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The Revenge of Analog
Real Things and Why They Matter
By David Sax
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A funny thing happened on the way to the digital utopia. We’ve begun to fall back in love with the very analog goods and ideas the tech gurus insisted that we no longer needed. Businesses that once looked outdated, from film photography to brick-and-mortar retail, are now springing with new life. Notebooks, records, and stationery have become cool again. Behold the Revenge of Analog.
David Sax has uncovered story after story of entrepreneurs, small business owners, and even big corporations who’ve found a market selling not apps or virtual solutions but real, tangible things. As e-books are supposedly remaking reading, independent bookstores have sprouted up across the country. As music allegedly migrates to the cloud, vinyl record sales have grown more than ten times over the past decade. Even the offices of tech giants like Google and Facebook increasingly rely on pen and paper to drive their brightest ideas.
Sax’s work reveals a deep truth about how humans shop, interact, and even think. Blending psychology and observant wit with first-rate reportage, Sax shows the limited appeal of the purely digital life-and the robust future of the real world outside it.
THE REVENGE OF ANALOG THINGS
The Revenge of Vinyl
The factory floor at Nashville’s United Record Pressing (URP) is a living, breathing dragon of place. In the relatively small, windowless warren of concrete rooms, twenty-two record presses hiss, cough, growl, grind, and ultimately spit out vinyl records of all genres, weights, colors, and sizes. A Dave Matthews Band album is born right next to classic reissues from Primus, Pearl Jam, and the Wu-Tang Clan; chart toppers by Lana Del Rey; colored Iron Maiden collectors’ editions; a special release by Elvira “Mistress of the Dark”; and neo disco by Chromeo. The place smells like hot metal, sour water, and the sweet poison tang of warm plastic.
Dozens of workers hover around the machines, feeding them steam, water, grease, power, and black pellets of polyvinyl chloride (PVC, a.k.a. vinyl). They gather the records that spit out onto long metal stakes, to make room for more that keep piling up. The machines—great bulky assemblages of hydraulics, heavy-gauge buttons, pipes, hoses, and thick slabs of metal made decades ago—collectively cast off a drone so loud that it’s as though they’re not only working to mash the impressions of sound waves into hot pucks of melted vinyl, but somehow emitting a primal scream of all the music buried up inside this place, the source of an analog revival so relentless, it has pushed these old record presses to their breaking point.
Visit United Record Pressing as recently as 2010 and things would have been much quieter. A lot of the time the presses would be turned off, waiting for a new order, and two thirds of the people scurrying about today would have been working elsewhere. Back then, United Record Pressing was at its low point: work had dropped to one six-hour shift, maybe fifty people, just a couple of days a week. The owners had to rely on loans to keep the place open. On an average day URP was pressing a few thousand records, and those numbers kept declining, as they had for most vinyl record–pressing plants worldwide since the early 1990s.
Four years later, as I stood between those machines and their gorgeous cacophony, they were pressing forty thousand records every single day, operated by a staff that had tripled in size since 2010. They worked twenty-four hours a day, six days a week, with only the Lord’s Day for rest. Today, URP’s orders pile up like the stacks of freshly pressed albums on its shipping dock: it takes two to three months of waiting to get your record pressed if you are a big label, many more for independents. Until recently the company was so swamped, it refused any new customers. It can barely get the records out the doors fast enough, which is why United Record Pressing must grow, so it can press more records. Music fans are hungry. Their appetite for vinyl is voracious, and there’s no sign they are going on a diet anytime soon.
Wherever there is a middle class of music lovers, you will find a significant and growing percentage of them buying turntables and records to play on them. These include old records dug up from basements, vintage records purchased online and in stores, and increasingly, new records pressed daily at such plants as United Record Pressing. One European plant owner estimated nearly 30 million new records were pressed worldwide in 2015.
Nowhere has vinyl’s rediscovery been as widespread, or dramatic, as the United States of America, where United Record Pressing is the nation’s largest record-pressing plant, and one of the top three in the world (Germany’s Optimal and GZ in the Czech Republic are somewhat larger). From URP’s low point in 2010, it has seen business grow so dramatically that the company announced in mid-2014 it would open a second factory nearby, increasing its tally of pressing machines from twenty-two to thirty-eight, and its staff from 150 to more than 250. Here was a clear front line for the vinyl record’s resurgence I had experienced firsthand at June Records, and with it, the postdigital economy that was growing to meet a renewed demand for analog goods.
