The documentary Vinyl Nation is available for digital streaming on April 19, just in time for Record Store Day on the 23rd, and it’s a fascinating film. What at first glance may seem like an ode to a dying music format for audiophilic elitists turns out to be a celebration of the community that physical objects, passion, collecting, and music can create. It also chronicles the strange cultural resurgence of vinyl records, and what that might signify in our day and age.
As the Recording Industry Association of America points out, vinyl physical units sold exceeded CD physical units sold in the first half of 2021 for the first time since 1986, and Billboard states that vinyl album sales in the United States have increased every year since 2007, from 1 million total albums sold to 41.72 million total albums sold in 2021. Between 2020 and 2021, vinyl album sales jumped an incredible 51.4% in the United States.
Waxing Philosophical About Vinyl
Directors and producers Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone took a leap of faith into this subject that neither one of them had specifically tackled before. Smokler is an author, largely writing about pop culture and literature in books like Brat Pack Americaand Boone is a narrative filmmaker (Cents) and a writer himself, so the fact that the two decided to make a documentary about vinyl records seems especially fascinating. Perhaps it took a couple of quasi-outsiders (and myriad miles of travel) to get to the heart of the matter.
“Neither one of us play an instrument,” Smokler says. “We were never in bands. We never worked in the music industry. It was mostly an idea that I had the germ of, and I was trying somehow to understand why records and old technology that were far from convenient […] were on the way back, because you did not see that in other forms of pop culture. Dime novels were not experiencing a resurgence, VHS tapes were not, cartridge gaming, like none of those things were coming back with the fervor that vinyl was. “
The two had gone to college together, so when Smokler was on a book tour, he brought the idea to his filmmaking friend. “The first question Chris asked was, ‘Why? Why does this need to be a movie? Why do not we do a 10-part podcast series, or why do not you go and write another book about it? ‘ And I think the thing we both came up with, is that vinyl is inherently a physical and visual thing. Part of the joy […] of records is touching them and smelling them, and seeing them turn on the turntable, and the incredible artwork, and all the different senses along with your ears that they activate, and the best way to convey that artistically was through film. “
Two Outsiders Travel to the Heart of Vinyl Nation
“If we’re going to tell a story called Vinyl Nation, it’s got to include all of vinyl nation, “Boone says,” so we need to see all the different people that made that. You write a book, you can not really see them as well, and if you do a podcast, you only hear them. “This was important because so much of Vinyl Nation is about how the image of vinyl fans as elitist snobs (think High Fidelity, or the comic book store owner of The Simpsons) has changed to be radically more inclusive.
“We really wanted to show you who these people were because we did not think they were who you thought vinyl enthusiasts are today, or they were not portrayed that way in the media.” So the pair set out with a crew, traveling across the country in the Spring of 2019 in order to visually understand the phenomenon, oscillating from city to city in between time spent at home.
“That was a big part of the fun, at least for me,” Boone reminisces, “being able to go around the country to a lot of cities and towns I’ve never been to and meet all these people but also to experience the communities where they live, and that was important to us to capture as best we could. We were all over the place, and these people came from all different backgrounds, and they are literally every race, every gender, every age, in our film . They have this one thing in common. “
Finding and Creating Community in Vinyl Nation
As such, Vinyl Nation depicts community in a fresh and interesting way. So often today, communities are formed from anger and not love, and from negative rather than positive passion. The record community might share a specific interest (music in a physical, rather antiquated form), but that interest spans an international century, brimming with folk, rap, bossa nova, death metal, and teen pop idols; they’re all on vinyl, where they’re qual in a community which cares. “If we put all 45 of our interview subjects in a room, they’d be fast friends, just because they have this connection through records. And we hope when people watch the film, they feel that connection with these people too.”
In a fascinating turn of events, this great recent documentary about community helped create communities in turn, and give back to others. When the film was finished, the world largely went into lockdown from the Coronavirus pandemic, and film festivals were shutting their doors. Smokler and Boone had a delightful idea that complimented the vibrantly communal nature of Vinyl Nation: they screened the film at record stores. As Boone recounts:
We just said, this is a crazy idea, but what if we do a fundraiser for those record stores. So we got in touch with the Record Store Day organization and said, hey, we want to do a special screening. Only record stores who participate in record store day can be a part of it, and they’ll sell tickets, and they get to keep all the proceeds […] We had over 300 record stores sign up for it, and collectively they sold over $ 37,000 in ticket sales, and that all went back to the record stores.
The pandemic and its viruses did not exactly end, however, and record stores were hardly the only small businesses that were hurting. So Vinyl Nation supported that community, too. Boone continues:
We reached out to arthouse cinemas and said, hey, you guys are all still shuttered. We’d like to help you, too. So we did a virtual screener release with about 80 arthouse cinemas, and some more record stores came on board, and at the same time Kevin goes, well what about the festivals? Like, we love film festivals, why aren’t we trying to do something for them too? And I thought, well, I do not know if they’re going to be interested, because we’ve done this kind of backwards release.
Most film festivals generally do not accept submissions from movies that have been screened elsewhere; they tend to be occasions for exclusive premieres, so Boone wasn’t sure if film festivals would be interested in a movie that had been screened in small communities of music and film lovers for months. As Smokler says:
That rule was essentially abandoned because of the pandemic […] There were over 100 festivals in the United States alone that had signed something called ‘the film festival survival pledge,’ basically saying they will do whatever it takes to make sure our film festivals survive this pandemic, and to assure that our community still gets quality cinema. I just said to Chris, these are our kind of people. These are people who want the same thing for their community that record stores want for their communities. This is what we made this movie for. So we just started asking around […] We got one or two nos, but we mostly got about 98 yeses, and in fact, most of them were like, please take this waiver code or and do not bother paying. We just appreciate you understanding the mess we’re in, the mess that the whole country and the world is in, and so gradually we started showing it at virtual film festivals.
As Smokler touchingly says, “It had sort of reaffirmed what we knew Vinyl Nation was about. It said that there’s kind of friends everywhere, even if it often does not seem like it on the surface. “
Vinyl Nation Goes Digital
The journey that Smokler and Boone went on began as a way to understand why vinyl records have grown so popular again. Was it nostalgia in the age of the reboot, when everyone moves forward by looking back? Was it hipster fashion, a kind of cool trend? Was it a byproduct of capitalism and materialism, a pushback against the digitization of everything, a desire for physical possessions? Ultimately, whatever Vinyl Nation might signify, at the end of the day it’s about people, and the adventure these directors took led to a deeper understanding of community (for them and their audience) in an era in which such a thing is direly important. Music’s great, but it needs ears to hear it.
Vinyl Nationfrom 1091 Pictures, arrives on digital on April 19 in a beautiful 4k master.
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