When was the last time you went to the museum and learned how to deejay? Or sat around for hours, listening to rare, mint-condition records?
Walking into ‘Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records,’ one of the newest exhibits at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), feels like hanging out in a record store with some of the coolest record collectors in the Bay Area.
Meant to be touched
OMCA’s Senior Art Curator Rene de Guzman has gone out of his way to break most every rule about a museum show, especially, “Look, don’t touch.” Visitors can be a deejay for the day at a turntable station, and can learn to mix between two records, just like you would see a DJ doing in a nightclub.
There are also many more interactive elements to play with. Scattered through the exhibit’s floor, there are milk crates filled with records, a sculpture that reacts to the cranking of a phonograph, videos on the technology of vinyl, and a sea of bean bags meant for “social listening,” which on the day I went, were filled to capacity with families taking a moment to stop, listen, and react to the music that other museum-goers were playing.
“It's really interesting to see how people sort of size up the room,” says De Guzman. “Maybe they're trying to get a sense of what they like, but they're probably thinking about what these other people might want to hear, so that's a really interesting social experience there.”
The show is designed to engage museum goers to consider how we play and share music in the 21st century. Listening to mp3s is a solitary act, and records are a physical, immersive experience.
The record crates especially invite people to stay here for hours. museum-goer Patrick Kilgallen seemed determined to look through every single crate.
“There's some records in here that I don't have, and it just made me super curious right off the bat. And that's why I'm still here and hour and fifteen minutes later. I came here because me and my friends, we just love vinyl. We love putting our hands on it. We love that soft pressure sound, that crackle that happens, you know?”
But this isn’t just a vintage experience. Americans are buying more new records today than any other time in the last quarter century. De Guzman isn’t surprised by the resurgence.
“I think we're tired of being alone in front of our computers, and we're tired of algorithms recommending taste and ideas to us.” He adds, “So, I think records are part of this need to engage with culture in a social environment that grounds us in place and community.”
Each element of the exhibit speaks to that need. Most of the records are organized around a theme curated by local musicians, music journalists, and authors, with mixes like, “Americana: The Wild and Twisted Present and Past of Country Music,” and “A Love Affair with California.”
One of the exhibit’s featured curators, Alec Palao, tours the exhibit with De Guzman. They discuss one of the show’s main takeaways.
De Guzman points out, “The record experience allows us attention to listen to music rather than as a background, or as a wallpaper. Right?” Palao adds, “Most kids nowadays, music is wallpaper, while they're playing their videogame or texting or whatever it is they're doing, yeah? It's you know, just a buzz going on in their earbuds.”
Palao is one of the Bay Area’s most notable collectors of 1960s rock and roll and soul music, and he makes a living from his eye for collecting. He has produced hundreds of re-issue compilations mostly focused on 1960s rock and roll and soul, earning four Grammy nominations in categories like Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes.
He showed me his studio in El Cerrito, also home to his personal record collection. Palao has thousands of 45s and full-length albums filed into a space about half the size of a school bus.
Inside a collector's paradise
“From the left it's, British and foreign, 60's rock and roll. U.S. 60's rock and roll,” Palao points out. “Two whole shelves just for Bay Area stuff. Folk. 60s and 70s soul. 50s rock and roll. Several shelves of jazz. And then the post-70's shelves.”
Palao is working on a crate of records for the exhibit comprised of 45s -- also known as “7 inches” by their diameter. He owns some of the rarest 45’s, spanning a half a century.
Bay Area artists released plenty of sought-after 45s, especially in the 1960s and 70s. Artists such as Sly & the Family Stone, Rodger Collins, and Bobby Freeman.
Palao knows every album in his collection, but he admits he can never have enough“I collect records because I love music. I’ll certainly use records to make myself feel better, which is really, I think, at the end of the day, that’s what music is — it has that power. Hits you right in the brain, and there aren’t many forms of art that can do that.” He adds, “I think the mainstream doesn’t often recognize that.”
Experiencing that physical and emotional weight, reminds me that a record isn’t just a song on your computer. You can’t stream it, but you can share it. From the moment it is pressed to the second you drop the needle, the music is in somebody’s hands. Maybe you have forgotten what that feels like. Maybe you never knew. In the Bay Area, records are always nearby, on a shelf or in a crate, waiting to be discovered. After all, you can’t pick up an mp3.
'Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records' will be exhibited from now until July 27th at the Oakland Museum of California. Check the museum website for full details on the exhibit, as well their special live "Talk and Play" events happening every weekend.
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