, psychedelic aesthetic comfortably moves through techno, house and ambient. A few months back, he started a new label called AGIYNI, and its latest release comes from Doc Sleep, one of the many former Bay Area artists who’ve left for greener artistic pastures. (She now lives in Berlin and continues to run the prolific Jacktone imprint.) Her original “We Left at Dawn” is built around a heavy synth riff—it’s no wonder that Roche liked it, as it’s not that far off from something he would make himself—but this “Zen Center Remix” dials back the percussion, allowing the tune to drift off into a more meditative zone.

Borusiade “Mirror Hall (This Relief)” (Dark Entries)

The new Borusiade album surprised me a little bit. Following 2018’s A Body (which I quite liked), along with her recent EPs for Unterton and Pinkman, I expected something geared toward the club, but Fortunate Isolation largely goes in the opposite direction. It wasn’t a bad choice, as she’s fully embraced the gloomy aesthetic that colored so much of the best minimal wave and synth-pop of the 1980s. Her booming voice is a real asset as well, and she’s smartly allowed its spooky baritone to take center stage amidst the album’s swirling synths and chilly atmospheres. “Mirror Hall (This Relief)” does creep toward the dancefloor, and it’s certainly fun enough to get the goths swaying (it’s also one of the only tracks with a prominent drum beat), but it’s worth noting that album’s more subdued and introspective moments are often just as powerful.

R.Kitt “Ripples from the Edge” (Night Tide)

R.Kitt “Machine Damhsa” (Night Tide)

I’ve been enjoying the recent output of Eluize, and now the Berlin-based Australian seems to have restarted her Night Tide label with Ripples from the Edge, a new EP from Dublin’s R.Kitt. The title track is a delicate, melodic gem, conjuring a bit of old-school Aphex Twin and ’90s ambient house with its twirling melodies and new agey atmospherics, which contrast nicely with the track’s galloping rhythm. With its chunky bassline, “Machine Damhsa” is a tougher tune, but R.Kitt brings in some dreamy melodies halfway through, winding up somewhere in blissful trance territory. I’m eager to hear more from him.


And that brings us to the end of this week’s newsletter. As always, thank you so much for reading and, of course, I hope you enjoyed the tunes. (Don’t forget, you can find them all on this handy Buy Music Club list.)

See you next week,

Shawn


Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance writer, editor, presenter and project manager. Find him on LinkedIn or drop him an email to get in touch about projects, collaborations or potential work opportunities.