The Survival and Revival of Vinyl Records

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When electronica duo Daft Punk released their 2013 Grammy Record of the Year, Random Access Memories, 6 per cent of its first-week sales came from the vinyl record format (Kozinn). Despite the current dominance of relatively convenient digital audio formats, compact discs, downloads and streaming, some music enthusiasts continue to favour traditional vinyl phonographic recordings as a means of collecting and playing music. As illustrated by the Daft Punk sales, collectors are not just seeking out iconic recordings from the era when analogue technology was the standard, and vinyl was a dominant means of listening to recorded music, but also contemporary music. While CD sales fell 14.5 per cent in the United States in 2013, vinyl sales grew 32 per cent to reach 6 million units according to Neilson Sound Scan. In the United Kingdom, vinyl sales have increased by over 270 per cent over the last five years. Of note, is that one third of purchasers were under 35 years old (Morton-Clark). Clearly the attraction of vinyl is not only limited to baby boomers wishing to reconnect with the listening practices of their youth, but it also appeals to people raised in the period dominated by the CD and mp3 player.

Let’s consider the dynamics that have seen the survival and revival in the production of the long player vinyl record. When I talk to record collectors and ask them why they prefer vinyl most offer that it sounds “warmer” and less harsh than digital. They focus on the listening experience and are adamant that vinyl is the most authentic way of listening to music. But the attraction of the format goes beyond the sound that vibrates from the player’s speakers.

The attraction of vinyl records to collectors is not only a sonic experience, but pleasure derived from owning the material object, the act of performing rituals, satisfying of a desire to collect while belonging to an imagined community. In a nod to the LP format this essay consists of two sides. The first side is concerned with the materiality of the record, the second looks at record stores and their role in the vinyl experience. While record collecting has been around since the advent of Victor’s 10 inch 78’s in 1903, I’m interested in understanding the appeal of vinyl in the context of purchasing new records in a environment where digital technologies are now dominant.

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Side One – The LP as a desirable object and the rituals associated with playing a record.

The 33rpm, double-sided, long-playing record (LP) format was first introduced to music lovers in 1948. It dominated the market in the 1960’s and 1970’s before a trend of declining sales volumes set in during the 1980’s. For almost 40 years it was the LP, and its smaller sibling the 45, that were the standard means of distributing music, before the cassette tape and eventually the Compact Disc became favoured by the general public. By 1989, CDs had eliminated LPs as the mainstream format, generating US$2.69 billion compared to vinyl sales of $232 million (Shuker, 60). Thirty years on and the CD is now in decline and most digitalised music is shared by computer-based systems through downloading or streaming. For the majority of society vinyl records remain a thing of the past, replaced by the more portable and convenient MP3.

However during the period of commercial decline a diverse range of communities continued to embrace vinyl as a means of playing and creating music. The turntablism of Hip Hop employed vinyl to manipulate sound and create new mixes of existing music. It was an integral part of the performance and the iconography of the genre. DJs continued to use turntables in clubs to play and perform music. This kept vinyl visible in the popular culture as a format, reinforcing a fascination with the groove, both in the sense of the physical cut in the record and the style of music, especially one that is “swinging” or regarded as good (Osborne, 17). The owner of the largest record manufacturing plant in the U.S, Jay Millar of United Record Pressing, says that the market for 12 inch singles and 45s for jukeboxes sustained production, at a lower level, during the 1990’s (Flanagan). Also the aesthetic of Punk culture, a do-it-yourself attitude combined with limited production runs of recordings, meant that bands independent of major labels still produced 45rpm singles of their music. Some audiophiles, people who it could be argued value achieving a particular quality of sound over the affect of the music, did not prescribe to the view that digital sources were of a higher quality and kept preferring records. Seasoned vinyl collectors maintained their compulsion to keep collecting while some new comers discovered a pleasure in seeking out second-hand records in thrift-stores, garage sales, record fairs and a dwindling number of record stores. The behaviour of all these groups signalled the ongoing appeal of the format.

