Sunday, November 10, 2019

Play On

A recent edition of The Economist ran an article captioned The Strange Revival of Vinyl Records. In all probability, few millennials would have any idea what a vinyl record sounds like. But for an older generation, it is hard to believe that it’s been over three decades since cassettes and compact discs (CD) supplanted vinyl, after its century-long domination of the music industry.

Fast-forward to 2004 when the CD peaked at over 90% of volume sales. That year, the rise of MP3 and new streaming services signposted the beginning of the slow decline of digital sound storage media. Although the vinyl footprint was marginal and retail sales had flatlined, yet the medium refused to die. By 2019, The Economist estimated that record album sales had risen unexpectedly to 4% of the music market, and surpassed the CD for the first time since 1986. Why the resurgence?

Nostalgia is the obvious, but glib, answer. Certainly, it is a factor but there are more nuanced explanations, such as demography and technology trends.

For better or worse, in the aftermath of WW2 the cohort of new babies was the largest of its kind in modern history. Defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, the so-called baby-boomer generation (boomers) grew up in relative prosperity, if under a frigid nuclear cloud. Discordantly, as the counter-culture movement of the late 1950s and 1960s - exemplified by rock 'n' roll music - tugged at social norms, some aspects of home life remained constant. Back then, the record player was a fixture of the living room static furniture, as were taciturn fathers who rarely lifted a finger around the house. But during the end-of-year holiday season, the dynamics changed.

Suddenly, the old man took charge of stringing up greeting cards and decorating the Christmas tree. In the spirit of goodwill to all, sulky children would clear away their 45 rpm singles and cede territorial control to their father, hoping that his good mood would make him amenable to granting myriad requests. Dusting up his album collection and regaling visitors with songs by the likes of Bing Crosby and Jim Reeves, the glow around the house usually extended into the New Year. Then, the Christmas tree went down and normal routine resumed. That just about summarises a dewy-eyed recollection of the post-WW2 era through a narrow lens. 

But wait for it. Unbelievably, in 2006, a horde of front line boomers hit the three-score mark. 60! Five years later, many left employment and began to swell the ranks of pensioners. Amazingly, the self-indulgent and mutinous Beat Generation had grown up, went mainstream, assumed the mantle of the establishment, and finally became grandparents. The shoe was now on the other foot. Former cultural rebels were now contending with a bewildering post-modernist ideology espoused by their offspring. With the clock ticking down, yet with so much time on their hands, where could they turnScour the past for the familiar and trusted, perhaps?

In the event, picture boomers with a deserved reputation for moving demographic needles rummaging through their closets, salvaging old albums, but discovering that several were irrecoverable. Though enjoying the portability of their digital music players and access to streaming services, some would succumb to an old itch by going out to purchase a turntable. Seeking to recreate that old time feeling when the grandchildren pay a visit, grandpa might underscore protest stories from his youth by holding up his old copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Pausing to admire the album cover, grandpa may well spin and jitterbug before settling down in his favourite chair.

From barely suppressed smirks to respectful eye-rolls, the grandchildren would politely hang around to share this curious hiss and crackle experience. Bemused by the static noise, the stylus could then get stuck in a worn groove two minutes into the song "Ballad of A Thin Man.” Startled by a repetition of the same sonic ditty, the poor kids may suddenly realise that grandpa failed to react because he had dozed off!

In his dream world, grandpa perhaps might be re-enacting and recalling his father’s snap command: “Wrench” from underneath his car bonnet. In those days, many men were car fanatics who sought to bond with their restive sons by waxing lyrical about pistons and carburettors. These fictional anecdotes support the idea that, as well as being psychologically attached to the past, we are also a highly tactile species that loves to tweak and tinker. If, for example, the vision of the driverless vehicle materialises and succeeds in tearing cabbies and truckers away from the steering wheel, what next for those idle hands?

Increasingly, as we transition from an analog to a digital world, it is worth remembering that history is littered with periods when new and more efficient technologies supplanted the old. But, like the fag end of a cigarette left behind after the rest has combusted, traces of old technologies tend to linger. To all intents and purposes, electric and carbon-neutral technologies will soon replace the internal combustion engine which runs on fossil fuels. Similarly, digital watches, electronic books and digital cameras have made significant inroads into the watch-making, publishing and photographic industries, respectively. One thing is clear - technological progress is rarely, if ever, reversed.

Yet, long after an old technology has passed its sell-by date and become sufficiently quaint to deserve a hallowed spot in a museum, usually there are holdouts who strive to keep the legacy alive. For example, after motor vehicles displaced horse-drawn carriages, horses bolstered pastimes like show jumping, thoroughbred racing and polo, all preserves of the well-heeled.

Going full circle, the recent spurt in vinyl sales highlighted by The Economist was not a unique phenomenon, but part of a trend. In popular culture, people who venerate items like mechanical wristwatches, leather-bound books, original paintings, vintage vehicles, and retro turntables, are caricatured as long in the tooth conservatives. No kidding!  


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