Why LPs and books aren’t dead as a Dodo just yet

mwanasimba via photopin cc

 

On April 19 this year, as on the third Saturday of every April since 2008, a strange thing happened outside record stores around the world.

People lined up, often overnight and around the block, to buy vinyl records.

Yes, vinyl records, which by the clearly incorrect reckoning of most of us had long ago shuffled off their mortal technological coil to join the 8 Track, Betamax, and the Commodore 64 in that great analogue cemetery in the sky.

It was all thanks to Record Store Day, founded in 2007 by a group of people who missed the reputed sonic warmth of vinyl, and were determined that neither it, nor the often independent stores that sold it, would become victims of humanity’s ceaseless headlong rush to newer, shinier formats.

What makes this zombie-like refusal of vinyl to join its outdated forebears in museums and dusty collector’s garages even more striking is that many of vinyl’s modern adherents are so-called Millenials, those born after 1980 through to the early Noughties, who have led a significant resurgence in vinyl purchasing even as their parents traded in their records for compacts discs.

And the surge in sales figures, partly due to the profile-raising endeavours of Record Store Day, which this year triggered a 280% week on week gain in vinyl sales in the U. S. after the event according to Hollywood Reporter, appears to have as much to do with an emerging unwillingness of consumers to fully let go of physical formats as it does with sound quality and nostalgia.

 

<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/fensterbme/102458936/">fensterbme</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">cc</a>
fensterbme via photopin cc

 

Writer and editor Alex Molotkow, featured in dedicated vinyl owner Joshua Ostroff’s post on Huffington Post Canada about the unexpected rise and rise of records in the 21st century, Vinyl Record Revival: Millenials Adopting Parents’ Album Format, had this to say about why people seem reluctant to go wholly digital despite the prevalence of streaming services such as Rdio and Spotify, and downloading sites like iTunes:

“I think what sparked the revival maybe is that CDs are kinda worthless, and I hate to say that because I’ve spent a lot of money on CDs, but there’s just not enough preciousness to the CD as an object to justify spending money on it. The thing about vinyl is that it’s a rarified pleasure.”

The head of Paper Bag Records,Trevor Laroque, also quoted in Ostroff’s article, sees this re-embracing of the pleasure of vinyl as a welcome trend, one that renews the sense of forming a relationship with the music you own, something he doesn’t think happens with downloading or streaming:

“People will see that when they listen to their music, that they can have a physical connection to it as well, by placing it on the turntable and having to turn it over when side A is over … It’s cool to own something like this rather than a line of data on your computer screen that you click and don’t really connect with.”

He notes that while vinyl sales never really went away, it was harder in the past to feed your record habit, something which has changed with the increasing willingness of acts as diverse as Jack White, Solange Knowles and Coldplay to release their music on vinyl as well in CD form and via download.

Granted vinyl sales are still a small percentage of music sales overall, and the digital means of procurement account for the majority of music sales (in Australia in 2013, downloads accounted for 54.7% of sales), but the return of this once-maligned format is not just a twinkle in some Gen X-er’s eyes with vinyl recording a 77% spike in sales in Australia last year while in the UK they hit their highest levels in 15 years.

This surging rise in vinyl sales, which is feeding a renaissance in independent record stores which are once again becoming hubs for music lovers eager to meet in real life with those who share their passion, doesn’t look to be a flash in the pain, a sign that while digital is king, it has a rather plucky musical prince nipping at its heels that shows no signs of going away anytime soon.

 

Dead as a Dodo article vinyl

 

But it’s not just records that are playing on well past their alleged use-by date.

Books too are showing no signs of disappearing as they were supposed to, either from peoples’ bookshelves, nor from public consciousness or affection, despite the rise and rise of e-books, which have convenience and sheer instantly-accessable range in their favour.

And that, says avowed book lover Josh Catone, writing on Mashable (Why Printed Books Will Never Die) has as lot to do with the look and feel of a physical book, something that simply can’t be replicated by utilitarian e-readers:

“… there’s something about print that I can’t give up. There’s something about holding a book in your hand and the visceral act of physically turning a page that, for me at least, can’t be matched with pixels on a screen.”

