Ride the Lightning: Vinyl Strikes Back

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Reviewbrah and the cult of the analogue

TheReportOfTheWeek is a popular YouTube channel hosted by John Jurasek aka Reviewbrah. In his videos Reviewbrah analyses new and classic fast food meals, often while sitting in his car or out in his garden. The videos tend to be around 10 minutes long and will feature Jurasek discussing what he likes about the meal and what could be better, alongside a sprinkling of personal anecdotes and banter. While this description may seem understated, Jurasek has managed to build a huge following for his content, mostly off the back of his idiosyncratic style: mild-mannered, consciously retro and resplendent in large, outdated suits. The contrast of a young man (even now, several years into his career, Jurasek is only 21 years old) dressing and talking like a 1950s stereotype- while reviewing Burger King’s latest double-dunkin’ cheesy chicken- has surprising appeal.

Aside from his quirky fast-food reviews, Reviewbrah has an even more intriguing side to him. Jurasek has a driving passion for short-wave radio and has, for the past few years, broadcast a radio accompaniment to his YouTube Channel: ‘The Voice of the Report of the Week’ (VORW). This show is a weekly short-wave radio program hosted by Jurasek containing a mixture of “light entertainment”, music, anecdotes, questions and patter. And while its intended audience is other short-wave radio enthusiasts Reviewbrah also makes it available as a podcast. (In recent months Jurasek has actually split the podcast in two, with the first half being primarily him chatting and airing his views, aimed at his general fanbase, and the second half more music-focused, geared towards serious radio listeners.)

However, despite TheReportofTheWeek’s titanic YouTube success, with 1.2 Million subscribers, and over a hundred Million views, running a short-wave radio program isn’t easy. In one of his recent radio episodes #113 Juarez became audibly annoyed at the monetary situation he found himself in, and the amount of genuine effort it was taking to keep the show on the air. This was compounded by a recent, deflating, a decision he had been forced to make. VORW would have to cease broadcasting on one of its North American frequencies due to cost reasons. Upon announcing this news Jurasek recounts he was met with a flurry of angry emails. Mostly from anonymous listeners who had never even contacted, contributed or donated to the show. The entitled fury in these responses “bewildered” Jurasek, especially in the face on his undeniable commitment to short-wave radio. The section starts at (12:20) and makes for difficult listening, you really feel for the guy.

So Reviewbrah is fighting an often thankless task against the tide of technology, and paying a premium in time and money to do so. So why do it? Why dedicate so much effort into something so specific and niche?

In a video recorded last year titled ‘What I’m Obsessed With’ Reviewbrah outlined the appeal of short-wave radio to him. Short-wave transmitters are unique in their ability to pick up signals at much longer distances than traditional radio receivers. This means that Jurasek can sit at home in Florida and connect to waves from Germany, Russia, Madagascar, China, even North Korea and Iran, and listen to those programs as clearly as any local radio station. It’s this ability to connect with the world, projecting his own radio show outwards and absorbing other broadcasts in, that besots Juarez. It sounds something like a pseudo-internet.

Reviewbrah mentions several times in his explainer video that the appeal might be hard to grasp, “maybe I can’t fully describe it”, he admits but it’s, “something that gives [me] a certain kind of thrill and enjoyment.” The second half of the video is actually Jurasek physically demonstrating how he uses his radio. This section makes it clear just how enamoured Jurasek is with the process of short-wave. Using the physical box is half the fun. The antenna, the buttons, the tuner. Whatever the stresses, these simple actions make it all worthwhile.

It’s hard to not be reminded of the same, sometimes opaque, passion many vinyl record fans have. The expense of paying for the turntables and speakers, the price of the vinyl itself, the social pressure to keep up with the latest albums and the frustration at scalpers and limited releases. There are some really obvious similarities. Present in both short-wave radio fans and vinyl enthusiasts is the embrace of limited, and exclusive, experiences: sometimes you’ll get home late and miss your favourite radio show, sometimes you just won't be able to get hold of that vinyl you were looking forward to. But these experiences give a hobby ups and downs, a natural tempo and rhythm. Things to look forward to and times you’re disappointed. And to be honest, that certainly sounds more natural than the constant express train of optimized content heading straight at your brain via YouTube or Netflix.

