The Null Device
The British supermarket chain Sainsbury's is doubling up on the fashion for vinyl records. For a while, they (alongside their rival Tesco) have been selling a small selection of classic albums, repressed on 180 gram luxury vinyl, to shoppers who want to own a slice of pop-cultural history in its most authentic format, and to be at one with Led Zeppelin or Amy Winehouse or whoever in a way that those listening to the iTunes download can never be. And to think: all this at your local supermarket. And now, they're launching their own brand of vinyl-only compilation albums. Named Sainsbury's Own Label, the records, overseen by pop historian and Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley, will contain classic vintage tracks, and come enclosed in retro-styled monochromatic sleeves, for that extra dose of supermarket-fresh vintage authenticity. Two albums have been announced: Coming Into Los Angeles, which features Californian rock from the sixeventies such as Fleetwood Mac and The Monkees, and Hi Fidelity, which leans slightly (but never excessively) prog, with the likes of Mike Oldfield, 10CC and Roxy Music, and sounds like just the thing for putting that expensively restored vintage hi-fi system through its paces.
Which is an interesting business decision (and it's good that Bob Stanley is getting paid for his expertise), though I'm not sure it makes that much sense. From what I understand, the fashion for vinyl is less about its function as a sound carrier than its role as an ark of Authenticity, a token of connection to a legendary album, artist or era. Surveys back this up, showing that almost half of all vinyl bought is never played, and instead purchased to have something to keep whilst listening to a streaming service. In other words, a vinyl record is primarily a 12" collectible poster, representing the body of music one enjoys listening to or the artist one admires; that it contains a legacy sound carrier adds gravitas to the mystique, but is secondary. And as a sound carrier, vinyl records leave a lot to be desired; other than the bulk and the fiddly nature of putting a record on, as compared to queueing up a track on Spotify or YouTube, the sound quality of vinyl is objectively, measurably inferior to digital sound in a number of ways. Some of those shortcomings (the surface noise, the “warm” frequency distortion) can, to those who grew up with them, induce warm feelings of nostalgia, but that does not make vinyl's fidelity superior, as some of its champions are wont to claim, except, of course, at producing a characteristically vinyl-like experience. To claim that the experience of recorded music with the surface noise, distortion and constricted dynamic range and frequency response of vinyl is “better” or more “authentic” is a claim of subjective faith. (And then, there is the fact that the PVC that vinyl records are made of is pretty toxic stuff, impossible to recycle, and slowly emitting toxic particles as they age.)
It seems that what Sainsbury's are trying to do with Own Label is effectively sell the equivalent of Spotify playlists of “Classic Tracks”, only pressed to a stylish-looking vinyl record. Fair play that they slapped some modishly retro-modernist artwork on the cover, but it really does seem like the worst of both worlds: none of the collectibility of vinyl albums (except perhaps to a handful of people who fetishise commercial ephemera, and wish to get a head start on tomorrow's) and less convenient than listening to it on a computer or phone or digital system. Good luck to them, but I suspect this might not be a runaway success story.