Friday, 19 August 2011

Do I actually own this now? A few points on societies relationship with physical media

Vinyl sales have increased by a *whopping 55% this year

Collecting vinyl brings with it a whole new collection of problems. Dust, interference, cartridge replacement and the calibration of a record table are the historical equivalent of buying a decent pair of headphones to go with your new iPhone. 

So are we seeing a split between consumers who are sticking with the physical and shun the digital? 

Well, no. Vinyl remains a niche format, but it nevertheless refuses to go away. What interestes me however, are the potential changes in peoples' listening habits as they gradually move away from physical to invisible digital formats. For example, are people connecting with music emotionally in the same way that my parents generation supposedly did? 

Records typically force the listener to sit down and pay attention to the music. You can't skip tracks without getting up and the album becomes more like a novel. As an undergraduate who completely ran out of money on several occasions, I was forced to sell some prize possessions, but one thing that I refused to let go of was my meagre record collection. Presumably this reluctance hints at a deeper level of attachment! 

Digital media on the other hand, allows music to become a soundtrack rather than an experience in itself. Decent headphones certainly improve the experience, but given the limitations of human attention, I can't help but feel that the record and the humble hi-fi provide an experience that goes beyond the iPod.

So can any physical format survive another 20 years? 

Teenagers are soon going to grow up without ever having to buy books, music or film as a physical entity so presumably they are all doomed. The reality is that this simply isn't happening. Yes, CD sales are down, but not everyone appears to want the convenience of Spotify or iTunes even if they have been brought up knowing little else. Vinyl is the most inconvenient thing on the planet yet it's increased sales are fuelled by those in their late teens and mid-20s.

So will there always be a place for the physical format? 

I have no idea. I hope so. At least until we get to the stage where brain implants can pipe 7.1 channels of sound into my auditory cortex. It's difficult to see a time in the near future where CD's and DVD's will disappear completely. Backwards compatibility with Blu-Ray players has almost certainly helped secure their short term future.

The future of digital delivery is going to depend on the internet's ability to stream the next generation of content. If quadruple high-definition becomes a reality, it's difficult to see how anything but a physical format will be able to deliver that content reliably until everyone is experiencing a faster internet service.

Of course some formats have completely disappeared. When was the last time you saw an audio cassette for example? The novelty factor here completely out weights the inconvenience. But in 50 years time, will people still buy classic petrol cars when a cheaper and more efficient alternative is readily available? Probably.

As cloud computing becomes a reality, it's reassuring to know that some things don't actually change that quickly. Despite their technological limitations and huge inconvenience, people see something in being able to hold their CD, their LP, or their book in their hand. The central idea of ownership becomes rather blurred when everything is held on a virtual cloud and I'm not sure that everyone is ready or comfortable with the idea of an empty bookcase. Not yet anyway. 

Maybe the idea of an empty bookcase is something I will just have to get used to, but if I do digitize everything, I can always turn my records into abstract art.


*Note: This figure doesn't include the second hand market. 

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