Physical Media: Exploring Our Desire for Vinyl Records and Books

by Hannah Gentry

In our modern age, the inventions of old have been tossed aside in favor of new digital versions of them. Instead of having to hunt down an Elvis Presley or Chet Baker vinyl record all over town, thanks to Spotify and iTunes, all one needs to do is type the name of the artist into the search bar. This 21st century innovation has all but gotten rid of the need for physical copies of music, movies, and other media. Since everything can be uploaded digitally on a smartphone or a computer, old forms of media should be obsolete. However, that does not appear to be the case when now, more than ever, young people are gravitating back to analog.

Vinyl records have had a resurgence in recent years and the market for them has come back to life. Manufacturers have struggled to meet the demand of the new vinyl revival. Michael Palm, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, explains that “for the first time in 50 years, supply stopped keeping pace with command” (1). Many of the people interested in collecting vinyl are young and grew up in the digital age. While classic albums ranging anywhere from Frank Sinatra to David Bowie are being made and sold again, modern artists who have no need to release their music as records have recognized the value in this resurgence. Artists such as Panic! At The Disco, Sam Smith, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Eminem and Dua Lipa have released their music as vinyl to profit off the trend. Palm writes that “new media does not automatically supersede their predecessors, and records are a case of “residual media” being experienced in new ways as well as old” (2). The past and the present collide with this form of media. With classic and modern artists being accessible on vinyl, it creates a new way to enjoy music from different generations. Both young and old people can enjoy the same feeling that comes with spinning a vinyl record on a turntable and listen to their favorite musicians authentically.

A running theory for why vinyl records have made a comeback is a yearning for the old ways. David Sax, a journalist specializing in business and culture, notes that analog goods are popular again “despite the fact that these technologies are functionally obsolete” (Sax 1). Perhaps young people gravitate to analog goods because of the feeling that comes with them. One cannot physically touch digital media, but people can enjoy the feel of a record and the hisses and cracks a record player makes while trying to process the music. It could be that we have a desire to grasp onto something real and experience a more genuine form of playing music instead of just streaming online. Tracey Thorn, an English singer and song-writer, asserts “part of me can’t help feeling that it’s really the pops and crackles that have made a comeback, securing their place in people’s hearts as some kind of badge of authenticity” (Thorn 1). In an age where entertainment feels superficial with our connection to music not going beyond a glass screen, the return to vinyl seems like a welcome reawakening to our senses.

Nostalgia plays a heavy part in our desire for relics of the past. Although modern artists are adding their own spin to the retro form of vinyl, this longing for records is associated with wanting to go back in time to when things were simpler. To a time before technology took ahold of everyone’s lives and back to when music was also a physical enjoyment. Yet, this does raise a couple questions as to why young people are so fascinated with a past that they played no part in. Sax notes that “consumers who weren’t even around when these technologies first lost their prominence are driving their resurgence. How can a 15-year-old be nostalgic for a turntable, when her parents never owned one in the first place?” (Sax 1). This association with nostalgia might not be as confusing as it seems. There is a deeper reason related to our society as to why young people feel nostalgic despite not living in an age when vinyl was relied on. It is a rejection to the superficial aspects of digital consumption.

Thomas Escalante, the owner of Sig’s Lagoon Record Shop, comments that “the more that we embrace technology, the more we realize that things were just fine the way they were.” The sounds a record makes are not present when streaming music online. Young people do not want to get rid of the old when they couldn’t experience the realness of analog because they were born in a modern generation. They want to go back, to relive how their parents and grandparents enjoyed music in a different physical way that they didn’t get to experience. Even if it is a “false” sense of nostalgia, in the end nostalgia boils down to being wishful affection for the past. We can still feel the same yearning for the past even though we weren’t around. Young people long to go back and experience a time period they unwillingly missed out on. They feel drawn to how things used to be done because in some ways they might be more aware of the emptiness that comes with modern technology. After all, their entire lives have been incorporated in the impersonal digital age. Escalante asserts that “with vinyl, you can look at a record and look at the tears, the marks, the burns even, and it becomes a time stamp to what both you and the record have gone through. That’s just not there with digital media.” Even if it is a futile objection to the inevitable flow of time, young people want to rewind and participate in the way music used to feel: real and personal.

Sunshine M., an employee for Vinal Edge Records, also agrees with this sentiment. She comments that “people want to participate in it [the past]. Young kids will come in here and buy records from the 50s and 80s. Even though it is very trendy right now, there are definitely some people who will keep collecting for a long time.” There is a genuine connection to music our senses can make only with physical copies. Sunshine states “there is a novelty to actually holding a record physically. It’s a fun experience. Actually playing a record does not compare to streaming on Spotify. It just sounds different.” For some people, the difference in sound is enough to justify going out and collecting vinyl records instead of streaming. Michael Palm writes that even though “access to digital technology is unquestionably uneven” it is likely “records will continue to hold steady as a niche format in what some scholars have taken to calling our ‘postdigital’ condition” (Palm 11). In a recent Forbesarticle, journalist Jim Amos researches the high-definition vinyl records that are expected to launch this year, which will only further push the resurgence. He writes that this advancement “should send sales of upgraded turntables and speakers through the roof, with the same effect that CD sales had on the electronics industry in the 1980s” (Amos 1). Although the technology of the future is here, with some modifications, inventions from the past can also be brought along with it. Vinyl records refuse to fade away into obscurity and the market for analog nostalgia continues to play on.