It wasn’t until 2007 when more artists began offering current titles that vinyl could be considered as a viable means of acquiring new releases of popular music. The almost absolute adoption of digital means of distributing and consuming music has, over time, redefined vinyl from being a mass-market item, found in most homes, to a more exclusive object that needs to be sought out. Vinyl has gone from retail obscurity in second-hand stores to find a home in newly established independent stores promoting new releases. It is also being stocked in limited quantities by mass merchandisers such as JB HiFi. However buying new vinyl is considerably more expensive than the digital technology alternatives. The Black Keys 2014 release Turn Blue sells for $19.99 on CD, the cost of acquiring it on vinyl is $49.99, a $30 premium, well over twice the price. Alternatively it can be downloaded using iTunes for $20, streamed in Spotify as part of a monthly subscription or illegally acquired through peer-to-peer sharing at no direct financial cost. Listeners are prepared to pay a considerable price premium to own the record. Most new albums come with a digital download or CD, so the extra value is derived from satisfying a belief that vinyl sounds better and the enjoyment the material object brings. Perhaps also the enjoyment of the shopping experience, which I’ll come to later.

An interest in vinyl could be seen as catering to a desire for the “reappearance” of music. In 2001 Auslander argued that digital information in the form of MP3’s allowed a hypercommodification of music “in which musical sound becomes a commodity in itself, unmoored from physical support in a way that was never previously possible”. (Auslander) His concern was that without record covers and all they entail music would “disappear”. At the time music videos had become the primary means of promoting albums and attaching visual iconology to the recording. Perhaps, at least for a group of people, a large part of the appeal of the LP is in the visual representation of the recording along with its aural attributes. Reissues of classic LPs are popular with Abbey Road by the Beatles appearing as the top search of the 65,871 items available at online retailer Amazon, followed by albums by Bob Marley, Boston, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Grateful Dead (Amazon). Terry Stewart, chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says of visitors purchasing records at their store “Half the kids are buying them to listen to: half are buying them as artefacts” (Furchgott).

Part of the attraction of the long player record, in the culture dominated by digital formats, is its physical manifestation as a desirable object. Digital music files sit as clusters of computer code hidden within a hard disk while a vinyl record can be held in the listener’s hands. I agree with Osborne when he states that “the virtual world of downloading and streaming has made the packaging of physical products seem more precious. It is therefore natural that some customers have gone back to recorded music’s most beloved container: the sleeve for the vinyl record”. (Osbourne) Record covers make an impact visually. The album art on a record cover is 500% bigger than a CD insert and the small images and digital booklets on computers, phones and tablets do not have the same presence. Renowned sleeve designer Storm Thorgerson, who created cover art for Pink Floyd writes that “Album cover design is not enslaved to product and therefore doesn’t need to show the record itself but can instead illustrate the emotions and themes explored in the music” (Thorgerson, Dean 7). A cover becomes part of the listening experience as it is considered, read or simply placed by the turntable and admired while listening to the music. Comparatively the LP provides considerable artistic real estate to present the recording’s identity. Record covers are celebrated in popular culture. From the elaborate construction of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Peter Saville’s graphic design of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, covers are remediated on T Shirts, Posters and even tattoos (Robertson).

Books such as 1000 Record Covers (Michael Ochs) celebrate designs, while Sleeveface (Carl Morris) curates images of people with their faces obscured by an image from a LP cover. The social media platform Instagram reveals over 160,000 images of mostly LPs alongside turntables with the hashtag #vinyl junkie. This provides a framework to discover new or treasured titles, celebrate the virtues of the format or communicate with fellow collectors. A product branded as “Art Vinyl” is a frame system that allows people to display their favourite covers on the wall in their home. Since 2007 the manufacturer has been running polls enabling people to vote online for their album covers of the year. The covers are also displayed in an art gallery environment to highlight their artistic merits and help promote frames. All these are examples of celebrating an enjoyment of, and association with, vinyl (Art Vinyl).