There’s a reason they call Nashville Music City. You can’t swing a locally made Gibson guitar without hitting someone or something associated with the music business. From the Grand Ole Opry and the Johnny Cash Museum to countless recording studios and country bands playing on the Broadway honky-tonk strip, music seems to be Nashville’s driving force. The sweet country whine of a slide guitar still typifies the Nashville sound, but recently, Nashville has seen an influx of rock and indie musicians move to town, drawn by cheap rent, ample studio space, and a deep community of talent. Today’s Nashville sound is as closely associated with the raw roots rock of Jack White and the Black Keys, along with Taylor Swift’s powerful pop, as it is with fiddles and songs about pickup trucks.
Located just south of downtown, on an industrial strip of warehouses and factories in Wedgewood Hill, the entrance to United Record Pressing features two oversize records embedded in its facade. As you walk through the parking lot, little melted pieces of vinyl crunch under your feet. Inside, everything seems to be made of vinyl: the records framed on the walls and stacked on floors, the midcentury chairs, lamps, desks, floor tiles, and wood-grain wall panels. Aside from paper album covers, metal pressing machines, yellowing photos of such artists as Lionel Ritchie and Rick James, and the humans who work there, pretty much everything in the place is some form of melted petroleum by-product pressed into the service of music.
The company began in 1947 as Bullet Plastics, and was the first record-pressing plant in town. A few years later, Bullet changed its name to Southern Plastics, and eventually to United Record Pressing. The current building has been occupied since 1962, and has manufactured the records at the core of twentieth-century popular music: singles from Elvis and Johnny Cash on Sun Records, the heyday of Motown and Stax, and even the first Beatles record pressed in America. If it spun on a turntable in America, odds are pretty good that it was pressed in this building.
The place is a time warp. Upstairs there’s an apartment with furniture that hasn’t changed since the Kennedy administration. It’s called the “Motown Suite,” because black music executives could stay there when Nashville was segregated. It features a bedroom with a pair of black leather shoes on the floor, which have remained in place for decades, because no one is sure whether they belonged to someone notable, such as Smokey Robinson, or some random schmo who forgot his shoes.
“Music is just vibrations in the air,” said Jay Millar, the director of marketing at URP at the time (he now works at the label Sundazed), who was explaining the record-pressing process in the large “living room,” on the factory’s second floor, where the company frequently records live, limited-edition releases by local artists. “When a record is playing, grooves in the record are replicating those vibrations, and the needle is picking them up and amplifying those vibrations.”
If that sounds simple, it both is and isn’t, and serves as a good initial lesson in what is required to make an analog product a physical reality. Let’s say we’re talking about Taylor Swift’s album 1989. To transfer the vibrations of such songs as “Shake It Off” to a permanent, physical record requires several steps. First, Swift and her band record the album in the studio, where the edited tracks are mixed for balance by a producer, and mastered for the ideal volume by an audio engineer. The master recording is then played through a cutting lathe, which is basically a reverse record player that has a diamond-tipped cutting head instead of a needle. This cuts grooves into an aluminum disc that is covered in a semisoft black lacquer similar to nail polish. These grooves perfectly match the peaks and valleys of each song’s sound wave, and are the small lines you see on a record.
Next, the lacquer master disc is transformed into metal stamper plates through a complicated process that involves chemical baths, bags of nickel nuggets, electric currents, and several stages of repetition. The metal stamper plates, for both the A and B sides of a record, are then affixed to a pressing machine. Essentially each machine squeezes a hockey puck–size “biscuit” of melted PVC with roughly 6,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure, imprinting the grooves of the sound waves representing Swift’s songs into the vinyl, like a giant waffle iron. Each record takes approximately thirty seconds to press.
