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Everything old is new again!

Vinyl records, photographic film and paper are once again in demand

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April 13th, 2017
Vinyl record on a turntable

"Suddenly, turntables are back and vinyl is once again cool."

Odds are, you have a cell phone. Perhaps you also have a personal computer and an MP3 player. There’s a good chance your recent photographs are digital and you may even do much of your reading on a tablet or e-reader. 

These digital wonders might be considered technological marvels by anyone over the age of 40, but to the younger generation, they are just everyday devices. Many of today’s youngsters have never unspooled 35mm film into a camera. They’ve never had to worry about making it to the record store before a new album sells out. And they’ve never had to sit at home waiting for the phone to ring.

Vinyl record albums; landline telephones; printed books, magazines, and newspapers; photographic film; board games; and even paper diaries might be considered relics of the past—outdated and forgotten.

However, a curious thing is happening. While the older generation struggles to learn the language of emoji and the art of social media, the younger generation has been busy hunting for film cameras and vinyl records. They are seeking things that can be held. Things that don’t need Wi-Fi or battery charging or passwords. To put it simply, analog things.

The revenge of analog

While progress marches steadily on, outmoded technologies have acquired an exotic mystique. As author David Sax puts it in his book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, “the real world matters now more than ever.” 

His book presents fascinating case studies of the entrepreneurs, small business owners, and big corporations succeeding against all odds by marketing what many believed to be obsolete products.

Vinyl revival

First introduced in 1931, vinyl ruled the music industry until the early 1970s when 8-tracks, cassette tapes, and later, CDs hit the marketplace. At its peak in 1978, 331 million new vinyl albums were sold. By 1993, sales had plummeted to 300,000.

Digital downloads took over in the early 2000s. While the new format was quick, cheap, and accessible, when recorded music went from being a physical object to an untouchable digital file, something was lost. 

As Sax points out in his book, with vinyl, a person’s musical taste was on display. You could walk into someone’s home and peruse his or her record collection and leave knowing that person a little better. When was the last time you browsed someone’s iPod or MP3 player? 

This distinction was not lost on the younger generation. As their parents flocked toward Facebook and Twitter, young people rebelled by bestowing a sort of counter-culture cachet on old-fashioned vinyl. Suddenly, turntables are back and vinyl is once again cool.

Last year marked a 25-year high for the sale of vinyl. More that 3.2 million vinyl albums were sold. For the first time ever, the public spent more on vinyl albums than they did on digital downloads.  

Photographic film

Digital photography wiped out the film industry. In 1999, the U.S. produced 800 million rolls of film. By 2011, it was producing just 20 million. Polaroid went bankrupt and Eastman Kodak filed Chapter 11. 

But film photography is not entirely gone. Like vinyl records, there are encouraging signs of new life for photographic film. 

One of the more interesting profiles in The Revenge of Analog focuses on Florian “Doc” Kaps, who saw a future for Polaroid cameras and instant film. His inspiration was the simple joy he felt while holding a photograph in his hands.  

“There’s no family albums anymore, no prints anymore, nothing you can touch or shake. And people started to miss that,” Kaps says in the book. Calling his company The Impossible Project, Kaps set out to make a new version of Polaroid film, an endeavor that turned out to be much harder than it sounds. 

As Kaps learned, the precise chemical makeup of Polaroid technology is both complex and expensive. The Impossible Project was not successful in the traditional sense. 

The film was not instant, initially taking as long as an hour to develop if it worked at all. More importantly, the photos had strange colors, blotches, and blurred images. The company managed to whittle development time down to 20 minutes, but the image quality remained inconsistent. 

Rather than reject those imperfections, young consumers embraced them. They liked the surprising results—seeing the medium’s unpredictability as part of the charm. The Impossible Project caught on. For proof, look no further than the cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. It was shot with the company’s film. The Impossible Project now sells about a million film packs per year. 

In January, Kodak announced that it is bringing back Ektachrome film. It should be available by year’s end.

Coexistence  

The Revenge of Analog is a fascinating look at how both new and old technologies coexist in the modern world. As Sax says in the book, the revenge of analog “shows that the process of technological innovation isn’t a story of a slow march from good to better to best; it’s a series of trials that helps us understand who we are and how we operate.”

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