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Sandra Mason: "Spotify Can't Compare to Vinyl"

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Who are the diggers? Why are they different from DJs? What's their role in the musical landscape in the age of Spotify? In order to understand this, we met Enrica Borsatto (29) - AKA Sandra Mason - one of the biggest Italian representatives of the field. Sandra Mason is originally from Padua and her artistic background was established between Rome and Zürich. On the 4th October she will be playing at the Digitalive Romaeuropa Festival 2019.

By googling the word “digger”, the first result page is entirely dedicated to undertakers. I thought this would have been a music interview, is it?

Indeed (laughing). Yet, to some extent, the word "grave" is very similar to “crate”, which is also a container. Actually, it is a useful term to explain what diggers do.

What do you mean?

In the field of music, when we talk about diggers, we refer to those people who are passionate about music and spend an excessive amount of time by looking for analog musical supports. They look around almost everywhere - in shops, open air markets, it doesn't matter. These are the places where they start 'digging'. Inside the shops, they will be stuffing their hands inside different crates: boxes, bookcases, shelves. Diggers dig into depth and cross information of all sorts: starting from the cover design of a disk, to information about the owner of that shop.

According to you, it seems like a niche inside the world of music.

Indeed, the digger's world may be a niche. Let's say - you are a good digger when you manage to find some good tracks from the archives and play them at a gig.

So why can't we simply call you DJs?

Because the diggers don't necessarily play in a club. The two things can go together very well, but not necessarily.

How did you become a digger?

When I was 16 I bought my first disks. Later, I met people older than me who organized events. This is how I became interested in turning into a DJ. But it didn't last for long. I realized that I was being lured into an area that actually didn't really interest me. I realized I liked buying music even more, looking for disks to find out, without having the obsessive though of playing for the gig. Anyway, I have been working for the club for years, especially managing its logistics.

On Thursday you will be playing at the Digitalive Romaeuropa Festival 2019 though. Something mist have changed then...

In 2004, I received the first calls thanks to word of mouth. Some friends' friend heard that I was collecting specific genres, and they asked me to play for a few small events. In 2015, I moved to Zürich, where I spent two years. There I met Valentina AKA Ms. Hyde, a sort of soul sister in music terms. We played many times at Bar 3000, the Zukunft's club. We were into the same genres, especially new wave and alternative funk. This way, I found enough confidence to play in front of other people.

So you are saying that Sandra Mason came out by chance, without having any family influence?

My parents didn't pass down my passion towards vinyls. Although, they transmitted to me their passion for some genres, my mother in particular. On Sundays, when I was a kid, very often I woke up with Sakamoto in the background. We generally also listened to Japanese synth-pop and funk and disco music. I didn't even know what it was at the time. I hated it, to be honest. It was only years later when I realized that some of the songs' textures I was listening to were extremely familiar to me. I realized this when I started buying and looking for LPs. So, in the end I realized I had to thank my mother! Another important influence came from MTV - ranging from the MTV selection brand new, to the more experimental TV channel QOOB - I discovered tracks and artists which influenced my taste.

At the Digital Live Romaeuropa Festival 2019, you suggested a music path bound to the festival's leading words: contemporary tribalism, post-internet identities, and genderless. How are these words related to the music diggers' activity?

To some extent, I think that “contemporary tribalism” is an appropriate term because music lovers are like fluid tribes which continuously recompose themselves according to their music taste. "Post-internet” also identifies that phenomenon which now considers digging as a means based on a mixed research method. On one hand is the physical search inside the shops, and the constant, virtual live updates on the other hand. In addition, now people look for a dialogue between different genres and I think this is a singular trait of our generation. Lastly, “genderless” acquires its true sense through the denial of a mainstream thought, often express through the formula of “an exclusive feminine sensitivity” and the like. It is a categorization that I personally refuse both conceptually and practically.

How much is the problem of gender discrimination relevant in this sector?

