Monday, July 6th, 2009

ReDISCovered: The Rich Sound of Fantastic Plastic


By the way you look fantastic in your boots of Chinese plastic.”  As I walked into a vinyl record store recently, I was welcomed by the unmistakable voice of Chrissie Hynde, leader of the Pretenders (a punk/new wave/Top 40 band formed in the late ‘70s), singing these lyrics to a rousing rockabilly sound.  

Given my role with SPI, I immediately thought that the single, “Boots of Chinese Plastic” from the band’s 2008 album, must in some way pertain to the U.S.- China trade imbalance, the under valuation of the yuan, and the fact that China is the United States' second-largest source of plastics industry imports.  After all, reports are that Hynde, a native of Akron, Ohio, has recently returned home after spending most of the last 30 years in London. Could the song be a mournful plea for plastics industry jobs lost overseas to return to Ohio (nationally ranked second in plastics industry employment and third in total plastics industry shipments)? Or maybe Hynde was somehow simply promoting the benefits of plastic boots as part of her well-known animal rights activism. Not likely. A closer look at the tune's lyrics reveals that the song’s meaning is very much up for creative interpretation.

But perhaps more germane to this blog is the fact that this relatively new song, which references plastics in the chorus, was being played at the store from a vinyl record spinning on a turntable. Those readers born after 1984 can check out this Wikipedia page for a clue about the meaning of the preceding sentence… But wait, what's this? Hold on a minute – on the contrary, the youngsters are apparently hip to what a vinyl record is after all! News stories here and there and everywhere are reporting that vinyl recordings, once thought to have been made obsolete by CDs and digital files, are making a comeback – particularly among teen and college-aged audiophiles seeking a less flattened listening experience. The artists, like the record buyers, value the richer more robust sounds that vinyl provides over digital formats and it is now possible to buy vinyl versions of many major new releases at retailers like Best Buy.  

Independent of DJs and hip-hop artists, demand for turntables and vinyl records are rising as CD sales figures are gradually falling. Why else would Amazon.com have a vinyl section on its site that sells new works by modern musicians?  While still only a very small fraction of all music sales, the number of vinyl records sold doubled from 988,000 in 2007 to 1.88 million in 2008. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, the number of turntables sold has gone from 1.8 million in 1989 to only 275,000 in 2006 and then back up to nearly half a million in 2007.

Obviously, plastics role in the manufacture of records is huge, from the nitrous cellulose lacquer (rock on,  Alexander Parkes and John Wesley Hyatt!), plastic ribbing and plastic ring used in making a master disc, to the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pellets that go from hopper to extruder in making vinyl copies of the master. Check out how vinyl records are manufactured on this video (part one) and this one (part two).

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