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Vinyl records retain their magic

Over the past few years, analog goods, including physical books, board games and, of course, vinyl records, have experienced a surprising resurgence — despite the fact that these technologies are functionally obsolete. How could this be happening?

The conventional wisdom is that nostalgia is to blame for this twee trend: Millennials, hipsters or that most-coveted demographic, the millennial hipster, are indulging in a perverse Wes Anderson fantasy. They’re deifying outdated things and repackaging them as contemporary culture.

But the conventional wisdom is too simplistic, as it so often is. Across the board, consumers who weren’t even around when these technologies first lost their prominence are driving their resurgence. How can a 15-year-old be nostalgic for a turntable when her parents never owned one in the first place?

In today’s rapidly innovative, digitally driven economy, reverence for the old stands in opposition to the Utopian futurism at the heart of Silicon Valley. The past is relevant only in terms of how quickly you speed away from it.

Outside of Silicon Valley, the world doesn’t work this way. In real life, innovation is a two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance, the product of trial-and-error experiments in which we adopt, reject, forget and resurrect ideas in science, culture, politics and commerce as we move forward in time. Nostalgia’s role here is crucial. It is the critical eye that values everything against what came before it, and constantly asks whether each new idea is an improvement or not.

My passion for collecting records is driven by that judgment. It was only after I uploaded my CD collection to iTunes, then abandoned that for the endless buffet of streaming, that the unseen benefits of listening to vinyl became apparent. All the digital inventions that brought me free, disembodied music anywhere, anytime, made me value music I can own, display, touch and feel with all my senses. To the millions of consumers worldwide who have resurrected the record industry over the past few years, I suspect the feeling is mutual. To us, the return of vinyl represents not regression, but progress.

For the generation that has grown up with omnipresent digital technology, nostalgia isn’t just some foolish whim. It is a life raft, and the one sure means of grounding ourselves in a world that promises constant change. My turntable is from the 1970s and so are many of the records that play on it. It can be fixed, modified and restored, but it cannot be rendered obsolete. When disruption is the norm, the real disruption may just be permanence.

David Sax’s most recent book is “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.


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