This supports the idea that records are “aura-laden objects that…facilitate a series of emotionally charged rituals and experiences on which various communities thrive” (Bartmanski, Woodward).Creative choices beyond the cover imagery such as the paper stock, gatefolds, fold-outs, die-cuts, embossed images and boxed sets also communicate the intention of the artist and enhance the value of the object. Famously the Alice Cooper album School’s Out opened like a school desk and was wrapped in a pair of girls panties (BurnSilver). Picture Discs have long been a popular novelty with most echoing the original cover art, so that imagery and carrier become fused as one inseparable object. Some recent releases have been created as limited edition art pieces. The Pet Shop Boys 2013 release Electric comprises of “five heavyweight LPs housed in an astonishing custom-made, fluorescent-edged, multi-coloured acrylic box” and sells for 500 pounds (The Vinyl Factory). In 2013 New Zealand band The Chills released a triple album, Something Beautiful, that contains specially commissioned prints by the artist Shane Cotton. Karl Steven’s band the Drab Doo Riffs have released two 10-inch discs. One comes complete with 3D imagery and 3D glasses consistent with the retro sensory experiences in one offering. “We chose the 10 inch size because it’s less familiar and therefore draws attention to the physical format. It also tapped into a design sensibility of a period that we thought worked well with the music” (Karl Steven).

For a listener the enjoyment extends beyond the cover to the record platter inside and the rituals associated with playing an LP. The record needs to be safely removed from its sleeve avoiding leaving fingerprints on the grooves. The disc is studied for any signs of dirt. It may be cleaned with fluid, cloths and brushes. A fastidious audiophile may even use an anti-static gun in an attempt to further improve sound quality. Despite the level of sophistication in the listener and their stereo equipment, there is a craft element to the preparation of the record before it is played. The platter itself presents a representation of what the recording may have in store. The listener can review the number of tracks on each side, the intensity of the grooves and will draw an impression from that tactile moment. A continuous groove without breaks indicates a long period of music, while several tracks suggest short pieces. Auslander makes the point that “In handling a record, one is handling a chunk of time” (Auslander). When one holds a record there is the pleasure derived from the anticipation of the time you’re about to dedicate to an enjoyable musical experience. The listener has a sense of holding an artefact of a particular period, even if it a contemporary release. It may even have an association with recently created memories, concerts attended, events or relationships. Other information will help you form an impression of a recording. The inner sleeve may contain lyrics, recording production notes, messages from the artist that are not available on a download. The label may be a signifier of the type of music, for example Blue Note for Jazz, Stiff Records for New Wave and it trigger associations with important artists. The weight of the record can denote the potential quality of the reproduction, or situate it in a time period. As a cost saving, most records produced in the 1980’s were lighter than those of the 1970’s. Many of the current releases are manufactured and promoted as high quality 180gram vinyl and this is promoted on the cover. Albums that are distributed as single CDs, are reproduced over four sides of vinyl to ensure better reproduction. Even the sense of smell, a cocktail of paper scents, printing inks and cleaning fluid is part of the experience. It is possible to scent the vinyl itself as evidenced by Dead Sara’s Lemon scented release Lemon Scent (District Lines). Alternately all CD’s seem to weigh the same, and I’ve yet to find one that smelled noticeably different to the others I’ve encountered.

The rituals involved in playing LPs draw attention to the object itself. It must be flipped at the end of each playing side and therefore “sensitises listeners to both overall structure and playing of a record”(Bartmanski, Woodward 6). The act of lowering the needle into the groove requires attention to avoid damaging the record. Unlike touching a screen on an iPod or a button on a CD player one observes the physical interaction as the record meets the tip of the stylus and is involved in the process. As vinyl collector Michelle Wauchope says “Handling the platters is such a romantic, sacred exercise, as opposed to wrestling with and breaking those stupid, cumbersome jewel boxes” (Shuker, 69). The surface noise that plays prior to the first track helps form an impression about the condition and quality of the LP and then the music is heard. Given the comparatively easy access to music today, it is likely that this is not the first time the listener has heard the songs. It might have been streamed or downloaded and listened to prior to the investment made in the purchase of the album. The listener may then assess the quality of the sound emitting from the vinyl source compared to what he or she has heard earlier in other formats. This again draws attention to the object, the source of the sound. The sound of the needle dropping and the crackles and pops bring enjoyment to some listeners. Celebrated English DJ John Peel once said “Somebody was trying to tell me that CD’s are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said “Listen, mate, life has surface noise” (Chassanoff). Karl Steven makes the point “vinyl is a format you can hear… it does a great job at highlighting the quiet, which is great for folk, rock, blues… but when it comes to soundtracks or orchestral music you don’t want to be distracted by emphasing the difference”.

