September 11, 2013
Vinyl records are back and popping up in adverts all over the shop. We ask why and what it could possibly all mean.
If there’s one thing to be learned from the news that selected Whole Foods stores will now be stocking a selection of hand-picked vinyl records it’s that music itself has less to do with the resurgence of vinyl in the mainstream media as we would like to think. What Whole Foods see in the sale of vinyl records is a statement not about musical choice, but about aesthetic choice – what vinyl stands for rather than what it is. In the broadest sense, vinyl records satisfy and reflect certain elements of the Whole Foods brand; substance, craft and sustainability. Vinyl may be on the way back, but it’s bringing a whole load of retro-cultural baggage with it.
Although more marketing strategy than ad campaign, Whole Foods is a good example of the startling way in which vinyl – what it stands for, rather than what it is – has infiltrated other aspects of commercial life. In short, it is now being used to sell things that are not obviously related to music, by virtue of its larger cultural significance. Increasingly present in television advertising, vinyl has become a by-word for “real” experience and the idealization of the pre-digital world.
Earlier this year, Beck’s revealed the “Edison Bottle”, a throw-back to a time before vinyl, in which creative technologist Mathew Tizard and New Zealand’s Shine agency set about inscribing the grooves of a song into the surface of the bottle in an attempt to mimick Edison’s phonograph cylinder. Sure, it was a gimmick, but it signalled something more to Tizard about the visual and emotive power vinyl has over people. “I’m of a generation that grew up with cassettes and vinyl and lived through the transition (of everything) to digital, and I think we have strong awareness of what we’ve lost as well as what we’ve gained during that shift.”
That’s all well and good, but the cynic’s (or perhaps the realist’s) view is that the soft-spot in our hearts for tangible, analogue media is, in this case as in the other examples in this article, being prodded and manipulated to sell us things.
It bears mentioning at this point that we’re not talking about the tried and tested relationship between vinyl in DJ culture and the sale of alcohol, which has its own colourful history, from Heineken’s fantastic “birth of scratching” spot in 2002, to Smirnoff’s deeply misunderstood “Nightlife Experience” poster – a mangled image so brazenly complacent it’s hard to take it at face value at all.
What has changed is that for the first time, record collecting is beginning to catch up too. Records, with all that they represent, are suddenly able to advertise the domestic lifestyle choices that influence your purchase of cars, shelving units and current accounts. From the act of buying records to the necessity of storing them (not to mention the actual act of playing them), collecting is shedding its fusty image for one that is rapidly becoming the elusive signifier of all things “authentic” and “alternative”.
For an internet-based bank like First Direct, it serves just that purpose, as their baffling platypus campaign suggests. Barry, our patronising protagonist begins his jaunt across East London in Essex Road’s Haggle Vinyl (aptly renamed Madder Records), before quipping “I like things a bit off-beat”, in a pretty depressing attempt to engage to the financially apathetic 30-something single male who spends his days waddling between the record shop and the pub; Barry, a self-professed eccentric is, after all, just a “half mammal, half-bird, with flippers and claws who collects second hand vinyl”.
Where First Direct employ record collecting to set them apart from the crowd, the use of vinyl in MINI’s Paceman series from earlier this year is all about fitting in. Set between Brooklyn’s Earwax Records and an analogue-heavy warehouse apartment across town, a young creative (note the beard) steals a record (well, he certainly doesn’t pay for it) and zips home just in time to keep the record on his turntable spinning. The message is equally depressing; vinyl, like the car it’s selling, is a status symbol and an imperative part of any self-respecting hipster’s paint-by-numbers lifestyle.
On the one hand MINI have, perhaps inexcusably, commodified the record as a prop in a larger commercial agenda – apart from anything else, there’s nothing authentic about the experience of that record store – but on the other, it is a good example of what Mathew Tizard sees as the “un-mediated” nature of the material – “the object is the music, and the music is the object, whereas digital information is more abstract and ephemeral.” There’s something comforting and tactile in the knowledge that nudging the needle will still make the record skip.
A more successful example of this is on Durex’s Performax Intense ad spot, which has already notched close to three million views on Youtube [that copy of the video has since been removed] and manages to capture the connection between the content of the music and its manifestation in a physical object. The concept is simple and by-and-large pretty self-explanatory.
Then there’s the happy coincidence that Ikea’s EXPEDIT shelving unit happens to fit like a glove around a 12” record. Not so much an insider secret as a received fact, IKEA finally cottoned on when they presented their very own hybrid Changing Rooms style ad-doc in which they bring order to UK hip hop producer and obsessive collector Harry Love’s feral collection.
Here for once is a DJ featured not on an air-brushed stage but in a domestic environment. It may not be awfully relevant to anyone who hasn’t experienced the chaos of organising and reorganising stacks of records around the house, but does represent Ikea’s attempt to corner a portion of the market that they really had no right to.
Even more gratuitously, Burton’s “Great British Style” ad attempts to cash in on the new-found (or recently regained) cultural capital of the independent record shop, dropping everyone’s favourite Grange Hill graduate Reggie Yates in Dalston’s Kristina Records to try and capture the diversity of the label’s range through some oblique reference to Britain’s patchwork musical history. In this case, the agenda seems to be more along the lines of what Tizard recognises as the “coolness of vinyl” that is “very much in the air now, culturally speaking” – i.e. a cheap shot and little more than a prop in a fashion shoot that is by its nature synthetic.
In ads like this, you can’t help but get the sense that with every further example (no doubt, we’ll see more) the very thing that agencies exploit vinyl for is in danger of being eroded. Speaking from within the industry, Tizard is not worried. “I think vinyl is a lot bigger than advertising, and certainly a lot better-loved. It’s not under threat from ads.” For the rest of us, it’s probably just worth remembering why it is we buy records at all. Or condoms for that matter.