Vinyl is special for Callum Stewart because it makes the act of listening to music a big deal. When his friends are over, they have to flip through the stacks, pick and pull out the record and drop the needle. From there, it’s only full albums, he said. No singles.
“A big part of it for me is the ritual,” he said.
Even picking out a record at a store is its own fun. Amy Gulliver, a customer at Inglewood’s Recordland, said she likes to “make an adventure of it instead of just sitting at home, clicking.” Other customers agreed.
“There’s a certain warm feeling about it and a certain happy feeling that you get from throwing on this physical thing,” said Al Cohen, Recordland’s owner.
Indeed, a study conducted on vinyl by Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward, a pair of professors in Europe interested in the sociology behind the rebirth of vinyl, described the process of selecting and playing a record as a ritualistic experience — dropping the needle has a tangible and immersive effect on how we interact with the music, something Stewart agreed with.
But that feeling isn’t limited to music. Books, for example, have never been a dominantly digital form and have stayed the same for a long time.
“It’s about being able to flip the pages,” said Tami Neilson, co-owner of the used book store Fair’s Fair. “It’s being able to hold the book in your hands. You could hug a book. You could share a book … People come in here, they take a deep breath and they smell the books.”
The draw of the physical leads to a community and culture too. Neilson noted that lots of readers operate off recommendations from friends and the interaction creates a readerly comradery. She said she’s practically seen family reunions in front of the store desk.
Randy Wong, co-owner of Hexagon Board Game Café, said that a large part of board games is the analog aspect, but in particular, their social nature.
On Tuesdays, Hexagon’s Dungeons and Dragons nights can draw between 30 and 40 people. And yet, D&D’s enjoyment only comes from the imagination, a few character sheets and a set of dice. One of their volunteer dungeon masters, Ben Rowe, said part of the draw is the physical.
“There [are] people who like rolling the dice,” he said. “That's a pretty iconic part of the game but you can have apps on your phone that will roll the dice for you because it's just numbers. But, so many people like the tactile nature of actually having a pair of dice and rolling them across the table.”
He added the biggest draws were the freedom for imagination in the game and the “by necessity” social aspect. Changes to D&D’s accessibility over time has increased the popularity of the game too, he said, making this the most popular era for the game since the ‘80s.
“In the end, it's really no different than having a poker night,” he said.
Vinyl, on the other hand, has a set history in its tangibility, according to Bartmanski and Woodward. The heritage of pop and rock on vinyl and turntables in electronic and hip-hop imbue the physical object with history, they said. Consider too that those records often pass through different hands and second-hand markets.
The constant cycle of store shelf to home shelf and back in the second-hand market builds a relationship the researchers thought energized the culture through cities and record stores.
“They’re important in the way that they hold a piece of people’s heart inside every single one,” Cohen said of records. “Every single record. I have a thousand records here and every single one of them has a story.”
However, another study on psychological ownership and music streaming in the Journal of Business Research a couple years later found that people were, predictably, on the side of nostalgia and practicality. They like the experience of physical media but won't shirk streaming apps that they can scroll through for the perfect song.
Cohen and his customer, Stewart, argued that Spotify was a way for discovery and the biggest fans of music would eventually pick up the vinyl once they found something on the app they liked. But, it’s hard to ignore the age of practicality and its influence on how people consume their products. The same study found that people were moving their allegiances away from bands and musicians and towards streaming apps. A Jay-Z fan, for example, would be too loyal to Spotify to get the rapper’s own streaming service, Tidal, for his music.
So why does the physical still persist despite the practicality and availability of online media? Why do books and vinyl and board games still thrive?
"We get given things when we're kids and then it's ours,” bookstore owner Neilson explained. “I think people want to feel like they have ownership over something."
- By Thomas Bogda