While the process sounds automated, it is highly variable and requires a heavy human touch. Everything from humidity to the particular mixture of metals in the stamper or the properties of a single batch of PVC can impact the quality of a particular record. URP is constantly inspecting the records that come off the presses for ticks, pops, or other “surface noise” that a needle would pick up, with microscopes, at listening stations, and with the human eye, and rejects up to 20 percent of the records it produces. These rejects are “dinked” in a machine that punches out the label, and then crushes up the vinyl to be melted down and pressed into new records.
“You simply can’t standardize the process,” Millar said, dinking a Metallica album that had a poorly adhered label, with a loud thud. “It’s inexact. Every day we find a new problem. If you were a baker, this would be like changing your oven and pan every single day.” Music is the biggest variable. Records have a finite amount of physical space for information, and the more you cram in there (say, a particularly loud heavy metal album, or bass heavy dance music), the more information has to be squeezed into those small grooves. This requires subtle tweaks at every stage of production.
“Every job I’ve ever had was in music,” said Millar, who is slender and wry, just shy of forty, and speaks in an accent that’s somewhere between his native Detroit, New York (where he lived for many years), and Nashville. He got his start at a record store, and eventually worked in marketing for Polygram, BMG, and Universal. He and his wife moved to Nashville in 2006, after Millar came for a Tom Waits show here and fell in love with the city. He was hired by United Record Pressing shortly after, and quickly became a key voice in the revenge of vinyl.
“I’m very representative of why the market got back into vinyl,” Millar said. “I’d lived through vinyl, cassette tapes, CDs, and MP3s. I got all my music for free, and lived in a small New York apartment lined with CD cases.” But when Millar got his first iPod, something changed. The music from his CDs could now live on various computers, so their physical presence didn’t matter as much, but over time Millar missed the library aspect of his music: the art, the tangible feel and sight of them, the noticeable differences of sound quality among various albums.
“A lightbulb went on, and I realized that I had all of that with vinyl.” Millar sold his CDs, and used the funds to buy back the vinyl versions of those albums. “Digitization is the peak of convenience, but vinyl is the peak of the experience,” he said. Millar is quick to point out that he is no analog purist. He listens to digital music all the time: in the car, while jogging, or when his records aren’t available. His wife even works for Warner Music as a digital production manager. “Digital is about making sure everyone has their music, and vinyl is the deluxe version, for the real music lover.”
None of this explains the revenge of vinyl as an economic and cultural phenomenon. It is not as though Millar’s “real music lovers” were a tiny tribe who suddenly grew more than ten times in size, as the vinyl record business has done in the United States since 2007, with similar numbers worldwide. What happened to the market for vinyl records before this sudden boom, and why was it growing so quickly now?
First, a bit of history: Commercial vinyl records were introduced in 1931 by RCA Victor, thanks to advances in polymer technology that made lighter, stronger, more durable records than the brittle wax and shellac gramophone discs of the time, which played at 78 revolutions per minute (rpm). They really didn’t take off until after World War II, when Columbia unveiled the 12-inch LP record in 1948, which could play forty-five minutes of music at 33⅓ revolutions per minute (rpm). A year later RCA came out with the 7-inch EP single, which played eight minutes of music at 45 rpm. These two formats, 12-inch albums and 7-inch singles, became the dominant vehicle for producing, buying, and playing the new postwar popular music at home, in jukeboxes, and on the radio.
Vinyl records had numerous drawbacks, including their size and weight, and the relative fragility of the vinyl surface, which tended to collect scratches over time that made records skip. They accumulated dust and static, took up a lot of space in stores and homes, and could warp in the sun. You couldn’t play them in a car, let alone go jogging with them (not that anyone was jogging). Then, in 1979, Sony unveiled its first mobile cassette tape player, the Walkman, and four years later, the compact disc (CD). I vividly recall my father demonstrating our new, magical CD player in 1985. Its robotic tray slid open with an elegant whoosh, and he delicately placed a little silver disc inside. The house filled with crystal-clear sound (George Benson’s Beyond the Blue Horizon, still one of my favorite jazz albums), and you could skip tracks at the push of a button. Here was a musical format for the emerging PC age, a clean, mysterious black box that somehow used lasers and digital processing to bring music alive. We had arrived in the future!
