The Road to Nostalgia Is Paved With Vinyl

Mary Kinney

 

Recent figures from Nielsen SoundScan suggest that vinyl sales were up 33.5 percent in the first half of 2013. To some, this is jarring because we live in the digital age. One might suggest this rise is similar to the ebook trend Neil Irwin dicussed in the Washington Post this summer: old technologies don't go away, but rather, hone in on a more niche market.

 

But perhaps there is something more to this trend: an indication of our culture of nostalgia, and that nostalgia extends far beyond what we initially thought.

Writer and futurist Alvin Toffler wrote in the 1970s of “Future Shock” which occurs when there is “too much change in too short a period of time.” It is worthy to note that this term is re-emerging in document from an advertising consultant: this increase in sales of nostalgia has not gone unnoticed. And yet research by consultancy ICM this year (using a representative sample of Great Britain) suggests that people in the 18-24 age range are buying more vinyl records than any other age group under 50.

 

John Nolan, author of Hip: The History suggests in his book that agencies often treat hip “as a consumer choice rather than a form of enlightenment.” While we understand nostalgia to exist for older generations, perhaps, for certain subcultures, the constant state of flux is exhausting for some in the younger generation.

 

Top vinyl sales are geared towards classic rock and indie bands. We understand that this movement towards music as object is specific to a particular subculture: those that are begrudgingly called hipsters. Vinyl sales and the embracing of the analogue acts as an extension of both the nostalgia that our culture is steeped in, and the cult of the hipster.

 

What is more specific about this generation is nostalgia for a time it has not lived in (the constant reissues of albums, the success of Instagram, and the rise in vinyl sales). These cultural leanings are not prominent simply because of a generation reminiscing about its own past: it is the 20-somethings wishing for a simpler present, harkening back to a past they cannot remember.

 

Simon Reynolds, who wrote Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, reflects on this phenomenon: “We live in the digital future, but we’re mesmerised by our analogue past.” This movement, Reynolds argues, could be partly due to politics: the financial crises, economic downturns, and fraught political conflicts make the present and its potential future feel less hopeful. And so, we retreat to past trends. However, the push-pull of the digital and its analogue nostalgia also contribute to the rise in vinyl sales and our cultural retromania.

 

 

Reynolds states in a 2011 interview with Salon that this shift towards the past “was gradual, but with the arrival of the Internet, and broadband access, and the rise of this kind of strange collective archiving thing, [looking backward] became irresistible.” This movement appears to have been co-opted by the marker of this 18-24 generation: their identification as Internet natives. With the rise of digital music and the iPod, music lovers have nearly unlimited storage, easy file-sharing, and the ability to seamlessly create playlists, but some lost a sense of ownership and became interested in the physicality of music’s past. The rise of vinyl is perhaps a direct response to the dematerialization of music.

 

Walter Benjamin considers the collector’s tendencies in his essay “Unpacking My Library”: "Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories." Often, collectors—vinyl collections included—are middle-aged men. The serenity of the collection is the order of the catalogue and the memories of his youth.  The memories that this younger generation is latching onto are the memories of others: there is a rhapsodizing of previous generations.”

 

The ‘60s are often a root of nostalgia because it was the decade that, according to Reynolds, existed so much in the present. Benjamin also notes, "There is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between poles of disorder and order." For this generation, because of the iPod and the limitless storage at our fingertips, there is a certain type of order, but there is an indulgence in the disorder of a now decaying medium.

 

Most within the 18-24 range connect to the novelty of a record shop experience or the physicality of the vinyl and its large artwork and liner notes. ICM’s study found that, in Britain, independent records stores are “driving and fulfilling a growing demand for music on vinyl.”  It emphasizes the physicality of the record itself, but also the physicality of a community relationship, rather than a disembodied forum (though these have a plethora of uses to the subculture as well).

 

 

At the same time, there is an emphasis on objecthood in conjunction with the digital: they are not mutually exclusive interests. Many LPs come with digital downloads for your iPod, computer, and the like in order to keep the portability of the music beyond its objecthood. A range of vinyl buyers cite the fullness of sound; however, according to ICM's study, a third of buyers don't have a record player.

 

Jean Baudrillard says in his essay “The System of Collecting” that any given object has two functions: "It can be utilized, or it can be possessed." The true objecthood of something depends on it being "divested of its function and made relative to a subject" That is to say, something that is strictly utilitarian cannot truly be possessed. We wish to toe that line between function and object, and those who collect vinyl for its artwork and physicality wish to have a certain ownership of music that has been all but lost in mp3s. This movement, like the cult of hip, exists within its contradictions.  John Nolan states in his book Hip: The History, that the goal of hip is to be multiple things at once, to destroy a sense of self. He adds,” To destroy yourself is to become subject and object.”  

 

The Recording Industry Association of America notes a rise in vinyl sales  of 29 percent in 2012, but this only represents about 2 percent of the overall market. Still, it is an indicator of the larger trend towards the past. Nostalgia is not a new phenomenon, but as a generation, the Millennials long for an era in which they never lived, which then explains why Fleetwood Mac concerts are populated by so many young people, or why On the Road was made into a movie recently.

 

Nolan notes “Hip enlightenment begins in this double consciousness” that “communicates in the language that means more than one thing or through the layered contexts of irony.” Perhaps this forward movement in the digital and the backward movement of retromania exist because they emphasize what this generation has thrived on: contradiction. 

 

Author Bio:

Mary Kinney is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

Photos: Radargeek (Flickr); Jeroen020 (Flickr); Uitdrager (Flickr).

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