More Audio, Less 'Phile'

The Ramones made their infamous debut record in just one week. Legend has it that it cost around $6,000 to produce the entire album. The band’s ethos was built around songs containing no more than three chords that were churned out with power and speed. In short, this was not a Pink Floyd record where sounds were laboured over, nor was it a situation where constant retakes and edits were rampant to obtain a perfect sounding record. It was a bash and burn exercise far more concerned with energy than sonic purity. So, why is it that we need a 180 gram, audiophile reissue of this famous record?

Vinyl is akin to a luxury item in the music industry and therefore, the goal is to provide a level of detail and refinement to any product pressed on to wax - even if it is antithetical to the recording itself.

Well, of course the short answer is, that we don’t need it. However, the boutique nature of the vinyl reissue market has seized upon the marketability of heavyweight vinyl - even when it fails to serve a true sonic purpose. Vinyl is akin to a luxury item in the music industry and therefore, the goal is to provide a level of detail and refinement to any product pressed on to wax - even if it is antithetical to the recording itself.

Rhino’s reissue from 2011 retails for about $18 USD. Comparatively speaking, that’s not a terribly overpriced record in today’s market. But let’s examine that a bit further. We’re focusing on a single disc with 14 songs on it that clock in at just 29 minutes. Again, these are 14 songs designed to be simple, bombastic and straight to the point. It’s fair to say that nuance is not the primary point of this record. Surely, a 125g or even 150g pressing of this LP would have sufficed. And even if this only brought the cost down to $13 or $14 USD, it would be a more affordable record and a pressing that still presented the original recordings with integrity and quality. You could easily make a record like this for sale for $12.99 and it would be profitable and accessible. And, more young people - even those strapped for cash - buying vinyl is what the vinyl industry wants right?

This is a rather striking example, but loads of releases are coming out on heavyweight vinyl, not because the quality is demanded, but because these sorts of pressings are easier to sell at higher prices. At this moment, vinyl is on a much ballyhooed upswing. Sales have jumped every year for the last decade and even a casual observer in your life might note that vinyl is once again en vogue. In the grand scheme of things though, it’s still a minor part of the way people ingest music. And the folks plunking down $20 for a reissue are the exception, not the rule.

The mainstream resurgence of vinyl may not be the goal, but making worthwhile records available to a wider audience ought to be. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on audiophile pressings and expanded editions, let’s get back to paying attention to what’s been pressed, not how. A standard LP pressing on a quality stereo is going to sound light years better than nearly any digital file. It will sound at least as good as a compact disc and provide more warmth and tone than any other format. The reissue craze has created an environment where an overpriced reissue with a quasi-deluxe pressing seems a better deal than on OG pressing that might be two or three times as expensive. But, how many potential customers are being left behind because they feel vinyl is too pricey?

Let’s remember some of the conditions that gave rise to the Napster era of file-sharing and illegal downloading: Labels embraced new formats in the hopes that customers would buy duplicate copies of records they already owned. Prices of CDs climbed exponentially through the late 1990s to routinely reach into the high teens. These are just a couple of examples of the hubris and greed that helped to lead to a generation of young people to feel so abandoned by a cultural industry that they came to see it’s product as having no value at all if they could steal it for free. Now, with the return of vinyl, especially amongst the under 30 set, the industry is once again positioning itself to abandon their audience once again.

Audiophiles will always look for very high quality pressings of records they love, even records like The Ramones debut which do not in actuality, benefit from such a pressing. Those sorts of customers will always exist. They existed when vinyl was king and they existed when vinyl was an abandoned outpost on the music industry landscape. It’s perfectly reasonable to cater to that audience, but it’s fool-hearted to think that it’s the only audience worth paying attention to.