On my radar: Re-embracing old technology

2015-01-29 14:00

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Vinyl records and books are two traditional formats that are clawing their way back into popularity in a technological age where instant gratification has become the norm

Sales of vinyl records in the UK broke the 1?million mark last year, the highest since 1996 and an 18-year high. The sales accounted for £20?million (R342?million) of the record industry’s revenue, up from just £3?million three years ago. In the US, 8?million vinyl records were sold last year, an increase of 33% from 2013.

In terms of global music sales and taking into account digital music formats – downloading and online streaming – this is a tiny percentage, but not insignificant. Something has shifted. Music lovers are taking a detour on the technology superhighway.

Deejays have long preferred vinyl over CDs – a music format that’s in its death throes. The writing has been on the wall for a while for CD shops.

Two years ago, music retail giants like HMV and Virgin Records started to shut up shop. So it’s puzzling, and surprising, that a music format that predates CDs is clawing its way back into popularity in an era of transient ownership and instant gratification.

Martin Talbot, MD of the Official Charts Company (home of the UK Top 40 music charts), says: “In this industry, you see music formats come and go. What you rarely see is a music format grow, decline and then grow again. It’s a sign that the ownership of music still means something to people.”

So while CD shops are dying, hybrid stores are coming alive. Rough Trade is a music retail company that has been around since 1976. Late last year, it opened a three-storey shop in Nottingham with a café, events space, music and books. Vinyl records account for nearly half of all the company’s sales, an increase of 49% in the past year.

Co-owner and director Stephen Godfroy thinks that, ironically, vinyl sales have been boosted by the rise in digital sales and the fall in CD sales.

He says the growth is not driven by a mature listener indulging in nostalgia, but by younger listeners looking for a physical product to complement their digital music collection.

“While the digital download is instantaneous and portable, vinyl has a sensory quality. I think we are moving into a post-digital age where people value something real. There’s a value in its ownership. It’s not just a piece of binary code on a mobile phone.”

This last thought brings me to another “old technology”: the book. Ironically, thanks to a four-month postal strike, I have a new-found respect and loyalty for print media. The strike taught me a valuable lesson.

I subscribe to Time magazine, which is usually delivered weekly. A four-month postal strike meant that I missed out on 16 issues. Fortunately, my subscription allowed me to download the digital versions, which I did, but interestingly I did not read them. If I’m busy and unable to read an issue, they pile up, creating a visual “nag”.

I then inevitably grab a few copies to read on my regular travels to Cape Town. I could take my iPad on the plane, but there are limits to when you can use a digital device, like during take-off and landing. A print version is more convenient.

Memeburn publisher Matthew Buckland added another layer to the print media argument when he wrote about the “attention economy”. He said: “We have limited attention to give to media. Print magazines exist in the same physical space as human beings; digital magazines don’t. Digital magazines are behind an ‘on’ button on your tablet or behind an app or a browser?…?They are not just there. Print magazines are dedicated devices; digital magazines share their devices with a thousand other digital magazines and tools.”

I like the notion of a book being “a dedicated device”, and apparently I am not alone. Like vinyl, book sales are clawing their way back from a digital abyss while e-reader sales are fading.

Interestingly, sales of young adult fiction are on the rise. I believe it has everything to do with format and, like vinyl, format is becoming an increasingly important differentiator for print media.

I know you can share e-books and digitally bookmark pages, but it really is not the same.

Digitisation has been revolutionary, but that does not necessarily make for a better user experience.

For example, when you read a book, you create a “cognitive map” of what you read, enabling you to remember where a certain passage is if you want to re-read it – for example, top left-hand page.

There is also “kinesthetic” information based on bulk and heft, which allows you to gauge how much you have left to read.

These tactile and sensory experiences are becoming more important as a digital omnipresence takes over our lives. There’s a reason that while the battle between print and digital publishing raged on, and despite a recession, second-hand bookstores never disappeared.

It’s also telling that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has declared 2015 “A Year of Books”.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. Visit www.fluxtrends.com

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