It is not just vinyl that has experienced a resurgence. Young people are reading more than ever, and print books are the preferred format. Although the advent of the Kindle pushed the popularity of eBooks, print books remain popular and in constant use today. A 2014 study conducted by The Nielsen Company discovered that teens prefer print books over eBooks. The study states “Over half of teens are still looking for books on library or bookstore shelves. And in-store browsing is about level with browsing online for this group” (Nielsen). Sian Cain, a journalist for The Guardian also reached the same conclusion that the younger generation prefers print over digital. “Readers committed to physical books can give a sigh of relief, as new figures reveal that eBook sales are falling while sales of paper books are growing – and the shift is being driven by younger generations” (Cain). In a surprising turn of events, it seems the older generation is embracing the new format of reading on their phones or tablets. Yet, for the younger generation, they cling onto the physical feel of the pages and the weightiness of a book in their hands.

This desire for print books might also be linked to nostalgia. For many, they can remember their parents reading to them at their bedside. They remember their first trip to the library, the reading rooms at school, and the thrill of having temporary ownership of something they can enjoy in private. eBooks are still relatively new and not encouraged for use at school or college by teachers and professors. However, despite the educational disapproval of eBooks, it is unlikely that is the only reason young people prefer print. Tina Walker, a barista at The Library Coffee and Wine House, comments that “we are trying to get back to the paper. Technology is just getting beyond us. Devices are convenient, but a print book really puts you in the story.” For many people it is easier to find where they left off and retrace their steps by flipping through the pages rather than scrolling on a screen. Many have also agreed that the smell of a book is calming and adds an extra element to their reading experience. Walker believes that “we are still trying to keep books close, keep them alive. Styles come back around, and books are coming back with them.” Physical books remain the format of choice despite technology for the same reasons that young people are rejecting the impersonal emptiness of streaming music in favor of vinyl. We choose to cling onto physical books because they are authentic, reliable, and unchanging.

Cassandra S., an employee at Brazos Bookstore, comments that books are “one of the most consistent forms of information we have. When technology crashes, we are still gonna have books.” It could be that we take comfort in something that has remained unchanged throughout many centuries. Unlike vinyl records that became obscure, we were always allowed to experience books the same way our parents and grandparents did. Ever since ancient scrolls went obsolete centuries ago, there has been no advancement or changes made to the format of a book. In all these years, books have stayed the same because we feel content with how they are without a need for adjustment. Perhaps we do not want to let go of the common experience of flipping pages that connects us with the past and recalls us back to our own childhood. Whether it is nostalgia, or just a preference, print books are not going to be deleted by eBooks. The market for print is still going strong, and at establishments such as The Library Coffee and Wine House there are plenty of young people cozying up with a book who do not desire anything more advanced than the paper and ink.

We have a need for relics from the past not just because they are old and retro, but because of what they represent to us. They represent the tangible enjoyment we take from these forms of entertainment. The feeling they give us cannot be replaced with a screen or a new way of experiencing these things. The old is gold because we tend to connect more with something we can physically grasp and study. The resurgence of analog goods helps us to reject the modern inventions that make us feel we are lacking the essence of what we are consuming. Technology keeps developing and changing, but our human desire for genuine contact stays unchanged.

Works Cited

Amos, Jim. “The Nostalgia-Infused Resurgence of Vinyl and How High Definition May Propel It Even Higher.” Forbes, Forbes Media LLC., 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamos/2019/01/22/the-nostalgia-infused-resurgence-of-vinyl-and-how-high-definition-may-propel-it-even-higher/#6927dd1d47ac.

Cain, Sian. “Ebook Sales Continue to Fall as Younger Generations Drive Appetite for Print.” The Guardian, Guardian Media Group, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/14/ebook-sales-continue-to-fall-nielsen-survey-uk-book-sales.

“Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover: Tech-Savvy Teens Remain Fans of Print Books.” Nielsen, The Nielsen Company (US), LLC., 2014. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2014/dont-judge-a-book-by-its-cover-tech-savvy-teens-remain-fans-of-print-books.html.

Escalante, Thomas. Personal Interview. 2 February 2019.

M., Sunshine. Personal Interview. 2 February 2019.

Palm, Michael. “Analog Backlog: Pressing Records During the Vinyl Revival.” Journal of Popular Music Studies, vol. 29 no. 4, Wiley Subscription Services, Inc., 2017, pp. 1-2, 11. EBSCOhost,https://libproxy.hbu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgao&AN=edsgcl.519391415&site=eds-live&scope=site.

S., Cassandra. Personal Interview. 2 February 2019.

Sax, David. “Why Are Vinyl Records Making a Comeback?; Nostalgia Grounds Us in a World of Constant Flux.” The Hamilton Spectator, Metroland Media Group LTD., 2017. EBSCOhost, https://libproxy.hbu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsnbk&AN=161B9C61B6C5D9C0&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Thorn, Tracey. “Off the Record: Perhaps the Point of Vinyl Is Not the Music at All but Those Poignant Pops, Crackles and Hisses.” New Statesman, New Statesman LTD., 2017. EBSCOhost,https://libproxy.hbu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsggo&AN=edsgcl.520322429&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Walker, Tina. Personal Interview. 2 February 2019.

Hannah is a Sophomore working towards a Writing Major and English Minor at HBU. She enjoys plotting new stories and failing at art tutorials.

Send this to a friend