Vinyl record sales began slowly declining in the 1970s, as 8-track and cassette tapes ate at its market share. Singles peaked in 1973, with 228 million units sold that year in the USA; albums hit their zenith in 1978, with 341 million sold. The CD’s rapid rise pushed the record off a cliff, with vinyl record sales falling by half between 1984 and 1988, and a continued decline thereafter. Album-length LPs suffered dramatically (they hit bottom in 1993, with just 300,000 albums sold in the United States that year), while singles, which were still used for jukeboxes and by DJs and radio stations, held out a bit longer. Still, the decline of the vinyl record continued well into the twenty-first century, as CDs gave way to MP3 downloads and the iPod. The year 2006 was the vinyl record’s nadir. Worldwide album sales of new records totaled just 3 million units that year, and in the United States just 900,000 records sold, roughly a quarter of what Disney’s High School Musical soundtrack did in combined CD and download sales that year alone.
Mark Michaels, the owner and CEO of United Record Pressing, had purchased the business in 2007, after a successful career in global management consulting and private equity. An amateur music collector, Michaels felt URP would make for a nice, steady business that could generate cash flow over time. “The commercial vinyl had declined to a tiny, tiny fraction of the industry,” he recalled over the phone from his office in Chicago. But record labels still pressed promotional records for each new single, and this was the core of URP’s business. “That part was small and stable,” Michaels recalled, but he was unaware how suddenly the promotional vinyl business would fall off a cliff. “I didn’t see that coming, but the labels were looking at business models and realized that giving away twenty thousand records may not be the best thing for the bottom line.” When the recession hit a year later, it nearly killed the company. Michaels begged lenders to be patient, and laid off most URP employees. Many of its machines sat idle.
Vinyl records were, by any objective metric, dead. As one veteran record executive told me, at that point they were a statistical anomaly, a rounding error on the balance sheet of record companies, a fraction of a fraction of a percentage point of sales. By 2007, the music industry was deep into its struggles with digital downloads and piracy, and the future, though turbulent and uncertain from a revenue standpoint, was clear: digital, disembodied music, delivered wirelessly anywhere, anytime. CD sales were in continued free fall and even paid digital downloads were beginning to dip as streaming services, such as Spotify, grew in popularity. Physical music was on its way out. Vinyl was just the first victim.
Then came its revenge.
“By all accounts, ostensibly ‘replaced’ by the industry with a ‘better’ product, vinyl should have been dead by now, or at best confined to museums and antique stores as quaint incunabulum,” wrote Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward in their fascinating 2015 book Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age. “But something else happened instead. . . . vinyl saw a socially broader renaissance exactly at the time when the digital revolution seemed complete.”
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, LP album shipments in the United States alone grew from 990,000 in 2007 to more than 12 million in 2015, with annual growth rates of more than 20 percent. Various sources reported that by 2015, vinyl sales generated nearly a quarter of revenue derived from music sales, surpassing ad-supported streaming, as paid downloads and CDs continued to decline. New vinyl record sales generated $346.8 million for the music industry in 2014 alone, and likely many times that for sales of secondhand records, which still make up the bulk of vinyl sales. Since its low point a decade back, the vinyl record has grown rapidly, dramatically, and steadily. It is a stunning reversal. For some reason, people have purchased more vinyl records (new and used) in the past ten years than they did in the prior twenty combined.
First, the vinyl record never died. New album sales plunged to their low from a peak where vinyl records made up nearly 100 percent of music sales, but the existing records in the market, billions and billions of them, were a physical reality that simply did not disappear. They hibernated in shelves, crates, and boxes in record stores, flea markets, and basements. Every turntable that existed up to that point was still a physical reality. The infrastructure was dormant, but largely functional. “There was always a good market,” said Heinz Lichtenegger, CEO of the Austrian turntable manufacturer Pro-Ject Audio Systems, who began his own business in 1991, selling mid to high-end turntables at a time when other turntable manufacturers, such as Technics, stopped producing them. “From that first day I always had back orders,” he recalled. Pro-Ject’s core consumers were made up of fidelity-obsessed audiophiles and anticorporate punks, German jungle DJs, and moneyed collectors. They tended to pay more for records, forming a protective niche that allowed many record shops, pressing plants, and turntable companies to stay in business during the worst years.
