The vinyl lesson

Old Vinyl

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There has been a bit of a buzz recently that the sales of vinyl records are on the increase, and what does this mean. This isn't a 'the joy of vinyl' post, but rather that the rise of vinyl has some interesting lessons for what happens to an industry or artefact after the arrival of the digital, networked version. I think there are three main lessons:

1) The arrival of digital highlights the real value in the analogue version – in this case the vinyl wasn't about being a music distribution platform, but rather a complete art object. Its physical presence was its value. People now say that they value the limitations vinyl puts on the listener, so you have to listen to a whole album and don't simply shuffle. These are qualities that are brought into focus by the presence of the digital alternative.

2) It is more complex than simply digital replaces analogue – let's make no mistake here, although vinyl is on the increase, it is dwarfed by digital downloads. The monopoly of the old system is nearly always overthrown by the arrival of the digital, networked version. But it oversimplifies matters to say "X is dead" now.

3) The analogue becomes a specialist, hobbyist pursuit – digital and networked nearly always trumps analogue in terms of convenience. But the new values we've come to appreciate in 1) mean the analogue version moves to becoming a monority interest, but of great value to that group. It increases in (maybe financial, but certainly emotional) value, but decreases in reach.

The same has happened with nearly all analogue artefacts where a digital, networked version has come into existence. Think paper and online newspapers, maps & GPS, digital and film photography, and so on – books are in a similar transformation process now.

What's perhaps more interesting is whether the same applies to activities as well as artefacts. Shopping has seen some of this, although not to the same extent – the activity of shopping has often moved online (see reports about the death of the high street), but it hasn't quite become a hobbyist pursuit. But the convenience of online shopping has meant it has lost its monopoly and people have become to realise what it is they like about 'real' shopping (for me, nothing by the way), which is the social side. So city centres have become a greater mix of coffee shops, restaurants alongside shops.

Now here's a couple of activities to consider in the light of the three vinyl lessons:

  • Academic conferences
  • Teaching

Maybe that's for another post…

4 Comments

  1. Teaching? You sure you don’t mean content delivery?

  2. I could see the trajectory for your metaphor from 1.6 km away. And I love it.
    I’d also add something about the artful packaging of vinyl, the design, the liner notes, that yes, we can get in some ways digitally within a few clicks to graphics, but it is not the same as the pleasure of beholding album art. I is a package.
    But what happens in this wave is that it is the good vinyl/shopping that matters or succeeds (“good” being relative); not all vinyl is great.
    The only thing dead is saying “X is dead”

  3. Brian says:

    I don’t have the storage space, or the wallet, to qualify as a real vinyl collector. But I love the medium too much to let this post pass without a quick comment…
    * Kevin Kelly suggests, “When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.” Circling back to conferences and teaching, if we are coming to a point where the actual content is becoming “super abundant”, then what is not so easy to copy digitally? I find myself thinking of a post you wrote a few months ago “Space – the purpose of education”…
    * Another post you wrote comes to mind: “Levels of friction in sharing”… In a post about vinyl I wrote a few years ago (http://tinyurl.com/8yb6efb), I quote someone from an indie label who says “the involvement and work the listener has to put in …make it the format of choice for people who really care about music.” Something about the effort required is significant. Granted, part of it could be dismissed as fetishism, a way of identifying oneself as a conspicuous connoisseur, like someone who always buys expensive wine… It could even be classified as a form of delusional nostalgia. I remember Geddy Lee once saying that the supposed “warmth” of vinyl was simply the listener taking the distortions and pops of a record and convincing her/himself that this was superior. Kind of like how a wood-burning fireplace is inarguably less efficient than proper central heating, yet somehow feels more satisfying.
    * As you note vinyl is still a tiny, if resilient, piece of the market. Five seconds of research indicates (http://tinyurl.com/2c358zf) that a “good” recent year for vinyl resulted in sales of about 2.8 million total units in the US. Twenty years ago, that would be respectable but hardly amazing numbers for a single hit album. Not sure what the significance of that factoid is… except maybe that the passion of vinyl freaks gives them an outsized cultural influence (and that the real action in vinyl is in the used trade).

  4. Martin says:

    @Alan – only 1.6K away, I like to think the trajectory of my metaphors can be seen from space. You are absolutely right – what the presence of digital has made us realise, or at least appreciate more, is the vinyl record as a complete artwork. But yes, Rick Astley vinyl is still rubbish
    @Brian – I had you in mind at some point when I was writing this, so thanks for commenting. It was the resilience, even resurgence, of vinyl that prompted this post. It hasn’t gone away as we might have expected and is flourishing, but in a very relative sense. Some people have portrayed the vinyl increase as a ‘failure of digital’ which misses the point by several miles. But I like that it persists, and the reasons for this persistence are what interest me. My guess is most vinyl listeners also have an iPod and an extensive digital library, but it’s an alternative experience.
    Re teaching (by which I meant face to face lecturing I guess), I think like shopping it will be more resilient to these processes than a pure artefact, but the arrival of online options will make us appreciate the value of what face to face offers.

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