Believe The Hype

In August of the year gone by, I spent an evening at Indie Music, a popular record store in Beijing’s Gulou district talking shop with their one staffer about the many cassette labels in China putting out experimental music. Among them are the famous ones you may have heard of – Sub Jam who are notoriously well known for their avant-gardeism plus their excellent packaging. And SVBKVLT – started by Gareth Williams of the recently-shuttered and immensely iconic underground club The Shelter. Another proponent of the culture is Nasty Wizard Recordings, currently all the hype in Gulou and beyond. Then there’s 87fei87 who do limited cassette runs of their output and sell them at gigs. And of course, the rising hip-hop stardom of Groove Bunny Records who’ve been distributing on tape for a number of years.

From what I could gather, China’s made great use of what’s probably a surplus of TDK D90s and it’s all very very hip (for now). On the other hand, cassettes at a shop like Indie Music usually cost as much or more than their CD counterparts, and CDs are just a shade cheaper than buying vinyl (except for imports; imports are ridiculously priced). But here’s the zinger – vinyl is kinda hard to come by in all of China, at least in the variety and the quantities a collector or a DJ might want.

I sometimes question this fascination around the cassette format. How come it’s so hyped up these days that cassettes have landed up as “ironic” gifts at Urban Outfitters outposts in Munich and beyond?

Your guess is as good as mine but I think part of this has to do with retrofetishizing a lost-to-time format mixed in with the need for many to own music they can see, feel and touch. Personal example – I have a lot of cassettes. Do I prefer to play them over the music on my computer? Fuck no. That said, I’m more enamoured with vinyl and much prefer flipping from side A to B on an LP than hitting eject button on a tape deck and flipping the cassette front to back and rewinding or forwarding to the song I like. Audio cassette is a pain-in-the-ass format that most people in their right mind are glad to be done with forever. On the other hand, I am absolutely, one-hundred-percent ON BOARD what Brian Shimkovitz has been doing with Awesomes Tapes From Africa. Here’s a guy traveling around the continent re-discovering lost tapes and reissuing them to legions of new fans. Sometimes, he’ll strike gold and find a living legend. I find that commendable from a collector’s or a music lover’s point of view because Shimkovitz’s approach really is an ethnomusicologist’s dream. Just listen to and watch the re-emergence of Ata Kak at a festival in fucking Helsinki, and tell me this rendition of ‘Obaa Sima’ doesn’t move you. 

Onto the next most hyped format – you guessed it – wax. Now while the mainstream record industry is quick to celebrate its spikes in vinyl sales in a mostly-digital streaming age, these are but tiny victories for the dying format of vinyl. That’s because a lot of vinyl labels (take Submerge in Detroit for example) who’ve been in business forever or labels that are just about starting up, are being made to wait in line for months because of the record pressing industry’s rush to service the needs of hipsters who would “literally give an arm and a leg” to own the latest Radiohead album on coloured, limited edition vinyl. Hipsters like old shit that’s threatening to go out of fashion, whodathunkit? Did you also know you can buy a freshly-pressed-to-wax 1989 by Taylor Swift out on Universal Music Group for the petty sum of rupees TWO THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED right here in Bombay? And that’s precisely what happens when a format is “hyped” with little knowledge of who it actually serves. In my opinion, the few proponents of vinyl in India have got it ass-backwards. Anyone who really wanted the format to live on would buy and support labels that need that money to stay afloat rather than distribute platinum-selling, Grammy-winning hair metal and faux-country. And rest assured friends, dropping five thousand pounds on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is not going to make Freddie Mercury pop out the speakers to do those tempo changes in the flesh.

Now the fact that many producers are creating music entirely in-the-box and then releasing (among other formats) to vinyl in order to appease a growing market of DJs who’ve chosen to adopt a somewhat herd-like mentality of format-before-music says a lot. Or at least says that in some cases, the source of the music i.e. some of the artists/labels involved could care little about how his/her/their music is eventually played out; it’s a numbers game after all. That said, an LP sale does net them more profit than a digital download, especially when that digital download is being sold through one of the bigger online retailers *cough cough con-artists* like Beatport.

