Coming Soon: Digital Scarcity?

The Los Angeles Times recently ran an article titled “CD and mobile music sales fall in 2010, but vinyl continues its resurgence”. This article, based on the Recording Industry of America’s 2010 Year-End Shipment Statistics, revealed that vinyl LP sales surged 26% while digital music sales – albeit still positive – were fairly unimpressive. Over the past few years it has been fascinating to see band merchandise tables at local Toronto bars inundated with fans lining up to purchase LPs. At the end of any indie show at The Horseshoe or Lee’s Palace it’s not uncommon to see the crowd streaming out – LPs in hand.

The Los Angeles Times’ asserts that the increase in LP sales comes “partly from live DJs who prefer vinyl over digital and partly from a new generation of collectors who see them as valuable souvenirs”. I will discuss these usual explanations (LPs as the preference of life DJs and LPs being valuable collectors items) in a manner that goes deeper than the usual journalistic norm.

The Role of the ‘Analog Priest’ in a Digital Culture

It’s no secret that there is currently a certain mystique surrounding analog media. Cassette tapes are valued for their nostalgic properties, authentic DJs spin vinyl records in contrast to their digital spinning poseurs. For the past five years, I have been struck by the – almost religious – awe that young people in clubs have for vinyl spinning DJs. The DJ is something of an analog priest that these youthful, data crunching, digital information labourers turned to on the weekend for a little ‘saving’.

I imagine the unconscious motivation of the frenzied crowd, facing the DJ booth (or DJ altar), as sounding something like:

It is the thrill we feel upon seeing vinyl. The return of the LP, nearly dead, now valorized: a call for the grooves of the vinyl over the binary numerals of the digital. Surrounded by the noise of the machine, learning to dance in a cybernetic feedback loop as the beats-per-minute exceed 160, but we are calmed by sight of the DJ’s vinyl, we are warmed inside: the sound compelling our bodies to learn to dance faster was produced – thank goodness – by physical ridges and grooves.

Scarcity, Rarity and Social Prestige in the Age of Digital Content

We – in technologically savvy nations – are said to increasingly be living in an age that is post-scarcity. The DJ in this regard, equipped with (often rare) analog LP pressings, stands as something of a throwback or a reminder of the age of scarcity. In this regard, it is no coincidence that today we are obsessed with reality TV and live events: we tune in each week to catch a glimpse of something ‘real’, something that falls outside of our rationalized, pre-programmed, digital lives. This is precisely why DVRs will never capture 100% of the TV market: viewers enjoy watching programs and sporting events live in order to procure a little bit of something ‘real’. How can this concept of society being ‘post scarcity’ help us understand the resurgence of LPs?

A consumer agrees to purchase an object or service for a whole host of reasons:

Sometimes we need the thing in question for physiological reasons (like a bottle of water on a scorching hot day);

Sometimes we want the thing in question in order to be personally satisfied or entertained (for example, a new book by our favourite author);

Sometimes we expect the thing in question to confer upon us a kind of symbolic or social prestige (the trendiest brand name clothing or a rare work of art to ‘ooh and awe’ your collector friends).

Of course, almost every object or service we purchase has some mixture of need, want and expectation. I may be parched from thirst yet conscious of the brand of water I buy.

It is this third reason, expectation, that is useful to understand the resurgence of LPs. Consider that a major factor in getting a consumer to fork over their hard-earned cash – as George Lucas has been all too aware – is to offer a ‘limited’ or ‘special’ edition item. Owning these rarities confers a symbolic or social prestige. This is drilled into our heads early on in life: you might recall coughing up your allowance for a pack of sports cards in the hopes of finding a fabled special edition, limited edition card. As any child would tell you, the common cards are nice to have, but it is difficult to get excited about something every other kid on the block has ten of.  You become the talk of the playground by having that card that no one else does. I would call it juvenile if it weren’t the case that most ‘grownups’ act the same way; albeit with more expensive collectables.

Although difficult to admit, when I go into Sonic Boom or Rotate This, I rationalize my purchase of LPs over CDs in a similar way. The store usually displays 2 or 3 copies of a new LP album. If I don’t buy it right now, it could be a whole week or two before new copies come in (or longer if the store was not planning on stocking it any more). At worst, the album might have been produced with a limited pressing, meaning that I might have to look to the secondary market.

Consider how radically different my reasoning is from that of an iTunes customer, or a user hemming and hawing over whether to pay for a cloud-based Grooveshark Plus subscription. What is different is that the iTunes or Grooveshark customer does not have to deal with the issue of scarcity. It is exceedingly difficult to accumulate social prestige or symbolic value through the ownership of .mp3 files purchased from iTunes or streamed from the Grooveshark cloud. The very same principle applies for Google Books, which may one day offer access to a library of everything. A part of me thinks that the hesitation to drop printed books in favour of ebooks – exemplified by the popularity of bookstores like Indigo and Chapters – has to do with a narcissistic component of the act of reading: The next time you’re on the subway, or in a coffee shop, watch people as they read. You will note that the readers’ eyes will often divert from their book and check to see who is looking at the cover of their book. In contrast, nobody can tell what you’re reading from the metallic back of your iPad or Kindle ebook reader. Perhaps these ebook readers would sell better if they recognized the importance of human narcissism and displayed the books’ cover digitally on the backside of the device!

Creating an LP is a complex process. It wasn’t until the mid-late 1980s that consumers could easily reproduce an album in the comfort of their own homes. When cassette tapes begun replacing LPs, an individual could create a reproduction – albeit taking the same amount of time to reproduce as the length of the content. These cassette reproductions were time-consuming to create and imperfect. When compact discs began replacing cassette tapes it became possible to simulate content and make identical copies. Furthermore, these identical copies no longer were beholden to the length of the content, and CD writers increased their speeds with each passing year until finally reaching near-instantaneous simulation of content. A few years after the .mp3 revolution begun with Napster and was legitimized by iTunes, consumers had the ability to simulate content instantaneously. There is a psychological gap between analog songs written into the grooves of an LP and the binary 0s and 1s that comprise the digital .mp3 files saved on your hard drive. The LP cannot be copied to another LP whereas I know an .mp3 file can be copied for, or sent to anyone without data loss as many times as desired. LPs are subject to a principle of scarcity in ways that .mp3s are not.

Coming Soon: Digital Scarcity?

Now, it’s absurd to expect that LPs themselves will be the great saviour of the recording industry in 2012 and beyond, however I am sure the industry will be looking to the 26% sales surge of LPs for clues to its own success. It is only a matter of time until the industry looks to LPs and asks how it can integrate rarity, scarcity and physicality into digital content.

So, what can digital media learn from – and take from – analog media? Here’s a wild suggestion that seems to run against the attributes of new media/digital content and will seem backward to most readers: Build a principle of scarcity into digital media. What if, to take one example, record labels started imposing limits on the number of times an album could be downloaded, thereby injecting scarcity into digital media?  This is the course the music industry might veer in when they recognize that ‘cloud’ based services, like Grooveshark, are not meeting their expectations – and it dawns on them that access to content is not the only active force comprising consumers’ desires.

About Dustin Cohen

Dustin Cohen would, in an earlier era, have been referred to as a cultural pessimist. He doesn't usually go with the flow and wishes he lived in a remote, drafty, castle somewhere in France. Other PP posts by Dustin can be found [here] & You can read his blog [here]