vinyl nation, a new documentary from directors Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone, is, as its title suggests, as much a chronicle of a growing community as it is of the recording medium. To put it bluntly, the history of vinyl pressing, from its early dominance of the market through its eventual decline due to the advent of CD to its glorious return in the last decade – almost 42 million records were sold in 2021 (more than CDs for the first since 1986!) – is treated thoroughly (at times bordering on the repetitive) by the filmmakers. However, the focus is more on the collectors.
The film opens outside the Mill’s record company in Kansas City. It is record store dayan annual celebration of independent record stores across the country, and a long line of collectors, obsessives and enthusiasts have arrived at dawn for a chance to shop freshly pressed releases from their favorite bands only for RSD. These are the members of the resurgence, the Vinyl Nation.
The portrait of the collector that the film paints is multi-layered: as suggested in its 92-minute runtime, a vinyl collector isn’t just the stereotypical overweight, lanky, honkey male. They are millennial black women; excited boys in David Bowie t-shirts rocking to music older than their parents; green-haired ladies who rumble at the thought that their collection will outlive them (not shown are friends assigned to take charge of the collection). The subjects are presented surrounded by their estimated holdings. They speak of their paraphernalia as if they might be listening. Nobody behaves like that around their DVD collection. books maybe.
You talk about the superiority of the vinyl sound. Its “warmth” – something that’s still not fully defined or, frankly, even believable (and I say that as someone who owns hundreds of records) – is something a CD could never emulate. What’s more, even the Superchunk bassist and co-founder of Merge Records admits that “…colored vinyl doesn’t sound that good”.
None of that really matters. Like religion, the beliefs expressed by the film’s cast are of the kind that have been repeated enough times by enough students to become dogma. Again, like religion, what matters is that they believe in it. Because you have to believe in something. It’s human nature and so on.
There are several trips to a platen press plant (one was probably enough) where we see how the sausages are made. What might surprise the uninitiated is that most of these factory jobs are held by women. Perhaps a holdover from WWII? Maybe a missed opportunity to meet some of these Rosie the Record Pressers? Perhaps. I would have been most interested in knowing whether the line workers are collectors themselves. Most likely so for those who work at Jack White’s Third Man Records (the post-Empire bluesman isn’t featured, but features heavily in the section filmed at his reliquary in Nashville).
What does the future of vinyl look like? Will sales continue to trend upwards? Or is a bubble about to burst? Vinyl Nation doesn’t give us any answers… because how could it? Like a fighter on the ropes, bloodied and shaky-legged but able to muster enough strength to land a decisive punch, no one saw vinyl’s comeback. Which of course is evidence for these believers; a church whose faith never faltered and was rewarded with the resurrection of a once dormant product.
Perhaps this “warmth” is the conviction of the collector who accepts communion in the form of a drop of a needle. Their belief is that nothing really ever dies (records can last for hundreds of years). Only the collector leaves this mortal shell. And her friends, of course, but not before they’ve brought a few boxes to her apartment.