There were some pockets of growth for vinyl, especially with underground genres, including punk, hip-hop, and dance music. Ton Vermeulen purchased a Sony plant outside Amsterdam in 1998, which pressed dance music records for the huge European nightclub market. “When I entered the building, we were growing very rapidly,” he said, “not because vinyl was growing, but because a lot of pressing plants were going out of business.” Vermeulen estimates that even back in 2000 there were tens of millions of records being pressed globally, largely for the club market, which needed new singles, beats, and tracks for DJs to spin with.
Second, digital helped save the very analog record it nearly killed. As record stores closed, the market for vinyl grew increasingly niche and vinyl fans turned to the Internet to buy and sell records. Millions of albums were auctioned on eBay, sold on Amazon, and traded on the massive online marketplace Discogs. Meanwhile, digital music’s advantages became its disadvantages. The advent of MP3s was harder on CDs than on records, and CDs (which offered no real sonic or aesthetic advantages over digital files) became an obsolete way station to the more mobile, space-saving MP3s. Because it could be copied infinitely, without a loss of quality, an illegally downloaded album was in no way different than a legally purchased one. Napster laid that truth bare in 1999, and the music industry never recovered. Once music was divorced from any physical object, its supply so vastly exceeded demand that people simply refused to pay for it. Suddenly, an album was no longer a desirable object worthy of consumption. All digital music listeners are equal. Acquisition is painless. Taste is irrelevant. It is pointless to boast about your iTunes collection, or the quality of your playlists on a streaming service. Music became data, one more set of 1’s and 0’s lurking in your hard drive, invisible to see and impossible to touch. Nothing is less cool than data.
Meanwhile, the previous disadvantages of vinyl records now became attractive. Records are large and heavy; require money, effort, and taste to create and buy and play; and cry out to be thumbed over and examined. Because consumers spend money to acquire them, they gain a genuine sense of ownership over the music, which translates into pride.
Vinyl records reacquired a counterculture cachet, which propelled them back into the core of youth culture. “Kids started buying records,” said Tom “Grover” Biery, a music executive in Los Angeles who was an instrumental figure at Warner Music when vinyl began to grow again. “As iPods and Facebook became their parents’ stuff, kids began searching for something different, because it wasn’t cool once your parents did it . . . just like rock and roll. And vinyl was not their parents’ stuff anymore.”
A 2015 research report in the United Kingdom found that the main consumers of vinyl records that year were 18- to 24-year-olds, and research group MusicWatch noted that more than half of vinyl buyers were under 25. Not ageing, retro hipsters. Not crusty old dudes. Kids who are discovering records for the first time. While baby boomer parents gushed about their new iPads and Spotify accounts, their children were dusting off old turntables and buying new albums for cold hard cash. Vinyl records went from a retro fetish to a cool new consumer good. Turntables appeared in ad campaigns, fashion magazines, and boutique hotels. “There wasn’t a couple days going by [since I opened in 2011] where I wasn’t showing kids in their early twenties how to put the needle on the record,” said Craig Brown, who owns the record store Heights Vinyl, which opened at the end of 2011 in Houston, Texas. “These are first-timers. That’s the market.”
The third major reason for the revenge of vinyl was more deliberate: Record Store Day. This annual celebration of vinyl record retailing occurs the third Saturday of each April, and appears to be the final push that kicked the vinyl record revival into the mainstream. In 2007, a small group of independent music store owners who belonged to a coalition called the Department of Record Stores were having their annual meeting in the basement of the Sound Garden, a store in Baltimore. The conversation turned to the state of the business, and all the owners told the same story: each had survived brutal, cutthroat price-gouging competition throughout the 1990s from such big-box retailers as HMV, Tower Records, and Virgin, and each had weathered the downturn in CD sales over the previous decade. But despite all this, all their stores were doing well and making money.
“We were opening multiple stores, posting twenty percent annual growth,” said Chris Brown, the CFO of Bullmoose, a chain of record stores in New Hampshire and Maine with eleven locations. Around that time, Bullmoose was doubling the size of its existing stores, knocking down walls to make room for more vinyl records and books. “It was totally counter to what everyone was reporting on,” Brown said. Even though these stores were profiting, the public perception was that they were on death’s doorstep. Customers regularly came in and asked, “How are you doing?” with great sympathy. Record stores had become largely irrelevant to all but the most ardent music fans, and that affected their very identity.
