Any record lover will tell you there's just something about that sound. The needle drop, the crackle, the way you can almost hear the music starting before it's really there. Listening to records is a shared experience. And that's exactly what the Oakland Museum of California hopes to celebrate with its new exhibit.
“I think we're all tired of being alone in front of our computers,” says senior curator Rene de Guzman. “The single iTunes download is a great convenience, but we lose the social aspect of music.”
The launch of “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” is timed to coincide with Record Store Day, an annual celebration of the medium that sends avid collectors to independent sellers around the world to hunt down new releases and rare gems. The exhibit has that same participatory vibe: whole walls framed by stacks of empty black crates, giant beanbags decorated like sound waves and a bunch of working turntables.
“What I envision is a lot of people spending a lot of time talking to one another, listening to music, exchanging stories and then recommending records to play for one another,” de Guzman says.
Sharing Records, Sharing Stories
A few days before the exhibit opens, David Katznelson and Steve Stevenson meet to dig through crates of each other's favorite records. Both curated crates of records for the exhibit – there are 22 crates in all, put together by different record lovers on different themes. Katznelson is a collector and producer; his crate pays tribute to the Velvet Underground. Stevenson owns 1234Go! Records in Oakland and put together a crate of California music.
Courtesy of Raphael Villet
Artist Raphael Villet photographed and conducted interviews with record collectors and enthusiasts in their homes. On view at the Oakland Museum of California April 19–July 27, 2014.
“Of course, Buck Owens, there's a whole other part of California in this one,” Katznelson says, flipping through approvingly. “Then Agent Orange – yeah, I want to keep your crate pretty much.”
For Stevenson, records aren't just nostalgic artifacts – they're also a booming business. He says his store, which has been open since 2008, has grown by 20 percent or more every year.
“I get a lot of people who might have sold all their records and CDs in the year 2000 or whenever they got an iPod, and now after a few iPod crashes or thefts they're looking at it like I need to get my records back, this is crazy!” he says.
According to industry tracker Nielsen, vinyl sales shot up by a third this past year – from four and a half million albums to over six million. Now, that's still just a tiny fraction of the U.S. album market – around 2 percent. But Stevenson and other indie retailers say they sell more records than get officially counted, since small shops don't always use Nielsen's system. What's more, records are making it into mainstream culture. Big bands now routinely release new albums on vinyl. And you can pick up a cheap record player at Target. Which, by the way, Stevenson says is just fine.
“Art is very important, condition is very important, fidelity is very important,” he says.
“But I don't want people to forget that these are meant to be listened to.”
Life and Art
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a beautiful sculpture of a bird, crafted from wood and balanced on a stand above a crank, a turntable, and a horn like you'd see on a phonograph. It's by local artist Walter Kitundu. Turn the crank, the record starts, and the bird's wings begin to move up and down. You can speed it up, slow it down, scratch -- whatever you want, just by turning the crank. Curator Rene De Guzman says to think of this piece as a metaphor.
“A used record is a connector between people,” he says. “You own it for a moment in time, and then it goes to someone else. And you probably scratched it or wore it down a little, so then you collaborate with other people on leaving a mark on the world.”
Now this may not be an experience you've ever had. One of the things about a resurgence is that it means a lot of people are picking up vinyl for the very first time, which is why there's a little card tucked behind one of the exhibit's working turntables, demonstrating how to use it.
Ed Harris, owner of Oakland's Funky Soul Stop Record Shop, talks about some of his favorite music and why you have to hear it on vinyl:
Oakland Museum staffer Rachael Aguirre talks about vinyl and how she celebrates her nerdiness through music:
Producer and collector David Katznelson talks about the vinyl crate he curated and dedicated to the Velvet Underground, including the music which inspired them: