As the dust settles on another Christmas, I got to thinking about the presents my family and I exchanged this year. There was a time, not so long ago, when the vast majority of those gifts would have centred around three things: music CDs, movies or TV shows on DVD and heavy, hardback copies of the latest books. But this year, there were hardly any of the above – and we’re not exactly a young, early adopter kinda family (even after years of pleading, my dad still hasn’t worked out how to reply to a text).
So, what’s going on here? Where has all the hard-copy media that we used to give as gifts disappeared to? In short, it’s all gone digital. And that move to a digital or online way of consuming music, movies, TV and literature has changed everything. But is it a change for the better?
Identity through ownership
Previous generations, ‘babyboomers’ like my parents and Generation X-ers like me, had an ingrained concept of ownership – your material possessions somehow defined you as a person. The books, records, movies, CDs and posters you owned told the casual onlooker something about you. They said ‘I like The Cure/Douglas Adams/Black Books and this is *who I am*. They gave you an identity; an unspoken way to advertise who you were, what you liked and the kind of person you might want to hang out with. There’s an apocryphal tale of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards first meeting on a train and getting talking only because Jagger had his latest blues import albums under his arm. Imagine if they hadn’t got chatting: would there be no Rolling Stones? Who knows, but you’re less likely to get that kind of chance meeting when you’re both plugged into headphones listening to Spotify. But that’s not to say that digital isn’t an amazing step forward; it is.
The youngest generation, and I’m talking here about the Millenials or Generation Y here, are the first to be born into a digital world. For them, the internet, the smartphone and living your life online are not revolutionary things, in much the same way as the television wasn’t a revolutionary concept for my parents, but probably was for the generation before them. Generation Y own very few physical, material things. You don’t own the record or the CD – you just stream it when you want it. You experience the art, but you don’t own the art. You dance to the music, but you don’t own the music. You watch the movie, but you don’t buy the DVD or Blu-ray
A new way to consume
This move to digital consumption is a fundamental shift in how we experience art. In previous centuries, to have experienced a painting, you had to be in the same physical location as the painting. You had to be there. Now you can just Google ‘Mona Lisa’ and experience the artist’s intended image wherever you are, on your phone, your tablet or your laptop. It democratises the way we see, hear and feel about art.
And this applies to music, movies, TV and books; in fact, any kind of media that we consume. We no longer have to own the things that define our tastes and identity. There was a time where you owned your media and your art. Now you just pass through an almost endless stream of potential experience – a stream of media and art that you can dip into and dip out of, much like you do with Twitter or other social media. It’s a river of experience flowing past, that you can dive into as and when you want. And unlike the previous idealogy of ownership, you don’t need to dam this river, lead it off into your own reservoir and keep it all to yourself to splash around in. This river is there for everyone, whenever they want it. It’s a symbol of a new way of experiencing art, media and the world in general.
Vinyl bites back
Digital streaming is changing forever how we experience music, cinema and media. And for Generation Y, this is just the status quo. Looking online for that tune you heard in a bar last night and finding the YouTube clip, Spotify audio, band website or the lead singer’s Twitter account is just the status quo. That’s what life is like in 2014.
But – and this is quite a big but – this younger generation is starting to explore things outside the digital realm. And one area that seems to be benefitting from this is music. Sales of vinyl records are up 100% year on year and that’s not just down to old fogies buying the latest Pink Floyd album. Young people are getting more and more into vinyl and that’s the largely because, for them, it’s a novelty and a new format. If you’re an avid 14-year old music fan, taking your first exciting forays into the world of rock, pop, dance and soul, hearing that music coming from a spinning disk of vinyl is a pretty freaky concept – especially if you’re used to carrying your whole music collection around as MP3s on your phone, or streaming the music you want online.
Sales of vinyl to the under 25s are continuing to rise and bands are starting to realise that a hard-copy, vinyl release can do wonders for your PR. Whereas in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the 7-inch vinyl single was the pop format of choice out of necessity (that was the easiest, cheapest and most popular way to listen to your favourite music), now the limited edition 7-inch is a considered choice by many bands and record labels. A 7-inch disc is something you can hold in your hand, something you can listen to, look at and own. Yes, something to *own*. And so, it looks like we’re going full circle, back to the concept of ‘identity through ownership’. Will we find the 2015 versions of Jagger and Richards meeting on a train platform through a mutual love of the new Alt-J vinyl album under one of their arms… let’s hope so, eh!
In fact, if you’re an aspiring artist or band then you can even make your own vinyl album. If you happen to have £2,500 kicking around, that is.
Album art and the importance of visuals
Another area where vinyl triumphs over digital is album art. The visual element of vinyl releases shouldn’t be underestimated. The artwork, the band logo, the printed lyrics, the lists of instruments and gear (possibly in both senses of the term) used to make the album; all of this is lapped up by the eager muso and music fan. Would The Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ have had the same impact without the Peter Blake album artwork? The music itself was certainly revolutionary, but it was the whole experience of ‘The Album’ (in the grand sense) that we used to love.
Rushing to the record shop (yes kids, you used to have to buy music in a SHOP!) to get the album on the day of release. Ripping off the cellophane and lovingly sliding the vinyl out of the sleeve and placing it onto the record player. The aural foreplay of hiss and crackle that comes before the music kicks in. Then settling down to listen to the album as a whole – and I mean REALLY listen, not having it droning away on tinny, in-ear headphones as background noise – while reading the sleeve notes, taking in the artwork and generally soaking up the whole experience of the album.
The album cover was as much part of the experience as the music, as this list of the best album art of all time goes some way to explain. Think of the hours the designer puts into a cover these days, only to see it end up as a 1cm square thumbnail on iTunes or a streaming site. It’s akin to looking at a Van Gogh at the far end of a hallway, through a very small letterbox. Yes, you can see it, but are you really getting the full effect? Album art works so much better when it’s BIG: you can see the detail, you can appreciate the full narrative of the design and – importantly for music fans of any generation – you can use the album cover as a makeshift table for the preparation of your jazz cigarette of choice. Allegedly.
The best of both musical worlds
So, is digital killing music? Definitely not: it’s actually making it easier than ever to find new music and to listen to new artists that you’d never ever have heard through the old-school methods of radio, vinyl and the Top 40 on ‘Top Of The Pops’. The ability to stream music wherever you are, and to explore the musical universe while sat in a packed train carriage is something that Jagger & Richards could only have dreamt of.
But let’s also embrace the hard copy. Let’s fall back in love with vinyl again and rekindle our affection for the *experience* of holding that brand new album or 7-inch single in your hands. Let’s encourage new bands to think about the visual elements as much as the musical ones – let’s create another decade of genre-defining album artwork and let’s see it in the way it was intended; on the hard-copy cover of a vinyl album, not in a tiny thumbnail on your smartphone.
Let’s embrace the democratic choice and variety of online music streaming. But let’s also embrace the idea of ‘music as art’ and get back to vinyl. Take the best from both worlds and let’s take music into 2015 envigorated, energised and ready for a new generation to enjoy it.