Very much. You can see it from the line ups where there's always been a male dominance in this field. Now we can see the quotas for women. I am not a fan of them but I think - and hope - that this is a transition phase toward a future characterized by less discrimination. Do you know how many times I was told by salespeople, promoters or friend (usually men): "Hey, look! A woman is buying LPs?" If you like you can use it to your advantage, but in the long run it is tiring. I think it’s absurd to judge and explain any sort of music production or expression on the criterion of the artist’s sex, whatever it might be.

Given this is the digital era, is there the diggers’ golden age?

I think that during the ‘80s and ‘90s, people didn’t feel the need do define themselves as such, although collectors were already present. Later on, many shops disappeared with the advent of the mp3, so the role of the digger acquired a more distinct connotation in the contemporary age.

How many LPs do you own?

About 2000. It’s not a huge amount, actually.

If I were to come to your hose, what would I find there in this moment?

A mess (she laughs). Probably, you would find vinyl everywhere.

How do you keep track of them?

It's an ongoing job. I always try to check my collection and ask myself what are the things that have a real value for me, for the gigs I have scheduled or, maybe, for the current market.

What do you mean?

Sometimes, a DJ plays an LP that you have in your collection, it might happen. So, it’s value can skyrocket. If I am no longer interested in it, I sell it and buy another one.

Let’s go back to the disks cataloging...

I catalogue them according to their genre: Italian disco, Balearic, cosmic, German experimental, new age '80s, wave, alternative disco, madchester, factory and many British productions, and so on. In another bookcase I collect techno and house mixes. However, hybrid genres are the real “problem” but actually, according to me, they are the more interesting ones, for example the Italian wave or the new beat.

It’s hard work. There’s a real artisan component in all this.

In fact. It is about a very introspective work. This is why I love vinyl. It’s not only about their vintage fascination. There’s something unique in discovering a disk, touching it, identifying the cover. I wouldn’t manage to play music from a USB. I can’t feel the same bond. Whenever you hold a vinyl disk in your hands, you can experience feelings and memories which a file can’t transmit to you.

It’s very similar to the fact that journalists claim the primacy of the paper…

Maybe. But I don’t claim the right to say this is the only possible way. It’s simply the one that works better for me.

You can’t move everything just with a click of your mouse, can you?

Actually, you can have some difficulties with files. Some friends of mine only work with the digital support and they have more material than I do. They often use classification method that even librarians wouldn't use.

How do you make sense of the digger role in the age of Spotify?

Spotify can’t cover everything. And I’m saying this although I use it myself. Sometimes I can find the name of an artist I like. And you can find it because of some mysterious agreement between the label and the streaming platform. Anyway, I don’t think that everyone that uses Spotify has the same needs I do. And I don’t think Spotify damages diggers.

Who are the main diggers in Italy and in Europe?

Now, on the fly, I would say Guglielmo Mascio, Francesco de Bellis, Lorenzo Sannino in Italy. Abroad instead, I think about Vincent Privat, cofounder of the shop Dinozord in Parigi, Albion, Charles Bals, Kara Gözlüm, Izabel Caligiore. And there are others for sure! In the last years, many diggers and collectors became famous, especially those who founded labels and specialize in reprinting.

Can you explain us what reprinting is about?

Let’s say that those who reprint disks, look for tracks or albums which are difficult to find. They often have a given focus on some particular genre, LPs which were forgotten for some reason. Then they get in touch with the artist to buy their rights. The new versions often contain unpublished works, interviews, and everything that may help to contextualise it and fully appreciate it. When a reprint is not authorized, it’s called bootleg. In the last years, this phenomenon has become relevant. In the past, reprints in the shops’ newsletters counted for the 20 per cent, but today they have reached 60 per cent. There is also another aspect, which is a bit more complex, and it is about edits.

Can you tell us more about edits?

The real edits modify tracks to make them easier to play, giving to each a fixed beat, extending some parts, or removing others, to make them more suitable for a DJ. There are also some who take a track and reprint it without substantially modifying it, especially without any authorization, in a similar way to what happened during the ‘80s with bootleg cosmic and Afro.