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The rebirth of Vinyl as a viable medium has been one of the biggest music industry success stories of the last 10 years. What was once a genuinely weird little interest held only by Boomers and nerds has become a noticeable presence not just on the internet, but in towns and cities all across Europe, America and beyond. For example, the town I’m writing in now has 4 dedicated vinyl shops and 3 more than stock it alongside other mediums. That’s pretty remarkable for a container which is bulky, expensive and requires a whole host of gadgets and systems to actually play. But, step back, and the reasons for the vinyl revival are big, structural and show no sign of dissipating.

Vinyl’s rise as a medium can be tracked in opposition to the ascent of internet downloads and streaming. The medium’s popularity rises from its nadir in the mid-00s, when the CD market reigned supreme, through the social media boom of 2008-2013, picking up the pace in the following years and reaching its zenith in 2018. And it’s not slowing down. There’s no debate that YouTube, Spotify, Tidal, Bandcamp and before them the stalwart Myspace and PureVolume have changed music listening forever. But vinyl has risen to meet the riposte, throwing down an answer to the tyranny of choice that streaming services provide. Through the internet, you have almost all of human recorded sound available to you instantly, for free. How on earth is a music fan supposed to deal with that mastodon fact in a reasonable manner?

Personally spending each day trawling the playlists of YouTube, the caverns of Bandcamp and the wells of Discord is a never-ending task. I’d call it Sisyphean if that didn’t make it sound a bit grand. Music, both new and old, is constantly being uploaded, and one individual simply can’t listen to it all. You’ll always be missing something. You’re constantly promised that there’s a record you’ll absolutely adore justtttt around the corner. All you need to do is put the leg work in, keep looking and clicking and you’ll find it (I’m sure).

But what if I can’t handle this challenge? Why not surrender to the tools the site wants me to use: playlists, algorithms and ‘suggestions’? At least then the machines can help me try and make sense of it all. But machines are run on blunt systems, and (given social media’s role as a giant dopamine farm) will always be trying to please you. A machine struggles to throw you a curveball, a wild card, or a bolt from the blue that will change your life. It would much rather feed you ‘something like the music you already listen to, but with different words’.

Or you can retreat into something more solid, slower, maybe even physical. Reactionary? Maybe slightly, but definitely understandable.

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But let’s break this down a bit further. Maybe there’s an even better reason for turning to vinyl over internet ephemera. Something that even many vinyl fans may be unaware of. Scientific research suggests that engaging with one single action fully, even if it is more limited, can heighten enjoyment and focus the mind. You don’t need me to tell you that social media listening incentivises the complete opposite of this. Instead, we’re turned into power-users of frantic clicking, multi-tabbing, playlist sniping and impulse trying. But, if we take the evidence seriously, shoving in more and more information, song after song, playlist after playlist, won't make us happier, more fulfilled music fans. In fact, it might be doing the opposite.

The alternative, sitting down, interacting with a physical object, listening to a record all the way through (changing tracks on vinyl is a faff and looks silly), perusing the artwork, reading the lyrics, starts to make a lot more sense. Maybe there’s just something neater about the enjoyment of limiting your own options and getting stuck into the simple joys of listening to the radio or spinning some vinyl.

It might be basic in some ways, but like ReviewBrah’s radio, there’s pleasure in the simple, modest, process.

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As much as technology has freed us to ‘be ourselves’ it has also made us unhappier, more depressed, and more concerned with social status than ever before. A growing pool of Tech CEOs, having seen through the looking glass, absolutely do not like what they see. Far from embracing the technological future they themselves created, many 'thought leaders' are choosing to raise their children “Tech Free”. Some Silicon visionaries, like Jaron Lanier, the forefather of Virtual Reality, have turned into the Valley’s harshest critics. Generation Z, born just after the Millennials, and having grown up entirely submerged in Web 2.0, list anxiety and depression as the main issues facing their age-group. Perhaps this is all directly related to technology, perhaps something broader. But the correlation is there, and it doesn’t make happy reading.

