|I'm cynical when it comes to news. I started out that way, and experience in J-school, newspapers and radio only made me more jaded. My view is that, like stock-tips, by the time a story hits the mainstream, it ain't news: it's a train already 'waaay down the tracks, interesting to watch and wave at, but nothing you can climb aboard. |
So when a "trend" in vinyl revival is reported in such divergent media as the New York Times (as seen here) and the AARP magazine (as seen here) , is it like a grandmother just discovering her tweenage grand-daughter's interest in Twilight: too little, too late?
The distinction between a fad and a trend is an important one, and one frequently debated by marketers and sociologists. I think the difference was well put on the Marketing Innovation website:
"Both fads and trends last a finite period of time. However, when the fad is over, things are fundamentally the same. When a trend is over, things are fundamentally changed."
Here's the litmus test: when people give up wearing pink Crocs, is society different? No. After the big boom in sales of green tea flattens out, will societal habits be different? Probably so. So: Crocs are a fad, tea-drinking is part of a greater trend in consumption of nutriceuticals (don't get me started on THAT topic).
Futurist Faith Popcorn has made a career out of predicting societal trends, and written several best-selling books about where we're going next, in America. Through her assistant, I posed the question to Ms. Popcorn: is the vinyl revival a fad, or part of a larger trend? An answer has yet to appear, so I suspect we're on our own with this question.
Luckily, the person who has single-handedly done more to revive vinyl than any other individual, DOES answer my questions. Michael Fremer has written about vinyl and music for 30 years now, starting with The Absolute Sound and now as Senior Contributing Editor at Stereophile. Mikey also writes and edits his own music website Music Angle, and wouldja believe he writes a political blog for New Jersey's Bergen Record? (seen here).
Most audiophiles are introverted and terrified of addressing an audience, but Cornell grad and BU Law dropout Fremer also has stints as a stand-up comic and DJ on his resume. He's thoroughly comfortable schticking before a packed house, a microphone or a video camera; he's also good company at a bar. Unfortunately, this particular conversation was telephonic ( and took place Friday, December 18, 2009).
Audiogon Bill: "Michael, does all the mainstream press attention to the vinyl revival indicate that it's a fad, or a trend?"
Michael Fremer: "Oh, absolutely, it's a trend. It's been ongoing for several years now. Sales last year were double those of the year before, and THOSE sales had doubled from the year before THAT. And keep in mind that those are the sales that are COUNTED; this whole thing has been propelled by new indy rock releases, and most of those are under the radar."
AB: "But the LP is never going to be as big as it once was, is it?"
MF: "No, no, it's going to always be a niche market, but that's a good thing, because the people doing it will be the ones who are concerned with quality. I wouldn't want it to be mainstream again.
"Look, when it comes to computers, and we're not talking about iPods, iPhones, all those, but just COMPUTERS, Apple's a niche market. They've got what, 2% of the market against all the Windows nonsense done by everybody else? But it's an important niche, they lead the way."
AB: "So that's what you anticipate vinyl will be, the leading edge?"
MF: "Well, yeah. I mean, when it comes to reissues, you see pretty much the same content on vinyl as you do on SACD; the material is old, but it's being reissued to an audience that's really conscious of quality. But like I said, it's the new indy rock releases that make vinyl different, and THAT'S what's driving the whole revival. It's a young audience, vinyl is something new to them, and once they start playing LP's they're discovering a whole world of music that's available to them on vinyl that they'll never see or hear on CD."
After that, our conversation veered into the limitations on LP production capacity created by the shutdown years ago of most of the world's stamping-plants (new plants will be coming online soon, says Michael), and then degenerated into a discussion of why Michael is 10 years older than me, yet looks 10 years younger (answer: Pilates). But as you've read, Michael is convinced that today's vinyl revival is the real deal, and here to stay for a select segment of the music-buying audience.
There is evidence of backlash against computers and the virtual world amongst members of Generation Z (or whatever letter we're on now); as was the case in the late '60's, interest in crafts, handmade goods and mechanical devices is soaring. How much of it is frustration with bad programming (i.e., can't they just put a button or a knob on the thing, rather than a MENU??), I can't say. Clearly, though, downloaded files lack the tangible connection provided by the colorful artwork and liner notes of an LP jacket, or even the physical act of placing a record on the platter and cueing it up.
Psychologically, LPs provide another element lacking in the iPod experience: anticipation. Unlike a digital player which can hold thousands of songs, ready to go at the touch of the screen, a cut on vinyl has to be selected, pulled off the shelf, the disc removed from the jacket and the inner sleeve, cued up...you know the drill. It is a more leisurely process than than the digital one, and perhaps a more contemplative one as well. Listening to an entire album by an artist allows for greater immersion in the work, something rarely found in the cherry-picking download world.
And of course, I haven't even mentioned the SOUND of analog, or the immense back catalog of wonderful music that never made the transition to digital. Those are the driving factors for most of us who love LPs.
So: what are YOUR thoughts on the subject? Fad, or trend?