With positive or negative consequences?

The situation has become confusing. Today, it’s hard to understand a reprint’s use because, at times, they are useless products. Sometimes, there are many labels which reprint the same artist a few months apart, without communicating with each other. That said, there are many incredible labels which work with passion and coherence, such as Music From Memory, Alessandro Adriani’s Mannequin Records, Seance Centre, Archeo Recordings, Stroom.

According to you, how has the relationship changed between people and music in the last 20 years?

Today we are bombarded by music. It has become hard to swim in this ocean. It’s not a matter of what kind of support. But of physical possibilities. In theory, you can have everything. The paradox is that having so much choice, it's harder to make a decision.

Do you think that simultaneity devalues the very moment you are listening to it?

Of course, keep your concentration has become more difficult. When I was in high-school my friend listened to the whole CD, from the first track to the last one before before burning it. Today, it is very unlikely someone would do the same. There’s a sort of anxiety in skipping every 30 seconds. My car is the only place where I listen to the music like I used to do in the past and I think it’s the ultimate place to listen to the music.

You haven’t got a Spotify account, but you have one on Soundcloud. From there you can go on your Discogs account: can you tell us what it is?

It’s the biggest online music database, a sort of musical Wikipedia which subscribers can publicly edit. At the same time, it’s also a marketplace where you can sell and buy CDs. I use Soundcloud to share my mixes, on Discogs, I catalogue my collection and sell disks. And last year I’ve started working with a Youtube channel, Cocktail Naïf. It focuses on music scenes and artists which were never really appreciated.

How much is travelling important for this job? And is it more important to travel physically or mentally?

It’s really important; physically especially. There has been a period, let’s say the years 2008-2009, when there was a blog explosion from which you could download everything. Some gave contextual information about the CDs. However, in most of the cases they were thematic micro-communities. Unfortunately, with the shut down of the main file sharing sites, such as Rapidshare, many links stopped working. To some extent they were online digital thematic maps.

What happened then?

The phenomenon didn’t last for long due to copyright issues. During those years you could be a digger in the opposite direction: at first you discovered CDs and then you looked for them in the real world. It’s more complicated now.

Are there any countries in Europe which can be considered as the diggers’ paradise?

France and The Netherlands for sure. But, in general, diggers travel according to what they are looking for, this is why you have to do a lot of preliminary work. In Italy, Rome is certainly the main place. Porta Portese market is phenomenal for this: you can’t help but find something useful. From Italo disco, to the sound addition used in the Italian TV Channel Rai, to the obscure 7-inch. Also in Napoli some interesting things are re-emerging.

In an article pubblished by Esquire, two boys talk about their journey in Nigeria as diggers, filming their research, their accidents, and so on. How much is the diggers’ activity eco-friendly?

Given that today you can choose to spend your weekend in any European city, I think that the impact is consistent with the rest of other cases. Indeed, I think that those who look for vintage music are actually doing a recycling work, to some extent. As far as it concerns the specific case of Nigeria, it is non rare to see real expeditions in the country. Nigerian boogie disks are among the rarest and the most expensive in the market.

Speaking of business, there are far fewer music shops now...

Well, actually there has been a revival lately. But I fear this is a temporary phase, if not a bubble. It’s clear that this is the historic fact which has characterized the market starting from 2000: the advent of the digital lead to the collapse of the whole industry.

What should an aspiring digger do today?

Study hard, in an inductive way, starting from the single tracks or disks. The nit would be useful to follow a linear approach, going backwards, and asking themselves about genres and artists.

Oh and last question - why Sandra Mason?

I often complain and mumble. This makes my friend think about the Italian actress Sandra Mondaini. At the same time, I always want to be right, so someone mentioned Perry Mason, the lawyer. Sandra Mason is a mix of both of them. Basically, it means that I am a pain in the *** (she laughs). But I like it: it really sounds Italo disco.

Translated from Sandra Mason: «Ci sono dischi a cui Spotify non può arrivare»