Author Joe Queenan, whose Wall Street Journal opinion piece is quoted in Catone’s article, goes further arguing that books are as important any other artform and thus have importance and value way beyond mere repositories of stories and words:

“People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel.”

He goes on to say:

“Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A Métro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in Homage to Catalonia in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.”

Catone argues that books also possess an innate beauty that e-books simply can’t match, even though publishers and authors are increasing toying with the possibilities offered in the digital form such as the inclusion of multi-media or soundtracks to, it is hoped, enhance the reading experience.

 

 

(image via Facebook (c) The Awkward Yeti)
(image via Facebook (c) The Awkward Yeti)

 

And it’s this innate beauty, the books role as a collectable object, an evoker of memories and nostalgia, that is driving the sales of hardcover and deluxe coffee tables, both of which are recording noticeable increases in sales even as e-books surge in popularity.

What seems to be happening is that people are choosing e-books, which recorded a surprisingly subdued rise in sales of only 4.8% (Forbes) in 2013 in the US, for their staggering at-your-fingertips choice and portability, while turning to hardcover books and lavish coffee table tomes to make a statement about who they are, about what matters to them.

It’s a trend noted by Mireille Silcoff, writing in the New York Times (On Their Death Bed, Physical Books Have Become Sexy) who had this to say about the emergence of books as a designer accessory as much as a well-loved source of stories or information:

“A new kind of hard-copy bibliomania has without question sprung up along the banks of digital reading. I don’t really have a friend, either heavy reader or the sort still getting through the Malcolm Gladwell she got for Christmas, who doesn’t want, have or feverishly dream of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I am not sure that floor-to-ceiling bookshelves haven’t even become my generation’s — or at least my peer group’s — No. 1, most-desired décor scheme. Celebrities like Leelee Sobieski and Scarlett Johansson are now photographed in front of their vast spans of spines, the way woolly-browed rabbis and ponderous authors used to be. James Franco tweets shots of his bookshelves, and the landscape of 30-something lifestyle bloggers lights up like a stoner’s brain on an M.R.I.”

She is quick to note however that all this “paper-book love” as she calls it may simply be the latest manifestation of a long-observed, generations-old pattern of clinging to that which we as a society have largely lost:

“My mother, born in 1945, in the dawning age of the ultraefficient stand-up shower, fantasized about having one of those deep, heavy claw-foot tubs. My grandmother, born in 1919, just before the wide spread of affordable central heating, always said how lovely it would be to have an inglenooked fireplace. And I, in the era of Amazon and near e-book domination, can’t stop looking at a photo — pretty appropriately, on a website called bookshelfporn.com — of a younger, less-scandal-racked Nigella Lawson in her home study, a tiny figure at her little desk, backed by a towering, romantic landscape of 3,500 books reaching the rafters. I see this, and I think: Oh, yes! Give it to me, Nigella!”

 

pedrosimoes7 via photopin cc
pedrosimoes7 via photopin cc

 

While that is likely true to an extent, what seems to be at work here too is a phenomenon not yet encountered in the history of humanity – the exchanging of tangible objects such as books and LPs for the intangible 0s and 1s of downloads and streaming.

In every other great supplanting of an established technology by its new, far more advanced replacement, one physical format has begat another physical format, with 8 Tracks for instance giving way to vinyl which in turn made way (or rather was supposed to make way; as we have seen it is stubbornly refusing to play the part of the spurned obsolete audio format) to cassettes and compact discs, and hand-drawn and written books giving way to printed mass-produced editions, paperbacks (which are not quite dead and buried yet either) and then to the ascendant e-book.

But in our digital age, people are being asked to hand in their precious books, and their valued LPs for files, which though profoundly useful and unarguably efficient and thus very much embraced, do not much of a stylistic or artistic statement make.

And that then is the crux of the matter, that aesthetics and art and the look and feel of things matter greatly to people, and that while they have always been ready to embrace new technologies and remain very much willing to do so, that what we are witnessing in this second decade of the twenty-first century is a seismic shift in the way art and culture are presented to us, one with no precedence in human societies that have always placed a firm value on physical objects.

That may change of course as the new generation along embraces the digital world fully and completely but if current trends in the world of music and literature are any indication, that is not likely to happen for quite some time yet.

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