Thoughts on the vinyl LP resurgence…
A more recent version of this article can be found at Provocative Penguin
A few quick thoughts about an article in the Los Angeles Times titled “CD and mobile music sales fall in 2010, but vinyl continues its resurgence”. I’m not particularly surprised by the RIAA’s 2010 Year-End Shipment Statistics, which reveal that vinyl LP sales surged 26% while digital music sales – albeit still positive – were fairly unimpressive. Over the past few years it has been fascinating to see band merchandise tables at local bars inundated with young fans lining up to purchase LPs. At the end of any indie show it’s not uncommon to see the crowd streaming out – LP in hand.
Let’s begin by thinking about the usual explanations for this phenomenon (i.e. that the increase in LP sales comes “partly from live DJs who prefer vinyl over digital and partly from a new generation of collectors who see them as valuable souvenirs.”) There are two factors to consider: (1) live DJs and (2) LPs as valuable collectors items. I’ll avoid the easy, self evident, answers which you can probably come up with on your own, and offer a few – less intuitive – ones
There is a certain mystique surrounding analog media. Cassette tapes are now valued for their nostalgic properties, ‘authentic’ DJs spin vinyl records in contrast to their digital spinning poseurs. Quite some time ago in 2007 I observed the – almost religious – awe that young people in clubs had for vinyl spinning DJs. It struck me then that the DJ was something like an analog priest that the young data crunching digital information labourers turned to on their weekends for a little ‘saving’:
“It is the thrill we feel upon seeing vinyl. The return of the LP, nearly dead, now valorized: a call for the grooves of the vinyl over the binary numerals of the digital. Surrounded by the noise of the machine, learning to dance in a cybernetic feedback loop as the bears-per-minute exceed 160, [but] we are calmed by sight of the vinyl, we are warmed inside: the sound compelling our bodies to learn to dance faster was produced – thank goodness – by physical ridges and grooves.”
We – in technologically savvy nations – are said to increasingly be living in an age that is post-scarcity. The DJ in this regard, equipped with (often rare) analog pressings stands as something of a throwback or reminder of the age of scarcity. (It is no coincidence, in this regard, that we are obsessed today with reality TV and live events: we tune in each week to catch a glimpse of something ‘real’, something that falls outside of our rationalized, pre-programmed, digital lives. This is precisely why DVRs will never capture 100% of the TV market: viewers enjoy watching programs and sporting events live in order to procure a little bit of something ‘real’.)
If we are going to think about why LP sales are surging, we should very briefly consider why people purchase objects. A consumer agrees to purchase an object or service for a whole host of reasons: Sometimes we need the thing in question for physiological reasons (for example, a bottle of water on a scorching hot day); Sometimes we want the thing in question in order to be personally satisfied or entertained (for example, a new book by our favourite author); Sometimes we expect the thing in question to confer upon us a kind of symbolic or social prestige (for example, the trendiest brand name clothing or a rare work of art to ‘ooh and awe’ our collector friends). Of course, almost every object or service we purchase has some mixture of need, want and expectation. I may be parched yet conscious of the brand of water I buy (for example: needing water to survive in the summer sun, but also expecting others to symbolically acknowledge me as a Evian kind of guy vs. a Starbucks Ethos kind of guy vs. a No Name brand kind of guy.)
It is expectation that I think is useful if we are to understand the continued success of LPs. Consider that a major factor in getting a consumer to fork out their hard earned cash – as George Lucas is all too aware – is to offer a “limited” or “special” item. And owning a limited, or special, item offers symbolic or social prestige. This is drilled into our heads early on in our lives: you might recall coughing up your allowance for a pack of sports cards in the hopes of finding a fabled ‘rare card’. As any kid is all too aware, the common cards are nice to have, but it’s difficult to get excited about something every other kid on the block has ten of… You become the talk of the playground by having a card that no one else has. I would call it juvenile if it weren’t the case that many grown men act this way as well, albeit with more expensive toys.
Although I don’t like to admit it, when I go to my local record shop, I rationalize my purchase in a similar way. The store usually displays 2 or 3 copies of a new album. If I don’t buy it at the time I’m in the store it could be a week or two before new copies come in. (Or, longer if the store wasn’t planning on stocking any more.) At worst, the album might have been produced with a limited pressing, meaning that I’d have to look to the secondary market.
Consider how radically different this sort of reasoning is from that of the iTunes customer, or a user hemming and hawing over whether to pay for a Grooveshark Plus subscription. What’s different is that the iTunes or Grooveshark customer does not have to deal with the issue of scarcity. And for that reason it’s difficult to accumulate social prestige or symbolic value through the ownership of MP3 files purchased from iTunes or by streaming them on Grooveshark. (The very same principle applies for Google Books, which may one day offer access to a universal library. A part of me thinks that the hesitation to drop printed books and read ebooks – exemplified by the popularity of bookstores like Indigo and Chapters – has to do with a narcissistic component of the act of reading: Often when I am on the Subway I watch people read. Frequently the readers will divert their eyes from the book and check to see who is looking at what they are reading. In contrast, nobody can tell what you’re reading from the back of your iPad or Kindle. Perhaps these ereaders would sell better if they could display the books’ cover on the backside of the device… 🙂 )
Creating an LP is complex and until the mid-late 1980s consumers could not easily reproduce an album in the comfort of their own homes. When cassette tapes begun replacing LPs an individual could create a reproduction – albeit taking the same amount of time to reproduce as the length of the content. These cassette reproductions were timely to create and imperfect. When compact discs began replacing cassette tapes it became possible to simulate content and make identical copies. Furthermore, these identical copies no longer were beholden to the length of the content, and CD writers increased their speeds with each passing year until finally reaching near-instantaneous simulation of content. A few years after the Mp3 revolution begun with Napster and was legitimized by iTunes, consumers had the ability to duplicate/simulate content instantaneously. There is a psychological gap between analog songs on an LP and digital Mp3 files on your hard drive. The LP cannot be copied whereas I know an Mp3 file can be copied for anyone without data loss as many times as possible… One is subject to a principle of scarcity, the other is not.
Now, it’s absurd to expect that LPs themselves will be the great savior of the recording industry in 2012+, however I’m sure the industry I’m sure will be looking to the 26% sales surge of LPs for clues to its own success. I think it’s only a matter of time until the industry looks to LPs and asks how they can – in the year 2011/12 – integrate some of the exclusivity, scarcity and physicality into digital content.
So what can digital media learn from (and take from) analog media? Here’s a wild suggestion that seems to run against the attributes of new media/digital content and will seem backwards to most: To build a principle of scarcity into digital media. What if, for example, record labels started imposing limits on the number of times an album can be downloaded, thereby injecting scarcity into digital media? To tell you the truth, I think the industry will probably attempt something similar when ‘cloud’ based services like Grooveshark don’t pay off as they were expected to and it dawns on them that access to content is not the only active force comprising consumers’ desires.