Color Records and Sign Value
Color as an object
Few things are as effective as color when it comes to nonverbal communication. Venomous and poisonous animals warn potential predators of the imminent death that awaits them if they make the mistake of making a meal of them. Humans use color to designate gender on otherwise genderless items – blue is for boys and pink is for girls. This is how we get pink handguns and other unnecessarily gendered items. We also do this for practical reasons as well, such as the red, yellow, and green lights at a traffic stop. These colors are universally understood as stop, slow down, and go. Children begin to understand these ideas from an early age, as the game red light/green light indicates. Color is an instinctual method of communication, and it finds its way into every aspect of our lives, including vinyl records.
Polyvinyl chloride, simply known as vinyl, is the chemical that is used in the making of vinyl records. In its pure state it is a white plastic. White is purity, cleanliness, and emptiness. The first state of vinyl is a blank slate, brittle and incomplete. Purity does not come in one shade, as black is just as pure and clean as white. Black is how vinyl records are known to most people. Shiny grooved discs with a smaller white label in the middle is the image that comes to mind when one thinks of vinyl.
The reason records are black comes back to purity. White vinyl easily exposes imperfections present on the surface such as dust and dirt. There are also imperfections you cannot see but rather you hear. Audiophiles prefer black vinyl over color variants due to the quietness of the record. While the crackle and pop of vinyl is well-loved and seen as charming, audiophiles despise background noise and prefer a clean listening experience. Black records come to signify the highest audio quality and experience. Black becomes a symbol for perfection.
This is not to say that color variants are no good. Technology has progressed and the audio quality of color variants have vastly improved over the past few years. Color records have been around since at least the 1920s. The first company to do this was Vocalion, who sought to distinguish their product through colors while claiming their product was more rugged than the competition. This is before the medium had outer sleeves with album art, meaning records were handled in paper slips and the color was easier to see. Other companies pressed color variants through out the rest of the century. Sometimes it was to color code a genre, others to make something unique and visible.
Modernist and Postmodernist Theories of Value
As far as value is concerned, this is something that can be analyzed through a postmodern perspective. If we were to look at value from a modernist, Marxist perspective, then the records are valued based on their exchange value, use value, and the labor used to produce them. Sign value on the other hand is the value something has simply because it is valuable. This theory of value was postulated by Jean Baudrillard as an addition to Marx’s theory of value. If you make the comparison of generic sneakers versus Nike’s, you understand that they perform the same task but the Nike’s are just better. Color variants hold sign value, meaning they are valuable because of the prestige they hold. If we were to look at two pressings of the same album, one black and one colorful, you will find that the color variant is almost always selling at a higher price.
Disco Jazz by Rupa is a clear example of sign value. The standard black sells for around $20, while the orange translucent goes for about $60
There are other factors to consider, such as supply being limited, but why is the demand higher? The black records play the same music and arguably play them much better. The demand is higher due to people wanting to collect something limited. The idea of something being limited creates a sense of urgency in the mind of a collector, causing prices to soar for color variants. The prestige of owning a limited record is no small victory; you are one of the lucky ones to score a limited pressing of the record you have been dying to have. You are in an exclusive club, while the rest of us had to settle for a plain black record. The message transcends the medium in this instance, because the music is not what is sought after. The color itself becomes the object of desire.
Personally, I prefer my records black.