The Vinyl Revival and Status in the Age of Social Media

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.

17 thoughts on “The Vinyl Revival and Status in the Age of Social Media

  1. Thank you for this Pam. I read it twice.
    At the same time that Instagram is fueling vinyl sales, and especially coloured vinyl, we are living in the ever increasing age of Minimalism. The threshold for perceived hoarding seems to lower every year. It will be interesting to see how the ‘need’ to buy 365 albums/year in order to be able to post 1 a day will play out against society’s shrinking tolerance for too much stuff.
    Another fascinating trend I’ve seen recently is the rise of the record store that caters to customers who already have sophisticated record collections. A couple years ago I wheeled off the freeway into a town of 20,000 people over an hour east of Toronto to check out the local record store. I was stunned at how good it was. There was a display rack with 16 different albums and I wanted each one, more or less as badly as the next: stuff like Woodstock #3 & 4, Mobile Fidelity mono Blonde On Blonde….
    But the Beatles & Stones selection was paltry. The owner just seemed to assume his customers already had all that stuff. And this isn’t even in a city or a particularly wealthy area. I’ve since come across other stores like this. I doubt this business model existed 15 years ago. And indeed everything in these new stores is Instagram worthy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Boutique record stores? I’ve never visited one, but it makes sense that they exist. The only one I’d previously heard of is that site that sells “hot stampers” for crazy money. As for minimalism, I wonder. I’ve read conflicting reports that a) Millennials don’t like to accumulate stuff and b) Millennials are the ones buying physical media, while my generation are the ones buying digital books and musics. 🤷🏻‍♀️

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  2. Pam,I enjoyed reading your post. What resonated most with me is the idea that the vinyl lifestyle for the most part is a solitary pursuit but with the advent of social media we can expand our world and share the music we love with short anecdotes,this is what I primarily use social media for. I have been able to reach out to people like yourself and many others and share my love of music. One other aspect you mentioned is the collector mentality. I wrestle with this sometimes as I remember the joy of buying an album and playing it so often it seemed to become a part of you. I have a somewhat modest collection of about 900 and even now at times I pick out a handful of albums and spin them more frequently to get into the essence of the album.

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  3. I collected records for 15 years. I dj’d and worked on record stores. I wasn’t the most obsessed, but it’s what I did. I loved finding new musicians I’d never heard of and falling down a rabbit hole of discovery. The thrill of flipping through a dusty box of old LPs overlooked in a Salvation Army basement! Oh joy! But the status aspect and the conspicuous consumption you talk about- I couldn’t put it into words then, but it bummed me out.
    The thing that clicked for me was reading about John Fahey and his collecting habits. He travled all through the south in his youth, buying old records. He’d buy all the most obscure country and blues 78s he could find, but realized it wasn’t about the objects so much as the music for him. He began recording them on his reel to reel and then he’d sell them to other collectors.
    I sold the majority of my collection about 5 years ago. I still flip through the rack when I’m at the thrift store, and I still get giddy at a good garage sale find (Dr. John The Night Tripper original pressing still sealed?!). But I get as much joy on you tube, getting lost in the rabbit hole. And I’ve discovered more cool music following your insta feed as i ever did digging in crates.

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  4. Some interesting views there Pam. Collecting records has changed so much. Just like the way different generation experience music. Personally I have to laugh when I read all these comments on Discogs and Instagram from youngsters or newbes who are mainly concerned about the color of the record or the packaging. When they say something about the actually sound of the record I fear they use a Crossley. This said I am not talking down to them. It’s just the way it goes. Let’s all enjoy music in every way we personally like and share it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Some interesting views there Pam. Collecting records has changed so much. Just like the way different generation experience music. Personally I have to laugh when I read all these comments on Discogs and Instagram from youngsters or newbes who are mainly concerned about the color of the record or the packaging. When they say something about the actually sound of the record I fear they use a Crossley. This said I am not talking down to them. It’s just the way it goes. Let’s all enjoy music in every way we personally like and share it.

    Like

  6. This is a very interesting read, Pam. I have been thinking lately about the meaning of collecting records. My husband and I have both been collecting vinyl since we were young, so when we met and moved in with each other, when I was barely 19 and he was 24, we each contributed several hundred records to our collection. Throughout the years we continued to collect because of our love of music. Getting together with friends to listen to music was a regular pastime, and had been since I was a teenager, or really as child- with my siblings.

    As we entered the era when records became harder to find, we did buy cassette tapes and then CDs, but while all our friends were getting rid of their vinyl, we held onto ours and continued to dig at large warehouse sales and then secondhand stores with dusty bins of vinyl alongside other “vintage” items. At that point there was no prestige associated with vinyl.

    One of the things that surprised me on Instagram was how much value is placed on different issues and how many folks collect different issues of the same record. We generally have only one copy of any record, although we might have different recordings, but not that often. We get a second copy if the first one wears out.

    I find the older I get, the more important the records are to me because they are the soundtrack to my life and, like many of my books, are old friends.

    I love your passion for music and think that you collect because you have to:)

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  7. Hi
    I have beeen collecting vinyl records for decades — and built up a wonderfiul collecction which I had to sell when my wife and I moved to a flat from a house. However, I kept a number of records — the basis of my current collection of record cover art that has been shown in numerous museums. Initially, my record collecting was a solitary hobby. Only the occasional music-interested visitor to our hous would be able to botanise and appreciate the investment in time and money that lay behind it. As you point out, the advent of the Internet has allowed me to share my interest with like-minded people and made me something of an expert on certain (very limited) areas of record collecting. And I have made a number of friends on various continents that I would otherwise never have got to know — and who have, through their own expertise, enriched my knowledge and my collections. However, my wife thinks I have a therapy-requiring obsession. She is only now beginning to realise that my collection is an investment as the value of rare records continues to soar.
    I love your blog — great thoughht-provoking stuff. Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

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