To have and to hold: re-embracing “old” technology.

Posted by Flux on 

29 January 2015


Last year sales of vinyl records in the UK broke the 1 million mark, the highest sales since 1996 – an 18-year high. This accounted for £20m of the record industry’s revenues, up from just £3m three years ago. Over in America 8 million vinyl records were sold in 2014, a jump of 33% from 2013.

In terms of global music sales, taking into account digital music formats – downloading and online streaming – this is a tiny percentage, but not insignificant. Something has shifted. Music lovers are opting to take a detour off technology’s superhighway.

Vinyl has long been a preference of DJ’s, even during the CD era – a music format that is in its last death throes. For CD shops the writing has been on the wall for some time. Two years ago music retail giants like HMV and Virgin Records started to close shop. So it is puzzling, and surprising, that a music format that predates CD’s is clawing its way back into popularity in an era of transient ownership and instant gratification.

Martin Talbot of the Official Charts Company (home of the UK Top 40 music charts) made the following observation, “In this industry you tend to see music formats come and go, what you rarely see is a music format grow, decline and then grow again – it’s a sign that the ownership of music still means something to people”.

So while CD shops are dying, hybrid stores are growing. Rough Trade is a music retail company that has been around since 1976. Late last year they opened a three-storey shop in Nottingham with a cafe, events space, music and books. Vinyl records account for approximately half of all the company’s sales, an increase of 49% in the past year. Company director, Stephen Godfroy thinks that, ironically, vinyl sales have been nudged by the rise in digital sales and the fall in CDs sales. The growth, he says, is not driven by a mature listener indulging in nostalgia, but younger listeners looking for a physical product to compliment their digital music collection: “While the digital download is instantaneous and portable, the vinyl has a sensory quality. I think we are moving into a post-digital age where people value something that is real – there is a value in its ownership, it is not just a piece of binary code on a mobile phone.”

This last thought brings me to another “old” technology: the book. Ironically, thanks to a 4-month postal strike, I have newfound respect and loyalty for print media. The strike taught me a valuable lesson. I subscribe to TIME magazine, which is usually delivered weekly. A 4-month postal strike meant that I missed out on 16 issues. Fortunately, my subscription also allows me to download the digital versions, which I did, but interestingly I did not read. If I’m busy and unable to read an issue they start piling up in my lounge creating a visual “nag”. I then inevitably grab a few copies to read on my regular commutes to Cape Town. I could take my iPad on the plane but then again there are limits to when you can or can’t use a digital device, like during takeoff and landing. A print version is just more convenient.

Memeburn publisher, Matthew Buckland, added another layer to the print media argument when he wrote about the “attention economy”. He said, “We have limited attention to give to media. Print magazines exist in the same physical space as us human beings, digital magazines don’t. Digital magazines are behind an “on” button on your tablet, or behind an app or a browser… they are not just there. Print magazines are dedicated devices, digital magazines share their devices with a thousand other digital magazines and tools.”

Like the notion of a book being “a dedicated device”, and apparently I am not alone. Like vinyl, book sales are also clawing their way back from a digital abyss, while eReader sales are flat lining and fading. Interestingly, sales of young adult fiction particularly, are on the rise. I believe it has everything to do with format, and like vinyl, format is becoming an increasingly important differentiator for print media.

I know you are can share eBooks and digitally bookmark pages, but it really is not the same. Digitisation has been revolutionary, but that does not necessarily make for a better user experience. For example, when you read a book you create a “cognitive map” of what you read, enabling you to remember where a certain passage is should you want to re-read it (eg: top left hand page). There is also “kinaesthetic” information based on bulk and heft, which allows you to gauge how much you have left to read.

These tactile and sensory experiences are becoming more and more important as a digital omnipresence takes over our lives. There’s a reason that while the battle between print and digital publishing raged on, and despite a recession, second hand bookstores never disappeared.
It’s also telling that Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg has declared 2015 “A year of Books”.

By: Dion Chang

About Dion

Image credit: Hubert Berberich

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