Smokler and Boone invite viewers to visit “Vinyl Nation”
By Greg Carlson
Filmmakers Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone have added an interesting document to the group of films dedicated in one way or another to the world of record collecting. “Vinyl Nation” will primarily appeal to those who are already familiar with the business, but the makers make it clear that they want to go beyond the traditional demographics of middle-aged white men by including the voices of those who have been long marginalized. Additionally, Smokler and Boone strive to create a true big-tent inclusiveness that eschews the “boys club” elitism sometimes associated with old-school know-it-all record collectors.
Best of all, they manage to do all of this while still retaining enough insider content to appeal to longtime crate diggers and discerning audiophiles – the latter, Third Man’s Ben Blackwell humorously acknowledges, are “the worst”.
A Trip to Salina, Kansas breaks down the process of making a record as told by the great Gary Salstrom, General Manager of Quality Record Pressings. The entire tour through QRP, a company known for introducing new techniques, improvements and innovations that have improved record making, plays like one of the classic touring shorts. factory seen via Picture Picture on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
In a sense, “Vinyl Nation” is the B-side to Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller’s 2019 feature “Other Music,” which focused on the final days of the title’s beloved East Village record store. But while “Other Music” talked about endings, “Vinyl Nation” looks to the future with optimism and excitement. The little girl who composes the teal-colored edition of Weezer’s matching LP at Kansas City’s Mills Record Company doesn’t care for the opinions of dismissive fossils eager to explain that black vinyl is sonically superior. Later in the film, music critic Eric Weisbard cuts to the heart of the matter, identifying how “consumer culture [welcomed in] large groups of people who previously were not wealthy enough to be targeted.
This populist sentiment guides “Vinyl Nation”, which understands how the mass consumption of music as a physical medium communicates the charm of the format not only through the remarkable and life-changing sounds conjured up inside the grooves, but through the tactile and visual elements embodied in the way records and their covers look, feel and smell. Graphic design nerds will drool over the packaging tutorial from Rob Maushund of Stoughton Printing in California. Smokler and Boone cram a huge amount of thoughtful material into their film, which invites us on their coast-to-coast road trip.
“Vinyl Nation” accentuates the positive, but the film can also be commended for at least raising questions about the downsides of the industry in the face of the record boom. Big, for-profit labels are jeopardizing the future of vinyl by rushing mass-produced titles without quality control standards into the market. Environmental impact, rising prices (which put collecting new music out of reach for many buyers), fair compensation for artists, and factory backlogs that speed up reissues before unknown artists are some of the considerations. existential issues addressed in the film.
And yes, towards the end of their film, Smokler and Boone brave the thorny question of whether vinyl sounds better or not. The responses, delivered by many voices that now feel like old friends, are almost as satisfying as listening to your favorite song.
“Vinyl Nation” will screen at the 2022 Fargo Film Festival on March 15-19.