Recording artist Beck recognised the enduring interest in vinyl by announcing his 2014 album Morning Phase by producing a YouTube video showing the vinyl record manufacturing process. The album itself is accompanied by a digital download of the vinyl version complete with the sound of the needle dropping into the groove at the start of each “side” and therefore drawing attention to its intended structure and placing it within the cultural context of the expectations of a vinyl record. However, what is not replicated in the digital form is the individual nature of every LP. Given the nature of the manufacturing and playing process each LP, even purchased new, will have its own idiosyncrasies that make it unique. The pops and clicks will appear in different places and over time the LP will acquire further characteristics as a result of the care and handling practices of its owner. Through wear and tear a LP changes in its physical form and the way it sounds over time and becomes distinctive in its own right. Names written on covers or labels, stains from accidents with beverages, damage from bad handling are all elements that make each LP a unique item and add to a sense of ownership. This relationship is not replicated with digital files.

The nature of the LP record itself encourages close listening, rather than casual background music. A listener has flicked through their collection to excavate the album they wish to listen to. They’ve made a commitment to the pre-listening process I’ve outlined. They understand one side will run for up to 25 minutes, maybe half that time for some releases, so if they want to hear one hour’s music they will attend to the turntable 3 times. Digital devices offer more convenience through longer uninterrupted playing time and portability. An Ipod can be put into shuffle mode with the device randomly selecting tracks from a library, so little thought goes into preparing for the experience of the music. The iTunes interface shows the capacity and length of music in the library. Those using streaming can select collated playlists from their friends using the service so no effort is required in sourcing and selecting the music. CD’s can provide up to 74 minutes of uninterrupted music. So by choosing vinyl a listener is selecting a more involved means of playing music. They may listen to the same music, in other formats, on other devices, at other times, after all most new release LPs come with access to a digital version. But vinyl is associated with close listening and a more considered experience. As Karl Steven says “Vinyl is interactive, the way you prepare to play a LP. The music isn’t stored in a database, its stored on a shelf where you can see it. There’s nothing exciting about flicking through an excel spreadsheet, which is like using iTunes. With vinyl there’s more fun”.

 

Records

Side Two – The revival of independent record stores in a digital, downloadable world.

I’ve outlined the attraction of the LP as a material object and the enjoyment people derive through the rituals involved in playing records. Given the importance of the tactile attributes of the LP, high street stores where albums can be discovered, viewed, listened to and purchased, provide an important dynamic in the vinyl experience. Prior to the adoption of digital formats in the 1980’s there were more than 2,200 Record Stores in the United Kingdom, in 2012 the number of independent stores in operation was 274 (Channel 4 News). The documentary Last Store Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop concerns itself with the decline of the specialist store and its revival through a renewed appreciation of vinyl over recent years. Through featuring interviews with store-owners, and their perspectives on the industry, the film presents a broader context to the dynamics of the change that occurred in the market. The film traces the decline in the viability of the independent store to before Napster and the widespread adoption of the download. It presents the position that the record companies during the 1980’s became conglomerates focussed on sales volume and as a result the smaller neighbourhood stores became less of a priority to them. The introduction of the more conveniently packaged Cassette and then Compact Disc saw music being sold by supermarkets, service stations and mass merchandisers at lower price points. When file sharing and legal downloads became options for people to acquire music pricing strategies became even more aggressive. Independent record store owner Piers Garner says in the film “ I have been known to go and buy off an supermarket so we could sell it at the same price, just to compete with them”. So independent stores were losing potential sales to other larger retail competitors and former customers opting to download at home rather than visit a physical store. Concurrently a behaviour change was taking place with listeners and how people were regarding acquiring music. Paul Holman of Square Records says “You know we grew up listening to albums, and now, kids can pick and choose, and cherry pick and download odd bits and pieces. Also kid’s impression is that music is kind of free really”.

However over time this created the environment where vinyl as a format, to some listeners, became redefined as an attractive alternative to the mass-market digital options. As Sterne argues “Instead of completely displacing the analogue medium, the digital technologies helped recontextualise it” (Sterne, 2012). I would contend that as music in a digital form became more accessible and in a financial sense, less valued, acquiring vinyl became a means to demonstrate a passion for music. Musicians raised in digital culture, through discovering their parents or friend’s collection of twentieth century LPs, recognised that records are a material object that provided a broader canvas to express themselves, an additional means of differentiating their music and deriving income. Karl Steven believes “The current wave of interest in vinyl comes from the same motivations when it used to be previously popular, it’s just that the record companies confiscated it”.

