Times are tough in the music business nowadays! Sales of CDs, and of almost all other forms of recorded music, are dropping precipitously. And the live concert business is wilting as well, with entertainers from U2 to Christina Aguilera forced to cancel performances because of low customer demand.
Earlier this month, however, when Billboard reported its annual SoundScan sales totals, one form of recorded music actually reported a significant increase in sales volume between 2009 and 2010. And the size of that increase would have been impressive in any era: 14% on a year-to-year basis!
Even more surprising was the nature of the format that experienced this increase in sales volume. Yes, it was the venerable disk shaped record, a technology that was first introduced in the 1880s and that overtook the phonograph cylinder during the 1920s. Can it now become the growth story of the 21st century?
Spanning The Eras
Before we get too carried away with excitement over the possible resurrection of the vinyl record, it may be worth noting that only 2.8 million long-form vinyl albums were sold in 2010. That’s obviously a miniscule number in comparison to the 440 million long-form recordings that were sold in electronic or other non-vinyl formats; nevertheless, it surprised many analysts who had already assigned the vinyl record to the dustbin of history.
Just as surprising was the broad mix of musical eras that were popular among vinyl purchasers. The top-selling vinyl album was the Beatles’ classic Abbey Road; it was first produced in 1969 in the heart of the vinyl era. The #2 album, though, was issued by Arcade Fire, a band that began performing in 2001. And the #3 album was issued by Radiohead, a band that first emerged in 1985. In other words, the top three vinyl record bands of 2010 actually span the 1960s, the 1980s, and the 2000s!
Although it is true that the 2.8 million vinyl albums that were sold in 2010 represent well under 1% of all long-form recordings issued that year, it is nevertheless evident that the vinyl medium is somehow remaining attractive to a wide variety of age groups. What could be the cause of that attraction? And what might that tell us about the future of paper books and film photography, the other survivors of the media communication industry of the 20th century?
Seeing, Hearing, Feeling … and Even Smelling!
Electronic forms of music are, of course, superior to their predecessors in many respects. They offer much clearer sounds than the imperfect recordings of vinyl and magnetic tape. Their devices are smaller and far more mobile than turntable technologies. And they can easily be copied from one unit to another, a feature that has certainly contributed to their popularity, although they have bred concerns of piracy among record producers.
Fans of vinyl recordings, however, have long treasured the sensory experiences that are embedded in turntable technologies, experiences that are forever lost when one shifts to electronic media. The visual pleasure of gazing at album cover art, the sound of the unique imperfections that personalize each vinyl album, the feel of the dust rag as it sweeps across the face of the record – and even the smell of a long-forgotten album sleeve pulled out of a musty cover – are, in the minds of some dedicated fans, well worth the inconveniences of the medium.
Some may scoff at such individuals, but they do have a valid point; namely, that the sensory experiences of vinyl albums are indeed qualitatively different than those of electronic recordings. It should come as no surprise, then, that certain individuals would derive more pleasure from older vinyl media than from newer electronic ones.
Paper and Film
So what may the resurgence of vinyl records teach us to expect from the other main forms of 20th century communication media? Such as paper books, for instance? And film photography?
Bibliophiles may take heart from the surge in vinyl record sales; after all, an old book does convey a visual, a tactile, and even an aromatic experience that is far more distinctively sensual than an e-book that is loaded on an Amazon Kindle or an Apple iPad. Although e-books might indeed grow to dominate the book industry some day, there will always likely be readers who will prefer to crack open the spine of a hard cover classic than to download the corresponding pixels from a web site.
Film photography, though, is a different matter. The sensory experience of clicking the shutters on a film camera is no different than pressing the button on a digital camera. Furthermore, the visual pleasure that one experiences when viewing a digitally generated image is the same as what is felt when viewing a filmed image. Because there aren’t any noticeable differences in the sensory experiences of producing and accessing digital and film images, consumers have no reason to maintain their allegiances to the older technology.