Here’s one to chew on. That the most inventive musicians of our time are patching their music together with solutions like Max/MSP and subsequently releasing in 24bit/96khz WAV for public consumption has to count for something right? Could all of this supposedly futuristic music sound somehow “better” on a 180 gram record running through a Technics 1210 on even the best club system on earth? Like most things to do with how we perceive sound and therefore, music, is completely subjective and therefore, debatable.

But who is to say “hi-resolution” 24bit/96khz music isn’t all hype and clever marketing either? To most ears the differences between 16bit and 24bit WAVs are indecipherable. To the seasoned clubbing crowd whose ears have been fucked four ways till Sunday, this isn’t even worth wasting time thinking about. But take the case of Autechre, who are known to concern themselves with “unusual” or “subsonic” frequencies. 2016’s elseq 1-5 in 24bit (costing $55 no less) is noticeably different from its lesser-resolution versions if you listen in a what could be termed a “deeply involved” manner. Of course for this hi-resolution music listening, you would perhaps need a pair of solid and true-if-not-completely-neutral (read: expensive) monitors, a well-treated room, possibly a D/A converter, maybe even some high-end headphones. Or you’d need to do real justice to the experience by watching them live with their engineer-of-choice manning the booth in a acoustically near-perfect environment, and as is usually custom, in almost total darkness. Can that experience then be recreated at home? To a certain extent, yes, but mostly, no.

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The bum-rush to re-press popular records on vinyl is getting, well, old. I mean, who really NEEDS more Deep Purple and Michael Jackson records on vinyl? The argument that the upcoming Nine Inch Nails vinyl reissues are gonna “sound better” or “truer” or “how it was meant to be heard” compared to their earlier, digital/CD counterparts is mostly a daft one and relies on being being dismissive and perhaps unwilling to understand how recording and mastering (and in many cases, modern-day marketing) works. But even those arguments hold little water and are usually relegated to “hot” threads on Internet forums for self-ordained audiophiles i.e. a cacophony of ego contests between people who make unsubstantiated claims to be studious professionals in the field, as if your ability to listen to music and judge just how good it sounds affords you some kind of special qualification. The casual listener simply doesn’t care, because he or she is listening to the music on computer speakers, Apple EarPods and smartphones for the most part. Though I do have a big bone of contention here. If Trent Reznor really cares about a “careful remastering” in these reissues, why didn’t he give as much of a shit for the last two decades?

On the other end of the spectrum, Floating Points will re-release a long-lost soul cut from Chicago label Stage Productions this year, more than 40 year since its first pressing. Why? Because it might actually be worth something the folks who recorded to begin with – the usual stuff i.e. well-deserved money, reach and recognition. As many are aware, Sam Shepherd is an old-school digger, collector and selector, and he’s where he’s at today because of his ability to find choice records (many of them from the dollar bins) and pull them into context, and therefore, get people interested in the kinds of songs they may have not heard if they hadn’t heard them being played out in a club or on a festival stage during a Floating Points set. That is where, I think, the better DJs come in. Research becomes the foundation, serious nitpicking/record selection comes next, and then playing out music in outstanding context serves to complete that holy trinity. And so, the people dance. 

As a long-time collector of music across formats, I never began buying records with the intention of owning single copies of rare 45s or multiple copies of banging 12″ techno records or with even the slightest intention of playing any record out till it’s deteriorated in quality. My earliest purchases were from the pound-bins at the Notting Hill Music Exchange and dusty-jacketed Cabaret Voltaire, Queen and Rolling Stones LPs donated by kind folks to the local Oxfam. Then came the hand-me-downs and such. I consider myself a hoarder-slash-collector albeit a paranoid one. For instance, I have an Track Records first pressing of Purple Haze on 45 that came my way as a present from my ex girlfriend’s mum around ten years ago, and it’s met the needle on my decks less times than I have fingers on my two hands. I’m not as afraid of wearing an immensely rare record out as I am of forgetting how it sounded when I first heard it play (on my portable deck’s built-in speaker no less). That feeling, or whatever I’m holding on to of it, is priceless.

