This past November, Father John Misty performed with a laugh track on Late Show with David Letterman. The next morning, the sardonic folk-rock guru sent out an email detailing his new album, which would include a deluxe edition with tri-colored vinyl and a jacket that’s “a patent of my own design, registered as Dioramic Meta-Musical Funtime™ Gatefold, and you’ll just have to wait and see what that means.” This week, some who pre-ordered I Love You, Honeybear learned it meant lavish packaging that warped the actual records, and indie-label stalwart Sub Pop has already apologized in its inimitable way.
Though Honeybear‘s problems may be unique — “the extra, bulging thickness of the pop-up art,” Sub Pop wrote, turned the costly jacket into “elaborate record-destroying device” — they reflect a broader pattern that may be familiar to vinyl purchasers. As artists and labels try to compete with digital options and create vinyl editions that are worth owning for more than the music they contain, a small-scale arms race has been underway. The Honeybear defect brings the downside of that arms race out into the open, revealing a tension between the idea of a vinyl release as a precious object and a reality that can sometimes be user-unfriendly.
Given the crowded marketplace of free and nearly free music online, it’s only logical that physical editions would become increasingly elaborate. The biggest-selling vinyl release of 2014, which was itself the biggest sales year for new vinyl albums since many people actually bought vinyl albums, was Jack White‘s Lazaretto. The LP’s “Ultra” edition included so many unorthodox bells and whistles that White sat down with Jimmy Fallon to explain them all.
White has no peer when it comes to wacky vinyl strategies, but he’s hardly the only artist with lofty goals for presenting physical albums. As a result, vinyl buyers now find themselves having to open — and then reassemble — multiple layers of packaging just to listen to some records, all without damaging their fragile (and not inexpensive) new purchases. Without naming any names, I can instantly think of at least a couple of deservedly acclaimed recent albums that I play less often than I’d like to because they’re so cumbersome. Functionality has aesthetic value, too.
The conflict between the need for vinyl to be special and its underlying purpose — as a way of listening to music — isn’t present only in custom PVC outer envelopes, clunky gatefolds and glossy inner sleeves. For reasons of sound quality, more and more albums that are single LPs in length are winding up on two LPs, so you have to flip them twice as often as the older records on your shelf. Sometimes, for even better sound quality, albums that could be 33RPM are pressed at 45RPM, which forces them onto two records. Sub Pop addressed this balance in its Father John Misty vinyl apology, too, calling the decision “admittedly very subjective.”
Vinyl has already overcome some obstacles during its modest resurgence in recent years, such as Amazon changing how it preps records for shipment to address complaints of warping. And I’m overlooking the very likely possibility that many people who buy vinyl do so for the object itself and listen to the music through the now-standard digital downloads or other means. Plus, at least for me, it’s fun to see what extravagant ideas vinyl makers continue to dream up — CDs that also work on turntables; records that can be used as 3D glasses.
All that said, it’s hard for me not to wish sometimes that a new record could be as hassle-free as that old copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours — five or six great songs before you have to flip it over, and I can even get it back into the packaging without messing it up, too. I almost wrote “without making it worthless” there, which reminds me of collecting baseball cards — as with my Upper Deck complete sets, questions of value are purely theoretical, because I’m hoarding them rather than selling them. Respected reissue label Numero Group, writing in The Wire a couple of years ago, recalled that the rise of fancy-schmancy “premium” sports cards was ultimately their undoing, and warned that the same could happen with vinyl.
Do kids and adults just buying their first cheap turntable really want pricey vinyl to scratch up with their starter equipment? Or would vinyl be more sustainable if records were less expensive and more convenient? “Creating a sustainable vinyl marketplace is going to require more than picture discs, record store days, speculators and coffee-table LPs,” Numero Group’s Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley warned. “Labels and artists should be making viable, well crafted and thoughtfully packaged releases that earn their bin longevity, are by no means limited, and don’t cost arms, legs or bodily fluids.” That’s to say nothing of the well-documented issues with vinyl manufacturing capacity, but that’s another subject.
Sub Pop, in its note on the Father John Misty defect, wrote, “We promise to be less ambitious in the future.” It might be the type of 21st-century problem that would prompt existential guffaws on an I Love You, Honeybear song, but it’s a potentially important step for labels that release vinyl and the listeners who buy them. New goal: lower goals.