Thursday, October 9, 2008

Analog Addiction

In Austin, the scene has become commonplace: Twice a year, vinyl junkies from the world over congregate in the Crockett Events Center, adorn collapsible tables with boxes full of records and begin a three-day binge of haggling, small talk and selling.

Locals and foreigners, from Austin’s Breakaway to Tokyo’s Risei Records, relish this opportunity to see the convention’s familiar faces, but these gatherings house just as many individuals immersed in their own private music worlds. As I weaved through the rows of tables, I found — interspersed among the conversations about specific pressings and declarations of love for Led Zeppelin — isolated people staring over portable turntables. To them, the scattershot dialogues and random movements of the crowd had none of the appeal of the steady revolution of a record, where everything can be reduced to 33 1/3, 45 or 78.

“The mechanical aspect is fascinating,” Chuck Roast, owner of Houston’s Vinal Edge records, said, explaining the hypnotic effect of vinyl and contrasting the appeal of the visible motion of a record with the sterility of modern technology.

This lack of a connection in modern music is, in Roast’s estimation, what has sent young people back to vinyl. According to Bob Miley, another dealer at the show, there has been a “marked increase in young people at record conventions — this one especially.”

Major media outlets generally limit their coverage of record culture to scattershot articles heralding the return of the format, citing falling CD sales numbers against quaint indie success stories. For the initiated, however, the format never really left; “We’ve always stocked records in our store,” Roast said.

Like many attendees, Roast has come to the convention to buy and sell for many years. He has been a figure at the gathering since the first one in 1981 at the VFW Hall in Zilker Park. His ability to rattle off facts — names, dates, locations — is peculiar to this brand of people who obtain their livelihood from collecting and bartering, and it works its way into his everyday conversation.

Even if some vinyl fanatics prefer submerging their heads in between a pair of studio headphones to personal interaction, the people who populate this convention are far from socially inept; rather, the people I talked to were garrulous and endlessly discursive.

Keith Glass, formerly of Melbourne, Australia and now stationed in Mobile, Alabama, regaled me with the history of his involvement in the music business — from playing in R&B and soul cover bands in the late 1960s to owning his own label and releasing early punk records in the 1970s and 1980s, and his current jobs writing about music and selling records. He took personal pride in telling me about narrowly avoiding being punched by the singer of Australian punk legends Radio Birdman.

Miley, a retired emergency mental health technician, was more soft-spoken but insisted on listing the names of dozens of conventions he attends, from Albuquerque to Milwaukee, even returning to the subject and continuing to name cities after answering my other questions. The woman he was with introduced herself to me as his wife Julie, and told me that she met Bob at this same convention 15 years ago.

Though there exists some divide between the older, seasoned collectors who have been at this game for half a century and the college-age students enamored with the retro feel and giant album art vinyl records offer, the root of the obsession is clear for all of them: a sense of heritage.

The love of vinyl and music itself often stems from family relationships. For Roast, his early immersion in the format came from his dad’s influence.

“He made sure everyone in the family had a suitcase turntable,” Roast said. “So I got the bug from him.”

Glass, on the other hand, has a local DJ who hated rock music — and the white label copy of Elvis’s “Mystery Train” that the DJ gave to him — to thank for his early obsession.

Younger collectors possess the same reverence for family and history: UT student, music blogger and former KVRX DJ Anne Dunckel was fascinated by records from childhood. “I thought it was so cool that my parents let me use the record player when I was only 7 years old,” she said.

With every advancement of technology there emerges a new crop of commentators lamenting the growing disconnect in our exponentially accelerating society. Years ago, it was television isolating us from the natural world; this week, it may be Facebook messages replacing real conversation. Some people, however, remained determined to maintain physical connection in an increasingly anonymous world. I happened to have found a group of people who seek that connection in the contact between a needle and a groove.

[Daily Texan]

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