The Null Device
They call me Wayne Kerr, and if there's one thing I hate… it's records that are available only on LP with a download code; with no CD, and no option to buy just the download.
On one hand, this is an improvement on the previous state of affairs: records being available only on vinyl, with no downloads or digital copies whatsoever, so if you were the kind of weirdo computer-nerd to whom the words “download” and “MP3” meant something, your options would be to rig up one of those USB turntables, play your newly-bought record through them, recording to a WAV file, trim it to the separate tracks and do your best to EQ out the inherent suckiness of vinyl so you'd have something approximating what a hypothetical digital copy would sound like. Or if you don't have a USB turntable or reasonable Audacity skills, you would illegally pirate the digital copy from someone who does. At least with download codes, there is an audio file which hasn't been through the vinyl-transfer wringer. On the other hand, though, you can't have it without also accepting the slab of vinyl it comes with, because Authenticity.
The existence of the download code mockingly acknowledges the shift in ways of listening to music, the fact that not everybody owns a turntable or is willing to partake in the vinyl ceremony (taking the record gingerly out of its anti-static sleeve, placing it reverently in the middle of the vinyl shrine, sitting down cross-legged exactly between the two speakers and, for the 22 minute duration of a side, reverently contemplating the gatefold artwork with a joint in one hand, as one's forebears did in the prelapsarian Sixeventies, when love was free, weed was good and rock was the real thing), and that, with the rise of digital audio and portable sound players, the vinyl record has metamorphosed from the humble, utilitarian carrier of most convenience it was in the age of the teenager's Dansette into a fetish object; one part collectible trophy, one part quasi-religious totem of Authenticity. The denial of downloads on their own affirms the primacy of the cult of vinyl: you will take the vinyl record, it dictates, and you will regard it with quasi-religious reverence, as it is a sacred relic, a splinter of the True Cross, in which is embodied Authenticity.
The cult of vinyl-as-ark-of-Authenticity is a sort of conservative (with a small 'c') reaction to, and attempted brake on, the hurtling pace of technological and social change, which, in less than a lifetime, has rendered ways of engaging with music obsolete. The way people consume music has changed as the amount of music has increased and the price has plummeted; consequently, one has considerably more music at one's disposal than one's parents (or even one's younger self) would have, saving up for a few months to get the new LP by their favourite band and then listening the hell out of it. (A few years ago, Jarvis Cocker said that music has become something like a scented candle; something consumed casually in the background, without one's full rapt attention. Of course, Cocker's reaction to this phenomenon is coloured by the contrast with his own formative experiences in the early 1980s, which in terms of the culture of music consumption, were an extension of the Sixeventies.) Meanwhile, with the world's rising population (there are roughly twice as many people alive today as in 1970) and urban gentrification, the size of the typical residence (i.e., one affordable to one of ordinary means) has shrunk; as such, a nontrivial collection of music in physical format is increasingly becoming a luxury only wealthy eccentrics and rural hermits can afford; and this goes doubly so for space-inefficient formats such as vinyl records. The upshot is that each piece of recorded music in one's collection can expect both less attention and less physical space than might have once been the case. Which is why digital files come in handy. But, of course, that wouldn't be Authentic; when you listen to an MP3, you're not really listening to the recording and having the authentic experience of the music; you're a ghost, alienated from your own music-listening life, listening to a ghost of the music, having a ghost experience that doesn't really exist, not in the way that your dad's experience of the Stone Roses did. Or so the narrative of the vinyl mandate goes. Which is why we are stuck buying a slab of vinyl, opening the package, pulling out the card with the download code, and then putting the actual slab of vinyl in the gap behind the IKEA BILLY bookcase with all the other votive icons of Authenticity, its grooves doomed to never be touched by a gramophone needle. Time goes on and the mass of reluctantly adopted household gods grows.
The vinyl mandate is the product of a Baby Boomer elite (and, to a lesser extent, the Generation X that followed it and absorbed some of its superstitions and prejudices), having aged into seniority and cultural power, staring into the abyss of its own mortality, feeling the chill of rapid change having made its own formative experiences obsolete, recoiling before the sublime terror of one's insignificance in the face of the march of time and desperately clutching for the conditions of its own long-gone youth and virility; since these involved listening to rock'n'roll from vinyl records, it is decreed that the way that they consumed music (record player, reverent contemplation, possible recreational substance use; definitely not with a pair of white earbuds at one's desk or in the gym, and absolutely not sacrilegiously shuffled with the rest of one's collection of music) is the one true, Authentic way of truly connecting and engaging with the music. Granted, many of the artists and label owners who enforce this mandate are too young to have invested in this myth first-hand; perhaps they are motivated by a Couplandian displaced nostalgia for the golden age of authenticity they weren't born in, or perhaps such is the power of cultural transmission that values get propagated beyond the rationale from which they sprang. In any case, the myth persists for now, and we're stuck with piles of vinyl records which will never be played, all for want of a download code.
As for physical artefacts: could they not be something more practical? Personally, if I'm at a merch stand, I'd rather buy a band T-shirt or button badge with a download code affixed to it than a vinyl record with one.