Heart Attack Alley

Like many independent artists Karl has carried boxes of his band Heart Attack Alley’s LP Living in Hell from gig to gig all over Europe, selling them directly to fans. LPs are produced in relatively small production runs and apart from their physical appeal, have the attraction to listeners of having more cache than other formats. As Osborne points out “vinyl is more exclusive than other formats… the analogue disc stands alone in offering no home-recording function to the amateur musician” (Osborne, 184) and therefore a release of an LP indicates the artist has achieved a degree of professionalism. So by producing a LP, bands tap into a tradition of making records and a path followed by the authentic dedicated artist. By purchasing a LP, maybe direct from a band “young people attempt to mark themselves as different by rejecting widespread practices of consumption maintained by the music industry’s capitalistic framework” (Hayes 58).

So new release vinyl appeared at gigs, the place where listeners can be closest to musicians, and then flowed through into stores, initially to be stocked alongside second hand product and CD’s. “In the last five or six years the younger generation are coming in because of new bands, indie bands, are releasing stuff more and more on vinyl and download, rather than CD.” says Debbie Smith from the store Intoxica in London in the film Last Store Standing. Major record labels have noticed the practice with more contemporary popular music being released in the format. Johnny Chandler, head of A&R at Universal Music says “Now we’re able to ask…almost every time of an artist’s catalogue “What’s the vinyl offer, is there a vinyl offer” “It doesn’t surprise me that people have returned to something like vinyl… the idea that you want to physically get something for the money you spend, I kind of get that.” (Morton-Clark). Some records may be hand numbered, highlighting the edition size and can be personalised through artist signings.

An increase in awareness of vinyl as a format option has also been attributed to the success of “Record Store Day”, an annual event that originated in the United States and is now held in stores around the world on the third Saturday in April. Michael Kurtz a co-founder of the event, established in 2008, describes its role as placing “focus on the culture of record stores and a celebration of their place in their neighbourhoods” (One Louder Magazine). Its introduction coincided with the recovery in vinyl sales, although Jay Millar of pressing plant United Records says “I would say Record Store Day is a result of the rise in vinyl. It’s people wanting to have that “deluxe” experience. I compare it to going to the movie theatre versus the DVR”. To mark the event limited editions of LPs, 45s and promotional products are released on the day. According to Jay Millar the success of the event has impacted on the production capacity dedicated to new music. “Right now, we have 20 plus manufacturing jobs in production, all of which have to come to a grinding halt while the pressing plants make hay pressing umpteen thousand Oasis LP reissues, Abba 7’s and REM Box sets” Smaller bands now need to compete for production time with the major record companies reissuing titles. However, the event continues to create an impact with American record-store owners opening their doors to hundreds of people waiting in line and reporting sales for the whole week in 2014 were more than 50% higher than those in 2013 (Economist).

The Southbound Record Shop in Auckland’s Mount Eden has been a participant in the Record Store Day concept since it opened in 2011. The owner Jeffrey Stothers returned to New Zealand after spending nine years as a music buyer for HMV in London. Initially, he established a distribution company selling CDs and vinyl to retailers and that business continues today. But soon Jeffrey became concerned by the lack of depth in stock that his customers would commit. “If someone buys one Judas Priest album, there’s a good chance they’ll want to collect other titles. However retailers would cherry-pick, and not stock the entire catalogue. That would frustrate me. I saw an opportunity for a store that had a significant range”. The store is unusual as it opened only stocking new vinyl, whereas many stores stock second (or third) hand LPs. It currently stocks over 2500 freshly pressed LPs along with a few boxes of sought after second hand titles and a limited range of CD’s. While it’s situated on a busy city road, it is not an area that attracts a high number of pedestrians and car parking during the week can be challenging. Therefore, it is a destination store with customers seeking it out, rather than being discovered as part of a retail precinct. Overcoming these hurdles to visit the store adds to the atmosphere once inside, as customers understand that others flipping through the bins are interested in music and vinyl rather than casual shoppers. “We had a great Record Store Day this year, but interestingly 80 per cent of the sales were back catalogue, rather than the special items. People who came in wanted to participate, settling on an item we may have had in stock for a while.” The renewed interest in the format means some vintage titles are being rereleased with new copies being available for the first time in decades.

