Step back in time: the vinyl fightback

As some of you might know, I am a pretty big music fan, and have invested a rather silly amount of money over the years in increasingly redundant CDs (1200+?).

I still buy the things, but most of the music I listen to ends up coming out of my iPod or via ITunes on my desktop (as uploaded from said CDs). The process of playing a CD through the stereo at home doesn’t induce much romantic nostalgia. Yes, the stereo sounds better than the tinny computer speakers and bud headphones, but feeding the iPod through is just as satisfying.

What really is fun is plonking a record on the turntable, listening for the opening crackle, and also scrutinising the sleeve artwork at its natural scale (i.e. 12″ square). That’s music (and music consumerism/fetishism) at its most sensory (beyond the live forum).

The drama with the vinyl format for too long has been the difficulty of getting the tunes off the vinyl and into the computer/iPod. Of late, I have begun to buy more and more releases on vinyl, and the big drawcard has been stickers like the one above. Many vinyl versions now come with a little card or sticker inserted in the packaging which allows a download of an MP3 version of the same album. Now, my life is easier, and I have the best of both worlds.

And I’m not alone in getting excited about this. Vinyl sales just passed 2m for 2009 in the US – a number not seen since the early days of CDs.

This is a wonderful example of a technology (and thus a sub-segment of an industry) bouncing back from what looked like obsolescence. Too often we assume that technology (and consumers) only progress forward.

It would also seem this is not just a retro fad. The growth has been pretty steady for the past few years. It may well be a niche market, comparable perhaps to boutique beers, original artwork or hardcover books.

I do like the ideas of the original Wired editor Kevin Kelly on why pricier tangible products might be preferred by some consumers rather than ubiquitous and close to free digital versions. He refers to generative value:

“…a quality or attribute that must be generated, grown, cultivated, nurtured. A generative thing can not be copied, cloned, faked, replicated, counterfeited, or reproduced. It is generated uniquely, in place, over time. In the digital arena, generative qualities add value to free copies, and therefore are something that can be sold.”

He goes on to propose eight different generatives. The relevant ones for vinyl records would be embodiment and perhaps also patronage (i.e. you feel you should support the artist, and perhaps technology, involved). It is hard to see how digital music can address such issues.

What are the strategic management implications? Well, it seems to be smaller record labels and certain genres (dance music, garage and indie rock) that have embraced this collision of the physical and the digital. They may build a point of differentiation with fans (and bands). Presumably also those who have persisted with pressing plants, artwork services etc are now reaping the rewards of their persistence and rare capabilities.

What other industries have/will experience(d) such technological regress?


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2 Responses to “Step back in time: the vinyl fightback”

  1. Ben Says:

    Yes vinyl sales have doubled since about 2007, but the vinyl buyers are not the ones who have kept the format alive all these years. Dance music releases on vinyl kept the presses running in the 90s and the 00s, but now, something which will come as extremely depressing to the DJ community, the iconic Technics 1200 turntable is no longer being produced.

  2. Steve Sammartino Says:

    I’ve also seen this in Surfing, where for the first 40 years in the modern era of the sport everyone wanted to use the latest and greatest surfboard. There was, for a period, a retro thing with long boards but it was singular as where the sport was born and it seemed as though every surfboard design between the original and the current cutting edge shapes were ignored. In just the last couple of years people have started embracing different styles of surfing. From the 70’s early 80’s and so on where the surfers are not only using the equipment but devolving their surfing as well.

    In addition these retro models of the surfboards are selling at up to twice the price of the cutting edge designs.

    Steve.

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