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So, we can tell that ‘analog’ hobbies can be immensely rewarding and might even make us happier. Then…is the solution just to do more of them? What if using these ideas can be, not just a fun hobby, but a lifestyle to make us happier? Let’s imagine a social movement which embraces this thinking, and turns to the culture of vinyl and short-wave radio as a solution. They reject the very use of modern technology in favour of the low-fi alternatives of previous decades. After meeting through the internet (of course) they start hanging out in person, all the while phasing our modern technology from their lives.

People start to use old 90s phones, Nokia 3210s. You can still make calls, they’re still portable, but there’s no apps, no Google Maps, no digital footprint, no tidal wave of notifications. Books replace pointless YouTube grazing. Instead of 5-minute chunks, you’re now diving deep into long-form prose. Television goes back to being a structured list of programs, not a buffet to gorge on. Theatre starts to be something more people do regularly, and less of an elitist institution. Chunky polaroids replace the phone camera, and tourists have to fumble around with a paper map while trying to navigate Shibuya. Your vaporwave releases now come in a choice of vinyl, cassette or laserdisc and you get them by mail order.

It seems cute, like one of those twee cafes with ‘no phones’ or ‘talk to each other’ signs on the wall. Maybe the movement would have a fun nickname like ‘Lo-Fis’, ‘Logians’ or ‘Wires’.

But the frustrating thing about this exercise is that it’s just too easy to simply paint over the modern world with older technology, and then claim it’s problem solved. If such a low-fi trend were to take off it’s easy to see it becoming pigeonholed and mocked, a fashion statement and a way of demonstrating a more mindful, nuanced approach to life. Above the proles with their noses stuck to their phones hoho. Even sketching out the idea makes it seem twee, something to be consigned to the leafy boulevards of Kensington or the Upper West Side. My gut tells me it wouldn’t be long-lasting and wouldn’t stick. And it certainly wouldn’t change the way that the majority of the lumpen 9-to-5 population relate to technology. After all, if you can afford to spend your evenings wafting from book-shop to restaurant to theatre you probably didn’t need a smartphone anyway.

A lot of people need their annoying, soul-sapping phones so that they can hustle for their next Deliveroo job, or get yelled at by their boss on Slack. The economy is technology and technology is the economy. And, let’s be honest, you need a lot of money to buy a lot of vinyl- but listening to YouTube is free. You can’t just paint over these contradictions and carry on as normal.

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Even Reviewbrah uses YouTube and Patreon to generate income, and despite his immense passion for short-wave radio, his activities on YouTube have blossomed as his popularity on the site has grown. The incentive to drop a lucrative social media career, in favour of trying to reignite short-wave radio across the world, just isn't there. Instead, it’s nice to see Reviewbrah attempting to synthesize the two. YouTube can reel em in, and maybe a few will stay for the radio show. Some might even buy one (they ain’t cheap though).

No, it's not earthshattering. This approach can’t grapple with the hulking tech giants. It can’t stare into the sun of how we’re all frying our brains with Wi-Fi and apps and twitter hearts. But maybe it’ll give someone a bit of rest after work, allow them to switch off for a bit. Maybe a vinyl can take them somewhere else for a minute or let them leave their phone in another room. It might just be dorky hobbyists helping out other dorky hobbyists. But if it manages to shine some light, then it’s probably worthwhile. As Reviewbrah says during his hallelujah chorus in #113:

“I remain steadfast for as long as I do this show, as long as there is a transmitter to broadcast it via, I am going to continue to have this broadcast transmitted on short-wave for the general audience.

And that’s just how it is.”

 

Sam L. Barker is a freelance writer and marketer living in Cambridge, UK. He writes about music, technology and memory. 

Illustration by blis_ful – listen to his music on SoundCloud

Tagged with: Far Side Virtual

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