This is just a sneak peek from Jan’s feature in SCENARIO 5:2012. If you are not a current subscriber to SCENARIO or a member of The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, then subscribe or get in touch with us here.
Young people with a SONY Walkman in their waistband. LPs returning to the shelves in specialty stores. Music published on cassette tapes. Photo enthusiasts with old, analogue cameras, and writers going back to bashing out their manuscripts on typewriters. The analogue age rises anew in countercultural enclaves around us. What’s the idea? Is it purely a retro thing, or is something else at stake in this countertrend to digitalisation?
Young people with a SONY Walkman in their waistband buy music published on cassette tapes. Sales of LP records have been going up for a long time, and vinyl is reappearing in more and more shops. At the same time, we once again hear the rhythmic clatter of typewriters from writers’ desks, while photo enthusiasts cultivate old Russian analogue cameras in special clubs on the internet and in the real world. Analogue is on its way back. If you doubt this, take a look at the duplicated flyers and posters that circulate in student and activist environments – no digital printing here.
We are well on our way to 2013, and as the growth of digitalisation continues unabated, the return of the analogue is an expression of a countertrend to the mainstream. The question is why the analogue is on its way back right now. What will this trend mean, and how far it will reach? Will we, for instance, see analogue responses to all the fields that get digitised in the future?
The sound of vinyl scratches
I really became aware of the analogue response a couple of years ago when I had arranged to meet a friend in a bar selling specialty beers (microbrewery beer is also a countertrend; a reaction to the industrially produced beer aimed at the global market).
We played billiards, solved the world’s problems and steadily worked through the place’s beer chart. It was late Friday night, the place was half empty, and a DJ was playing soft lounge music from a console. I was heading for new supplies when – in the middle of a poorly executed shift between two tracks – I heard a sound I hadn’t heard for nearly fifteen years: the scratch from a vinyl record.
I had long known that vinyl records still were valued by hi-fi enthusiasts; but the fact that the big, black disks had made a comeback in the night life came as something of a surprise. While I had got rid of my old albums and had painstakingly ripped my CDs to MP3 format, the LP had apparently gained a quiet renaissance. It is, of course, notcompetitive with digitally distributed music, neither now nor in the future. Nonetheless, the supply is increasing in specialty shops in the western world.
One of the new fans of the LP is Mark Lundby, who himself is too young to remember the golden age of vinyl records. Most of the time, he is a dedicated iPod and Apple user, but when he really wants to groove, he switches on his big Technics turntable. “Listening to records is something else,” he says. “Even on a moderate stereo, the sound is simply better. It also has something to do with the presence that records require; something almost ritual. The record is carefully removed from its protective cover and put gently down on the turntable, and the needle is slowly lowered.” Mark, however, has not replaced his digital music boxes, and he only uses the records on special occasions. “I guess it is like smoking a pipe. It is something you enjoy when you have the time,” he says.
This isn’t just a gimmicky retro fad. Many hi-fi enthusiasts regard the sound quality from LPs as being superior to digital sound. It is, of course, best if the record is from back when the entire recording and editing process was analogue. Whether vinyl truly is a better medium for sound is a battle still being fought in audiophile circles.
Clack-clack and tape salad à go-go
The LP isn’t the only analogue music medium enjoying a comeback. For the first time in many years, new commercial music is again being published on old-style cassette tapes. Unlike the LP, which mainly is published by the big music houses, the cassette tapes mostly come from small, independent music companies, and the artists are most often local indie bands with a limited fan following. However, this doesn’t alter the fact that cassette tapes are on the market again. Sales may not be lavish, but the American marketing company Nielsen, which provides media statistics, still confirms a notable increase in the sales of recorded cassette tapes. In fact, sales doubled from 2010 to 2011 – notably only counting tapes sold through established channels like bricks-and-mortar stores. Nielsen also notes that LP sales in 2011 were the highest since 1991.
Besides original recordings, cassette tapes are also once again used for recording the familiar mix tapes (without which any party would once grind down). The sound quality of these cassette tapes is inferior to even MP3 files, so the idea of analogue music isn’t just a question of sound quality. Not in this case, anyway.
The American writer Raymond Fitzpatrick has also taken a step back into the analogue world. He has discarded his computer as a work tool and bought an old mechanical Remington Junior typewriter. It’s not just nostalgia that has made Fitzpatrick turn off his computer. “I simply think it is a better and more focused writing experience. When I solely used word processors, I wrote far faster than I really was able to think. It was so easy to just add or move words and sentences. Now I think in terms of entire paragraphs and only write them down when I’m satisfied,” he says.
Few publishers today accept typewritten manuscripts, so Fitzpatrick has to laboriously type his finished manuscript into his computer before sending it. “Even though this is twice the work, I am well satisfied with the process. Of course, it requires a certain mentality, but there’s something Zen-like about it,” he claims.
Strange as it may sound, Fitzpatrick isn’t alone in turning his back on word processors. The rhythmic clack-clack sound can be heard from many writing rooms, because the typewriter still has many diehard fans, particularly among poets. In the US, so-called Type-ins are organised (as true meetings in coffee shops or bookstores, of course), where the users can swap advice and trade machines and accessories. It’s not usually a problem to get spare parts like ink ribbons, since mechanical typewriters are still important office tools in third-world countries where the energy supply is inconsistent or even absent. For instance, the famous Facit and Olivetti machines are still produced under license in Brazil.