Digital innovation is changing the way we live our lives. This is by no means a ground-breaking statement, we can see the various ways that technology has woven its way into our everyday lives over the last few years. Thanks to digital innovations in social media, we are now more connected to each other than ever before. These technological changes to our society aren’t always negative. We now get our news primarily from Twitter and Facebook, which despite its faults provide us with more detailed coverage and information on events as they happen. If we’re lost we use our maps app, we no longer have to pull over and unfold a giant map to find out where we are. If we’re hungry we order Chinese food through SkipTheDishes – which, let’s be honest, is just way more convenient than leaving the house.
Technological convenience rules our lives. These days everything has to be now-now-now. We have the world in our pockets — so why is that not enough?
Perhaps there is a point we reach in our human experience where everything has just gotten too convenient. Maybe when the convenience gets too convenient, we decide to reverse trajectory a couple of decades and revel in a time when things were ‘simpler.’ Most things like listening to music or reading a book are a lot easier today than they have ever been. If you want to listen to The Beatles entire discography, all you need to do is open a Spotify or Apple Music account and you can listen to almost any song on Earth.
How about books? You know, those boring old paper tomes. Digital innovation has made them more convenient as well. Minimalists rejoice! We now have e-readers that can hold the entirety of human literature on one device. Say goodbye to cluttered shelves and wasted paper.
These innovations are revolutionizing how we consume media. But why then, in the age of music streaming are sales of vinyl records on the rise? Why do people still read and carry around physical paper books when the convenience of e-books and e-readers is so evident?
In June of 2015, Apple launched their answer to Spotify, a music streaming service called Apple Music. By this point, it was obvious where the music industry was heading. People didn’t want to buy full albums anymore — or even single songs. Spotify and Pandora had been two of the main drivers of music streaming for years and having a tech giant like Apple join the fold helped legitimize the streaming industry as the true future of music consumption.
Interestingly, years before this launch another musical innovation (or rather rediscovery) was taking place. Beginning in 2008, sales of vinyl records once again began to rise – and quite rapidly. Many in the industry believed that it was just a hipster fueled fad, likely to blow over in the next year or so. But instead, something else happened, the sales continued to rise. Just before Apple Music’s launch, between 2013 and 2014, sales of vinyl in the US jumped from 6.1 million to 9.2 million individual records sold. In 2015 that number rose to 11.9 million. Just 10 years prior, in 2005, vinyl sales for the entire year were just 900,000 units.
In Canada, 2017 saw the unfortunate bankruptcy of HMV Canada – the largest physical media retailer in the country. It also saw the almost immediate revamp and market takeover of Sunrise Records, a chain which had closed most of their nation-wide stores prior to 2017. They used the vinyl boom as the base of their sales plan.
By 2018, Canada experienced a 66.6% rise in the vinyl market over 2017, and once again the vinyl record was a viable form of music consumption. For some reason, people still continue to flock to physical forms of music consumption like vinyl, regardless of digital innovations like music streaming. The sales are still rising, and the vinyl record looks like it’s here to stay.
Books are something quite different from vinyl. There was never really a contemporary ‘book boom’ like what vinyl experienced. But even so, once e-readers and e-books became popularized the fear among many publishers and bookstore owners was that it would render the paper book obsolete.
Books have a certain connection with people. By and large, we love to sit and read and enjoy a good book. There is a culture surrounding books — one of coffee turning pages, the smell of old paper. This is something that e-readers could never replicate, even though the innovation does indeed create immense convenience for the avid reader. Not only did readers no longer have to carry a physical book, but it also saved money and shelf space.
Enter 2018, where (surprise, surprise) see a sharp drop in e-reader sales.
Sales of e-readers rose to prominence in 2011 (its most popular year) with 23.6 million units shipped worldwide and fell dramatically in the years to follow. As of 2016, total global units shipped for e-readers was a minuscule 7.1 million. Forget vinyl, if you want to talk about a fad take a look at the e-reader.
Part of this sharp decline had to with the perceived convenience of e-readers. People don’t want to carry around a separate device for reading books. This killed the iPod, and it will eventually kill the e-reader.
Regardless of the e-readers failure, are people still buying e-books?
The answer is yes, somewhat. While this format is still quite popular, its sales are slightly decreasing – and physical books are actually increasing. In the UK, 2016 saw a 4% decrease in e-book sales while physical sales jumped 7%. In the US, physical book sales rose 3.3% in the same year. This doesn’t necessarily mean that traditional bookstores are driving this uptick, its actually online sales on sites like Amazon. Sadly, independent bookstores actually represent the single lowest retailer that people are buying physical books from. Regardless of where the publishing industry is today, people are still buying physical books in massive numbers.
You can call me a Luddite if you want, but I believe that these ‘antiquated’ forms of media consumption are a lot more important than the convenience of digital innovations. Digital convenience comes with a certain level of detachment. The physical disconnection means that the things we love end up meaning a little less to us.
Removing a record from its cover, dropping the needle onto the grooves and hearing the warm crackle is an experience – one that is far more personal than choosing a song from a Spotify playlist and pressing play. Reading a physical book also provides an experience that an e-book or an audiobook can’t compare to. When you read a book you can feel the pages between your fingers, you can imagine the millions of people that may have read that exact book, flipping through those exact pages. Even the feeling of closing the back cover after finishing a book, this bittersweet feeling of having gone through an adventure and it now being over, is something you can only get from the experience of physicality. The feeling just simply can’t be replicated through the digital format.
To touch, to feel, to hear something real produce a sound that creates an immense feeling in you. These are human experiences. An artist creates a work of musical or written art, and we demand to experience it. We need to touch it and feel it and know that we have purchased it and that it’s ours, and no dead battery can stop us from experiencing it. As humans, we can only ‘progress’ so far technologically to the point that the things we love become impersonal to us, just words and sounds on a screen.
The vinyl record never died, neither did the book or the film camera or the board game. It’s simple. Real things matter, and people are willing to forgo convenience to feel a connection to the things they love.