While Southbound Record Shop stocks many reissues of albums often deemed by industry magazines such as Rolling Stone as classics, the biggest selling LP in store since its inception is not Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or The Beatles Abbey Road, but New Zealand artist Lorde’s recording Pure Heroine. For many purchasers of the album it was the first time they had visited a record store. For others it reactivated their interest in vinyl after a long lapse. Jeffrey says “I vividly remember one woman coming into the store seeking out Lorde, aghast, saying I can’t believe a store like this still exists!”. Beyond the possible parochial support for the New Zealander’s album Arctic Monkeys AM has also been a big seller. By placing these titles directly alongside the classics, the store appears confident about and committed to the format. A display wall at Southbound provides the catalyst for conversations with customers for introductions and recommendations. As a customer, I’ve observed people join conversations when one of the staff is talking about a particular album with a customer. With about 40 objects on display it provides a gallery of cover art and reinforces that these are attractive objects worthy of being admired. Photographs of this wall are regularly posted on social media as a means of displaying the range and enticing customers into the store. It reinforces the idea of collecting and the spectacle of a record collection. The second focal point of the store is the sales counter. This is a place where knowledge is dispensed from the staff, orders taken and items purchased and bagged. A group of frequent customers are welcomed to the store by their first name. A loyalty programme rewards regular customers with discounts once a number of records have been purchased.

As Roy Shuker points out “part of the appeal of such shops is the relationship with the staff, which frequently involves trusting their musical knowledge and recommendations, along with a reciprocal recognition, often hard won, of the collectors own expertise” (Shuker,119). For new or infrequent visitors record stores can be intimidating with a concern that staff may judge the taste of the customer. Nick Hornby’s novel and the subsequent film of the same name High Fidelity captured and amplified that insight. However Jeffrey reinforces that “the shop has a customer base that ranges from teenagers buying their first record to long time collectors. Yes it is predominantly male, but we do have a lot of younger couples coming in on the weekends”. Today record stores provide the site for people to leave their digital devices at home and enter a physical environment where music can be heard and the material object, can be seen and touched. Friends can flick through bins find forgotten or unfamiliar new records and discuss music. Even if you visit alone knowledge can be gained or imparted by being in the same physical environment as other humans that enjoy music. As Rene de Guzman, curator of the Oakland Museum of California 2014 exhibition Vinyl. The Sounds and Culture of Records says “the record is a catalyst for social interaction and community. Records are passed from one person to another. In record stores, we don’t think twice about speaking with a clerk or another customer for recommendations” Oakland Museum of California). Through walking into an independent record store, and “digging through the crates’, an individual is participating in an imagined community where the material object they associate with music is valued. The object therefore is the means to bring people who are passionate about music together, to share knowledge, discover new aural and artistic manifestations of music culture and build their collection of material items further.

 

Conclusion

My examination of both “sides” of the dynamics that have seen the survival and revival of the production and consumption of the long player vinyl record is almost complete. In this essay I’ve argued that the involvement in the vinyl experience goes beyond listening to music. The digital age has ushered in more convenient means of accessing and listening to music. Over time the physical media shrunk, until through downloading and streaming the format becomes almost invisible. The revival in the viability of LP as a format for new releases in 2014 signifies a reappearance of the material object as a carrier of music. Despite the price premium over digital formats, some listeners are prepared to pay for an object that comprises of the recording, packaging and the platter. They choose an object that commands a defined physical space and holds a period of time. Listeners are again, albeit in small numbers, visiting independent record stores. In those physical spaces they can be part of an imagined community of people who may regards themselves as music aficionados. Once at home with their material objects, listeners can engage in the rituals associated with preparing, playing and hearing music. Those passionate about vinyl relish the total sensory experience associated with the format. To them LPs encompass elements that are aural, visual, the tactile and, yes on some occasions, aromatic.

 

 

 

Bibliography

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