Today, the way I go about it, at least as a DJ, is simple, nothing special, and quite possibly rather common to many of us. I own a lot of music in 320kbps MP3, an equal amount or so in .WAV and FLAC. I own a separate collection of music on vinyl that I rip to WAV or FLAC when I feel like it. I own cassettes that I don’t give a shit about other than for nostalgic reasons. And the only reason I would go out of my way to buy higher quality music that I couldn’t find on another (read: digital) format is because it would give me the freedom to transcode down, or if I wanted to specifically own physical copies of records that I really, really love, which is, admittedly, an expensive habit. And from all of my terribly expensive habits that have landed me in a fucking soup over the years, collecting records has to be the most worthless to me, and I’m just being honest here. I have immense respect for vinyl DJs, but really only the ones who are invested in a lot more than just owning music on vinyl because it’s trendy. Let’s see. Do you clean your records often? Do you make it a point to find and source music that others might not? Do you make sure your playback equipment (turntable, stylus, mixer, amplifier, speakers/sound system) are of a reasonably good quality and capable of accurately reproducing the sound you want to hear? If listening to or owning music on vinyl is about personal taste, the precursors are absolutely necessary. The physical record itself is but one element of the listening experience. 

DJ-ing, as many are aware, has turned into a a dick-measuring contest on social media. There is little room for surprises anymore and surprising people with dope shit (vinyl or otherwise) is perhaps half the fun of being a DJ. It might be useful to remember that when you step up behind the decks to take a party someplace it’s never been before, you also need to impress and challenge yourself. If you think you’ve got it all in the bag, please humble yourself and start over.

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Not being able to find some music in HQ makes me sad and it makes me even sadder knowing I can’t afford it on wax. There are plenty of classic jungle records that I would love to own that are hard to come by in WAV or FLAC or even good-quality MP3. And while I was lucky to have compilations and CDRs of the good stuff through scouring discount racks of music stores or bargain shopping at the Petticoat Lane market, a large chunk of music from the past that I personally consider superlative is simply out of my reach. Though when I find myself dwelling on that, I feel at least a little stupid. There is much hype to be into, and I don’t mean the word “hype” in the way it’s carelessly thrown around in non sequiturs on your Facebook feed. I’m talking about the legions of producers pushing the limits with nary a nod to what’s adjudged “conventional”. I’m talking about Bandcamp’s futuristic-boom-bap beat-tape mafia, the left-of-IDM kids recording straight from modular to Portastudio, the doom-metal bands in cold basements in Western Washington using just one microphone placed in the centre of the room, but my God you can almost hear the skies tear open as the eardrum-busting dissonance makes your hair stand on end. Hi-res, lo-fi, 16, 24, 48bit, DAT tape, vinyl, digital, all of that shit ceases to matter when the music is just fucking righteous. Come on. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me the dopest times you’ve had listening to music were in your car on a less-than-great stereo, and I’ll believe you. 

I mean the fact that you’re on this blog reading and you even care about what I’m saying right now means that you’ve already bought into the hype. And it really is a good hype so long as you aren’t listening to shit like Diplo.

So I guess what I’m saying, a cathartic exercise nonetheless, is this: Play music. Don’t play yourself. And that it’s perhaps okay to sip on some of that 2017-brand juice ’cause you don’t wanna be stuck in 2028 rambling on like a lunatic about how good you had it “back in the day” which, incidentally, was a pretty silly time to be worrying about musical formats especially considering the whole world was going to shit. 

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