Movie: Vinyl Nation (2020)

The documentary Vinyl Nation opens at Mills Record Company of Kansas City, before the doors open for another year’s observance of Record Store Day.  As a vinyl enthusiast myself, I have celebrated this, the highest of the High Vinyl Holy Days, most years.  I even camped out for 24 hours a couple of times, to ensure I could get everything I wanted.

Thinking this film would focus almost exclusively on the world of collectors, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it covers a very broad spectrum of topics.  It does so very concisely, without ever feeling rushed.  In the end, I felt the movie was the exact length it should be, and perfectly paced.

Of course, there are many collectors among the interviewees.  But there’s also the owners of the record stores.  And there’s the people who produce, engineer and master recordings.  Then there’s the people who press the discs.  And let’s not forget the plants where the artwork is printed and the discs are sleeved.

There is quite a bit of overlap between the interview subjects, regardless of their background.  Many attribute something magical to the experience of listening to records.  There is a definitely a ritual to playing vinyl and each person has their own process.  It seems few deviate from the routine they have established.

I know I fell in love with those large plastic discs from a very early age.  I can remember trying to “play” records on the floor, using Tinkertoys to simulate the spindle and tone arm.  As I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet, I suppose I shouldn’t be embarrassed by this, but I still think I was one deeply stupid kid.  At least my current method of cueing up a record on the turntable no longer involves Tinkertoys. At least, as far as you know.

Some people in the film have obsessed over vinyl even more than I have.  I have always acknowledged there is a fetishistic element to possessing these physical objects; however, I had not given much thought to how there is some weird numerology to records, such as the 12” x 12” sleeve and a disc that plays at 33 rpm.

One memorable description here of playing vinyl compares it to “a ride on a diamond tip through a canyon of sound”.  That brought to mind one of my most favorite lyrics of all time, when The Move describe the effect of music on them in “I Can Hear The Grass Grow”: “My mind’s attracted to a magnetic wave of sound.”

This film is loosely structured, but the most linear portions of it concern the two times the format faced extinction in recent decades.  The owner of Amoeba records talks about people dumping their collections and turntables in the early 1990’s.  I can attest to the great quantities of records dumped into second-hand stores at that time.  Being able to snatch up so many classic records for so little money was the foundation for my collection today.  I can also attest that, as it started to become so difficult to find new titles at that time, I am still awe-struck at the overwhelming resurgence the format is riding to this day.

Later threats arrived in the form of the iPod and streaming.  I find it weird how people, especially the latest generation of record buyers, have become so attached to a physical format when the music is readily available for next to nothing courtesy of streaming services. Whatever their reasons, God bless ‘em for keeping the faith. 

Also, with increasing focus on environmental concerns among all age groups, there is a cognitive dissonance for many when buying a large plastic disc.  One interviewee here addresses the contradiction straight-on: “Here’s a wall of stuff that will take 40,000 years to degrade.”  There is some discussion here about the recyclability of PVC; however, that seems to concern largely what is done with scrap during the manufacturing process.  But you know the vast majority of the millions and millions of existing discs out there are going to ride out the full process of natural decay that will take tens of thousands of years.

I assume the youngest buyers would have the most concerns about the environment.  What I find awesome about that latest generation is how they are diversifying the customer base.  This documentary interviews many women and people of color, and it is great to see most stores moving away from it being a boys’ club, and a white boys’s club at that. 

There is some discussion here about how judgey some store employees can be.  I’m just glad that behavior is now the exception to the rule.  It now seems so bizarre to me how rude those behind the counter used to be at most record shops, since that would seem to deter people from giving them money.  One example I have is when I tried to buy Nirvana’s Nevermind at a store before the band broke big.  The owner actually yelled at me, “WE DON’T SELL THAT FAGGOT SHIT.”  Wonder how an exclamation like that would go down nowadays? Also, his store stocked all things Nirvana once they became popular, including somehow getting in a decent quantity of the Japanese import Hormoaning CD EP.

And some of the many other difficulties of manufacturing, buying and maintaining records are addressed.  I learned how difficult is to center a record when mastering.  As somebody who has bought their fair share of off-centered records, I can attest to how important that is.  For collectors, there is the difficulty of storing and organizing a collection of any significant size.  As for myself, my collection is partly why I have a storage unit.  Speaking of storage units, even crate digging can be hazardous, or at least dirty.  According to one guy here: “Unfortunately, I always wear a really nice shirt when I should be wearing a grungy shirt.”

There’s also the inevitable mishaps that happen where a disc gets damaged.  That will happen to anybody sooner or later, and you always hope it won’t be one of your most prized titles that meets this fate.  The personal experience that immediately came to mind was the first time I decided to play an original UK pressing of George Harrison’s Wonderwall soundtrack LP, and the pristine disc slid right through a break in the inner sleeve, right off my hand and scraped against a corner of a square subwoofer.  I didn’t even attempt to play the record, which had a deep and wide canyon carved into one side, from one edge to the other.

The documentary seems to hypothesize the format’s survival and continued surge in interest is largely attributable to Record Store Day and the amazing gimmicks that can be done with discs nowadays.  There has always been colored vinyl, and previous decades had seen picture discs (sometimes cut into goofy shapes), concentric grooves, lock grooves, scented discs and banding that goes from the center label outward to the edge.  In the past couple of decades, there have been many innovations in records filled with materials or liquids.  My brother-in-law has an extensive collection of filled discs, including one that is filled with gunpowder and razor blades, for whatever reason. I also think the recent developments in holograms and zoetrope discs are neat, though I wouldn’t buy a title exclusively for such gimmicks.

Additional interviews play alongside the credits at the end of Vinyl Nation.  The same people interviewed earlier relate what they hope will happen to their collection when they die.  At least one tears up in fear their collection will be broken up.  “I have so much personal history tied up in every single record.”  Myself, I’m starting to think more like one guy here who wants his collection to end up in disparate libraries, because that’s how his own collection began. 

Indeed, just like the titles I was snatching up at breakneck speed in the 90’s, these discs were once loved by different people and now they are loved by me.  They seem to come alive when I play them, as if they are fulfilling their purpose.  And, just like the many of the interviewees here, there are never enough records.  And today is another Record Store Day where I will be adding even more of them to my collection.

Dir: Christopher Boone and Kevin Smokler


Watched on blu-ray, and I find it pretty funny most people who watch this film about a physical media format will probably watch it on a streaming service