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Vinyl; Rejecting the digital or a nostalgic postcard?

2020 is the first year since 1986 that vinyl surpasses CD sales. This has been quite an observable change. Record stores are popping up left and right and I’ve spotted many ads on and offline for vinyl players. In a digital world you can imagine that there is an appeal to going back to something more physical. The physicality of playing records is most likely only one reason for its revival, another could be that acoustically it gives that sweet cracklin’ and other sound characteristics that listeners yearn for. But these arguments can work just as well for playing CDs. What precisely makes vinyl so appealing?

Enough books are written on mankind’s relationship to music. There always has been a strong emotional attachment to the sweetest melodies or loudest basses. It is not rare to have felt goosebumps while listening to your favourite tunes or at a concert. Increasingly however, our musical intake has been through digital streaming, and solely so during the pandemic. Convenience is king, having all music available through a few thumb swipes is fantastic. The downside of convenience is that you lose part of the experience normally associated with that activity. This change did not happen in a few years, streaming music through platforms like YouTube has been available since early internet days. And even before that it was a digital ‘download’ playable through windows music player.

It is not hard to imagine the appeal to vinyl. There is something near magical to the ceremonial act of sliding records out of their case, the handling with utmost care, and placing it in its final resting place that will produce a rustic analog sound.  Carefully manoeuvring the needle in the right slit. The record starts turning and music comes alive with a few sputters and crackles. Seeing the vinyl spin draws you in almost as fast as a big fireplace. It also overcomes the anxiety that comes with unlimited choice, there is after all only a finite selection of LPs to choose from, unless you work in a record shop that is.

The thing about using relics from the past is that it can also be seen as a nostalgic activity. Even though most recent vinyl enthusiasts most likely never lived in the age of its peak popularity. You can still be nostalgic for a time period or activity you have not lived through. There are two sides to Nostalgia. Nostalgia can generate positive affect, it can increase self-esteem, or creates connections, but perhaps most interestingly it can alleviate existential threat/dread. But nostalgia is often triggered by emotional states such as loneliness or other negative moods. The question then is whether nostalgic activities hold us back or does it keep us going?

Nostalgia can be a dangerous state, longing for simpler times and better days is something that can quickly turn anyone into a grumbling ghost walking around sneering at all modern facets of life. The statement ‘back in my day’ is a bit of a meme, but the desire to not live in reality is a dysphoric state. There is also of course a lighter interpretation that it merely is a common form of escapism. Plenty of examples that can make anyone desire to get lost in a relic of the past and forget about the long list of crises we are facing today.

Whether it is the sound characteristics, hipster habits, or ceremonial ritual, we can at least all agree that with the intrinsic second hand-nature of vinyl, it is an activity that leaves little environmental impact. And on the plus side, it makes for very easy birthday gifts.