“Employees used to fight over new releases,” recalled Michael Kurtz, who ran the Department of Record Stores. Early access to new music was one of the main reasons someone worked in a record shop. “Now that was all available online before in-store. Our own employees [did] not give a shit. The amount of younger women who wanted to work in our stores had been reduced to zero,” Kurtz said. “We were becoming the comic book store nerd.”
Eric Levin’s ears perked up when someone made the very same comic book nerd joke during the meeting at Sound Garden. Levin’s business (Criminal Records, in Atlanta) had recently hosted an event for Free Comic Book Day, a promotion by the comics industry that proved incredibly popular. Why not do a similar day for record stores, to prove to the public and media that the record store was alive? “I’d read that we were dead; worse than buggy merchants,” Levin said, characterizing popular perception of record stores at the time. “But in my store, we were really having fun, employing people, insuring people, and making money. Why was the press so negative? The reporters wanted proof,” Levin said. “They wouldn’t believe I was successful. It didn’t fit in with their norm. It didn’t prove what they were reporting. It was unusual: ‘How could you be doing good if music is free? If Tower is closing? If Best Buy is hurting?’” Even though most of the stores were still selling far more CDs, Levin insisted that vinyl had to be the focus, because it was the way to get people to talk about the stores themselves.
- "No matter which side you're on in the debate over digital technology, there's something to cheer you in The Revenge of Analog."—Scott Timberg, New York Times Book Review
- "Captivating...Sax provides an insightful and entertaining account of this phenomenon, creating a powerful counternarrative to the techno-utopian belief that we would live in an ever-improving, all-digital world."—Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
- "Here is a compulsively readable book after a Luddite's heart.... Sax isn't preaching a return to the pre-Industrial Age, but neither is he embracing the robot overlords. He thoughtfully, wisely, and honestly points out how analog experiences enhance digital creativity and how humans benefit from what both have to offer. Essential reading."—Booklist, Starred Review
- "A perky and well-illustrated... look at a discordantly retro cultural trend."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Sax's message is that digital technology has certainly made life easier, but the analog technologies of old can make life more rich and substantial. This book has a calming effect, telling readers, one analog page at a time, that tangible goods, in all their reassuring solidity, are back and are not going anywhere."—Publishers Weekly
- "The more advanced our digital technologies, the more we come to realize that reality rules. David Sax reassures us surviving members of team human that material existence is alive and well, and makes a compelling case for the reclamation of terra firma and all that comes with it."—Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus
- "Hang on digital mavens, the real world ain't going anywhere. In The Revenge of Analog, David Sax shows the continued importance of the physical stuff to how we live and work today."—Richard Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class
- "The better digital gets, the more important analog becomes. In this fun tour of modern culture, David Sax has collected hundreds of ways that an analog approach can improve our newest inventions. Sax's reporting is eye-opening and mind-changing."—Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired and author of The Inevitable
- "We all thought the digital age would be the end of analog media--and we were wrong. In this smart, funny, glorious book, David Sax explains why so many of us still crave the tactile, sensual experience of listening to music on vinyl records and taking notes with pencil and paper. Turn off your electronic devices, find a quiet place, and savor this remarkable book."—Dan Lyons, bestselling author of Disrupted
- "David Sax has written a brilliant cri de coeur about the way things used to be, should be, and, increasingly, are becoming once again. The Revenge of Analog reminds us that it wasn't so long ago that records were vinyl, laces were double knotted and the mailbox at the end of the driveway was lovingly banged up. It's a book that brings something even more rare than a perfect song at the perfect moment-hope."—Rich Cohen, cocreator of HBO's Vinyl and author of The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones
- "A thoughtful look at the many ways in which analog has not been eliminated from the world but in many ways is still thriving...Sax's book reminds us that we live in an analog world. It is a good reminder that digital can only take us so far."—Tadas Viskanta, Yahoo! Finance
- On Sale
- Nov 8, 2016
- Page Count
- 304 pages