Op-Ed

Why is vinyl making a comeback? ‘Nostalgia’ doesn’t quite cut it

Over the past few years, analog goods including physical books, board games and, of course, vinyl records have experienced a surprising resurgence — despite the fact that these technologies are functionally obsolete. How could this be happening? Why would someone pay $20 or more for a second-hand copy of Bill Withers’ “+Justments” on a scratchy melted plastic disc that plays only on a costly, troublesome turntable, when she could stream the same album in digital clarity on Spotify for free?

The conventional wisdom is that nostalgia is to blame for this twee trend: Millenials, hipsters or that most-coveted demographic, the millennial hipster, are indulging in some perverse Wes Anderson fantasy. They’re deifying outdated things and repackaging them as contemporary culture.

But the conventional wisdom is too simplistic, as it so often is. Across the board, consumers who weren’t even around when these technologies first lost their prominence are driving their resurgence. How can a 15-year-old be nostalgic for a turntable, when her parents never owned one in the first place? How can you accuse a 25-year-old computer programmer of being lost in the past, simply because he collects hip-hop 45s in his spare time?

If nostalgia more broadly understood plays a role, though, that’s a bad thing only if you believe that progress ought to move in a linear direction. 

In today’s rapidly innovative, digitally driven economy, reverence for the old stands in opposition to the Utopian futurism at the heart of Silicon Valley. The past is relevant only in terms of how quickly you speed away from it, and as long as Moore’s Law holds steady — doubling the speed of processors and halving their cost every 18 months — the only hardware and software that truly matters is the next version. No one pines for Windows 2.0, or the iPhone 4; progress is a one-way street, and anyone who dares to reverse course is a Luddite.

Outside of Silicon Valley, the world doesn’t work this way. In real life, innovation is a two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance, the product of trial-and-error experiments in which we adopt, reject, forget and resurrect ideas in science, culture, politics and commerce as we move forward in time. Nostalgia’s role here is crucial. It is the critical eye that values everything against what came before it, and constantly asks whether each new idea is an improvement, or not.

When Nancy Silverton opened La Brea Bakery in 1991, bread in America still meant processed, sliced, packaged loaves sold at the grocery store. The invention of processed bread in the early 20th century was heralded at the time as a great technological leap. Suddenly, bread was cheaper, more plentiful and had a longer shelf life, making it more accessible to more people, which had a significant impact on hunger and the food supply. But soon enough, consumers were nostalgic for the slow fermented sourdoughs that no longer were available, and it was bakers like Silverton who brought them back to the mass market. 

Today, the country supports thousands of artisan sourdough bakeries, and even your average supermarket loaf has more character — and flavor — thanks to the food trend Silverton and her cohorts achieved by looking back to the way bread was made in the past, and making that bread accessible in the present.

When I buy artisanal sourdough, it’s not because of some misplaced fear of bakery science, but because that crusty, airy, wonderful loaf just tastes so much better than Wonder bread.

My passion for collecting records is driven by the same judgment. It was only after I uploaded my CD collection to iTunes, then abandoned that for the endless buffet of streaming, that the unseen benefits of listening to vinyl became apparent. All the digital inventions (MP3s, iPods, Wi-Fi, cloud computing) that brought me free, disembodied music anywhere, anytime, made me value music I can own, display, touch and feel with all my senses. To the millions of consumers worldwide who have resurrected the record industry over the past few years, I suspect the feeling is mutual. To us, the return of vinyl — even as we listen to streaming services on the drive to work — represents not regression, but progress.

Silicon Valley may never look back, but for the generation who has grown up with omnipresent digital technology, nostalgia isn’t just some foolish whim. It is a life raft, and the one sure means of grounding ourselves in a world that promises constant change. My turntable is from the 1970s and so are many of the records that play on it. It can be fixed, modified and restored, but it cannot be rendered obsolete. When disruption is the norm, the real disruption may just be permanence.

David Sax’s most recent book is “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.”

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