Note: The title of this post sounds dangerously like that of an academic paper. However, it is far from it. I have not researched the literature on this topic and am only using anecdotal evidence based on my own observations. The night after I wrote it, I learned about the book “Vinyl Age” by Max Brzenzinski (2020), in which he apparently talks about issues of prestige and conspicuous consumption in vinyl-related accounts on social media. I am anxious to read his book but have not done so at this time.
I remember when the “It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle” meme circulated a few years back. The surface implication in the difference between the two is that a hobby is something that you do in your spare time, whereas a lifestyle is something much more serious – it motivates you and is present in the various arenas of your life. What is not evident in the meme is the fact that “lifestyle” is a valid social and psychological phenomenon that carries some poignant implications about how we shape our identities in consumer-driven societies.
Record Collecting and Social Status
There have been record collectors nearly as long as there have been records. They existed in the era of the 78-rpm record and have continued ever since. What has changed a great deal over the last fifteen years or so is the stereotype of a record collector. In his 2000 documentary, “Vinyl,” Alan Zweig interviewed people who fit the older stereotype of socially dysfunctional introverts. Most of them appeared to have some level of obsessive-compulsive disorder. One of the most memorable interviews was with a man whose house looked like that of a hoarder, with records in every available space – including the floor. These folks were aware that society perceived them as social misfits, and many of them thought that they had a “problem.” But shortly after Zweig released his documentary, things began to change. Vinyl records became increasingly fetishized – they took on meaning above and beyond their physical properties. No longer “just” a means of listening to music, records became prestige items used to advance status in acts of both conspicuous consumption and status emulation. This is when, aided by social media, record collecting began to lose the stigma of nerdiness and was transformed into a socially-acceptable and even desirable “lifestyle.”
The first question is how this transformation took place, and I think it had a lot to do with social media. It’s no coincidence that the vinyl revival coincided with the rise of social media’s popularity. First let’s examine the point that, for those who used social media and subscribed to vinyl or music-related feeds or groups, record collecting became a social activity. This was a massive transformation when you think about it. The older stereotype of record collectors being somewhat asocial was not without some truth, in my opinion. If you’re going to listen to music intently, on records that you play in your home, you’re not going to talk over it. I do remember the days when friends would visit each other’s houses and listen to records, but most deep music listening at home was, even then, a solitary activity by default. Now bring social media into the picture, and music fans have the opportunity to communicate with each other any time of the day or night. There’s a real social camaraderie that develops in these forums, as any study of online communities can tell you. So, in essence, social media provided the best of both worlds for serious record collectors. They could listen to music at home and drop in on social media at any time to discuss it. Moreover, they could discuss the activity of record collecting and all its facets and, in the process of learning that there were others like them, overcome the idea that they were social misfits.
Another way that social media changed record collecting is that it brought collectors prestige. In the social sciences, prestige – social renown or admiration – is one of the components of social status, together with wealth and power. In a large, consumer-oriented society like the United States and many other capitalist, industrialized countries, one’s social status largely depends on wealth because it can buy prestige and power, but the reverse isn’t always the case – one cannot always use their prestige to gain wealth and power, and one cannot always use their power to gain wealth and prestige. Therefore, when we present ourselves to society we tend to reveal only the aspects that bring us status, and that is very often wealth – whether feigned or real. In other words, we show off the nice car rather than the crummy apartment because the nice car implies wealth and that brings prestige. This process is called “conspicuous consumption” – the use of consumer goods to reveal one’s social status. But what if you do not have wealth but you still want to gain social status? You can focus on prestige and/or power, but you might also engage in what social scientists call “status emulation.” One method is to use credit to buy items that boost your prestige, even though you must go into debt to do so and the identity that is communicated to the outside world is at least partly a fabrication.
Why do records bring prestige? The above cartoon by Alex Gregory explains it. Records are expensive compared to streaming and even, nowadays, to CDs. Not only must one pay for the record, but playback equipment is also required. Therefore, records communicate wealth – especially if they’re rare. Furthermore, some discernment is required and the requisite knowledge about music, various pressings, and equipment brings prestige. I cannot exclude the role of DJs and hip hop culture as well, since this brought records back into the limelight and salvaged them from being regarded as antiquated forms of music playback.
Records Collecting as a Lifestyle
In the social sciences, the concept of “lifestyle” is much the same as it is in popular discourse. The difference is that its implications and understandings are more overtly tied to the formation of personal identity in modern consumer-oriented societies. For better or worse, we are consumers. Very few of us grow our own food; we buy it. If we are fortunate we rent or buy a place to live rather than making one with our bare hands. We buy electricity and water, and we buy the means to dispose of our waste. The only basic necessity that we don’t yet purchase is air. So, consumerism is part of the mindset of a vast majority of people living in industrialized countries. Furthermore, we have an array of consumer goods available to us and they play critical roles in both personal (and group) identity formation and display.
This is where lifestyle comes in. When you have a lifestyle, you pick and choose certain elements from a variety of options, and those elements contribute to the public display of your identity and to your self-identification. We tend to identify by the things that we like amongst the wide range of consumer options available to us – we like certain types of food, certain types of music, movies, clothes, sports, and cars. Thus, for most of us, lifestyle depends on consumerism – but it is also entwined with social status. If you identify as a wine connoisseur, your consumption of boxed wine will not earn you any status points in your social circle and neither will it jibe with your sense of social identity. While quality of an item is the main focus for many, I think it would be disingenuous to argue that, for example, the sole perk of owning a Porsche is its functionality.
Bringing this back to vinyl records, it most certainly is a lifestyle for serious collectors. In addition to being a great pleasure, it’s a significant investment of time, money, energy, and space, and when you have so much invested in something, it becomes part of your identity; or perhaps the opposite is more true – that we invest time, money, energy, and space into something because it is part of our identity. And now that social media and the internet allow us to share this lifestyle with other like-minded folks, social status is likely more of a factor than it was prior to the widespread use of those things. It’s no wonder why the vinyl resurgence occurred alongside the ubiquity of social media, as it’s the perfect platform for conspicuous consumption. Posting a picture of a record communicates something about your identity and lifestyle to the outside world. Posting a picture of a sought-after record brings prestige. I’ve often wondered why labels don’t press more copies of records so that they can make the money from them that ends up being made by flippers. I still wonder about this but one thing is certain – whether purposefully or not, by making limited-editions of vinyl records they are maintaining the prestige value of those records.
The modern prestige value of vinyl records explains at least a couple of seemingly perplexing phenomena, one being why some people buy records but don’t play them (aside from people who are buying them only as monetary investments or collector’s items). Another is why one can search the hashtag “vinyl” in social media and find numerous posts that have little, if anything, to do with music and records (posts about vinyl clothing and the like notwithstanding). Records are now leveraged by many in social and other forms of media (commercials and advertisements, for example) for prestige.
I’m not writing all this to criticize it, necessarily. These are simply facts as I see them as both a record collector and an anthropologist. They do give me pause, but I would be lying if I claimed not to participate in some elements of what I’ve discussed herein. Furthermore, I’m well aware that vinyl-based social media accounts are not all about status. It’s a way to connect with other music lovers and learn about music and records. A real sense of community develops, complete with the camaraderie and contention that develops in all communities. Lastly, there are plenty of exceptions to these general trends. Nonetheless, I think that some insight into the vinyl revival can be gained by taking the factors of social status, lifestyle, and social media into account.