Whilst looking through one of my drawers the other day – one of those drawers we all have that’s filled with junk we probably don’t need – I came across an item that took me by surprise – my first ever mp3 player.
I amused myself for the next couple of minutes, pressing the buttons and imagining the naivety of a teenage me, proud of owning something that could hold a now-laughable 30 songs in a 128gb memory. Then, looking up, I noticed something else. Hanging from my bedroom door handle in a large carrier bag was a newly-purchased Tame Impala LP. Yes, that’s LP as in Long Playing Record. Vinyl.
What has happened here? I thought. Is this progress?
Glancing back at my old mp3 player, I felt a bit sorry for laughing at its outdatedness. You see, it’s a device in limbo. It’s caught in a technological purgatory, neither advanced enough to compete with modern gadgetry, nor old enough to gain the retro-cool that my vinyl record has acquired.
It’s fair to say in the last couple of years revival technology, led by vinyl, has experienced an incredible boom. 4.1 million vinyl albums were sold in the UK last year – a 25 year high. This growth shows no sign of slowing, with the format poised to overtake digital music sales in the near future, with the popularity of music streaming also having an effect.
Last year also saw an unexpected rise of another music format that was assumed dead – the cassette tape. Sales in 2017 almost hit the 20,000 mark, up 112% from the previous year. This I’m afraid, is where I may have to press eject.
Who is buying these? And why? Do people still own tape players? I’ve seen one for sale in Urban Outfitters, no doubt for a ridiculous price, so surely it’s more bother than it’s worth? Well, they’re certainly selling. You might think that cassette album releases are the preserve of the über-cool indie/hipster bands, desperate to cultivate an unconventional and contrarian image, but you’d be wrong.
Last year, releases on this old format were made by some of the most mainstream acts around, including Jay-Z, Kasabian, The Script, Arcade Fire and Lana Del Rey. Even Kylie Minogue is set to get in on the act and lead the charge up the cassette charts when her album drops this year.
Although I have sympathy for desiring a physical copy when buying music, I just don’t see the advantage that a cassette has over vinyl, or even CD for that matter. The sound is inferior, tape decks are few and far between, and you’ll find it pretty hard to appreciate any album artwork on the meagre surface area the front of a case provides. It may just to be down to simple hipster posturing. A sense that vinyl may have strayed too far into the mainstream and that cassettes represent new, old ground up for grabs to the cool kids.
Indeed, there is a whole narrative of clichés associated with them: using a pencil to wind up the ribbon, recording the charts from a radio using Stop and Record to edit out the talking, compiling a mix of songs for your crush with a Biro-written synopsis on the label – all this is wrapped up in their mythology.
But music technology isn’t the only thing having a nostalgic renaissance. The trend has branched out in all manner of different directions. The video games market for example has seen a big shift towards retro gaming. Last year Nintendo released shrunken down versions of their eighties and nineties consoles, the NES and the SNES with great success. So much so, later this year there are also plans to re-release the N64.
Then there are Polaroid cameras that are making a comeback, as well as an upturn in the sale of physical books, after a decade-long lull in the wake of the Kindle effect.
However, I do have a degree of sympathy for people who yearn for this simpler recent past. The trance-like state people have let their smartphones impose on them is an obvious and growing problem – one that does need a solution. But should that solution involve taking backward steps?
I think it’s maybe time to grow up a bit and admit to ourselves a few home truths. Polaroid photos are quaint but your iPhone takes better ones, playing an 8-bit version of Mario may be fun for a while but will soon wear thin, and for all the charm a vinyl (and cassette?) album has, for everyday life, sourcing music digitally is just the easier and more practical option. So what’s the answer?
We should bear in mind that the digital age is still really only in its infancy. With regards to revival technology, my philosophy is to try and stick to vintage. Particularly with music, it seems more authentic to me to own a vinyl record with provenance rather than a re-issued version of a modern album that was never recorded for the format.
And then there’s the environmental issue to consider. It’s a total incongruity that the obsession for these technologies, most of which are made from plastic, should come at a time when we are all being told we must cut down on our consumption of the material. You may find that your average millennial would baulk at purchasing the latest Alt-J cassette if you told him or her that the ribbon would likely be choking a turtle in a couple of years’ time.
And as for my old mp3 player? I think I’m going to hold on to it for now. I can see at some point down the line a hipster of the future will be willing to pay me a pretty penny for it on eBay…