Not so long ago, records were the preserve of muso anoraks and hipsters. Now they’re back in big box. And, after almost flat-lining in 2006, last month vinyl sales outstripped digital music sales for the first time in the UK (though that’s partly because streaming is cannibalising digital sales). In this age of Spotify and iTunes, what gives with our newfound love affair with vinyl?
A new study from the University of Auckland suggests a major motivation is that we still enjoy living in a material world.
Karen Fernandez, an associate professor of Marketing at the University of Auckland Business School, had noticed the trend for all things retro, vintage and legacy - from home gardening to vinyl. Yet, a fundamental marketing assumption is that people crave the new, and prominent marketing scholars have predicted that digital music would take over from analogue. So why were old-fashioned things still so popular, she wondered?
Fernandez and fellow researcher Professor Michael Beverland of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology decided to investigate by focussing on the allure of vinyl. They interviewed 25 vinyl collectors from New Zealand, the UK and USA. Most were men, many were in their 20s and 30s. All were vinyl aficionados: one put in his wedding vows that his wife would never make him stop collecting, another had 7000 records stored in his mother’s garage.
The researchers found that much of records’ appeal is tied up with the fact that they are material objects: things you can hold and display, things that make concrete something abstract - music with all its emotional associations - and that bear physical traces of their owners’ lives.
"People talked about not just the vinyl itself - the warm human tone, the crackle, the touch of the needle - but that the whole process of acquiring and using the vinyl seems to involve other people," says Dr Fernandez. "Even the stories they exchange with sellers and other buyers in the shop become part of their memories for that record."
Dr Fernandez remembers a particularly poignant story told by a young woman who was part of this study. When the woman was buying a record, the seller told her it had a scratch caused by his young son, who had since died.
"Every time the needle jumped, he would remember his son. So the woman took on being the keeper of this scratch, every time she heard it she’d remember the man’s son. That’s been at the back of my mind for years: the power of a concrete thing."
Many of those interviewed in the study said the physicality of vinyl made it feel more substantial than digital music - more of an "authentic" connection with the artists, and more of an expression of identity.
"It [is] more of a ‘collection’ when there are tangible items sitting in your house rather than random electronic items in your iTunes," said one participant. "You can see it and feel it and it becomes more of an experience, more of a social occasion...at the same time you can see it play…you can see music happen."
Another said: "If there’s a physical artefact I can build a whole set of memories and recollections [but] digital music doesn’t really exist. It is just there."
Says Dr Fernandez, "People want to be able to display their identity through the objects they own to themselves and other to other people. I don’t think that’s ever going to change."
The cover-art on record sleeves added another dimension highly valued in its own right. Many enjoyed the challenge of hunting down obscure records, complaining digital music was just too easy. In fact, the care and effort involved in finding, playing and looking after records created a precious sense of ritual.
"Way back in the day they made cake mixes that you just had to add water to, but they didn’t sell," says Dr Fernandez. "People do value something more when they’ve put some personal effort into it."
Fernandez hadn’t owned a record before doing the study (though Beverland became a collector during the study). Then, when she was preparing a presentation, she stumbled across YouTube videos of people ritualistically unwrapping a new record and playing it for the first time.
"That made me buy my first record - Abbey Road by The Beatles. Now I’m a convert."
The upshot for marketers?
"Be wary of what you lose when you miniaturise and digitise, because you lose that whole dimension of physicality. And never underestimate the critical role that physicality plays in creating connections between people’s sense of identity and objects."
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