An album fueled by vinyl sales currently tops the Billboard charts. The back-to-the-future consumer rebellion demonstrates that quality can still beat convenience.
Music lovers bought 40,000 vinyl versions of Jack White’s Lazaretto this past week, making it the bestselling 12-inch disc since SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. The vinyl format constituted nearly a third of total Lazaretto purchases and outsold recent releases by Coldplay, Michael Jackson, and 50 Cent in all formats.
Why did audiophiles go atavist?
The LP contains a hidden track beneath the center label, spins the needle outward on one side, holograms an angel twirling atop the grooves, and plays in three different speeds. But underneath the din of gimmicks one hears the reality that the rich sound of analogue beats tinny music reproduced by binary code. Digital is to vinyl what orange drink is to freshly squeezed.
That black platters still spin spins heads. Its would-be assassins include 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and now digital. LPs surpassed 45s in sales in 1968, tapes surpassed vinyl fifteen years later, and CDs trumped cassettes a decade after that. Three years ago, digital edged all other formats combined. But the compressed sound left something lost in translation.
The cult of change confuses new for better. Consumers rejected advanced technology in embracing Jack White’s record because it doesn’t represent for them an advance. Digital offers obvious advantages in instant delivery, efficient storage, and portability. But most music lovers love the music most. Here, digital represents a regression. Just as Steve Jobs made a great camera in the iPhone but muffled the basic point of Alexander Graham Bell’s concept, his iPods improved Thomas Edison’s discovery in all sorts of ways but the aural.
In other words, an iPhone surpasses a landline as an alarm clock, navigator, juke box, and instant camera. It doesn’t surpass it as a phone. Mission creep misunderstands purpose. It also imagines the quantity of dollars there for profit inversely tied to the quality of product.
Poorly Made in China author Paul Midler coined the phrase “quality fade” to describe goods designed primarily to please producers rather than consumers. He defined the phrase to me as “deliberate as a way to save small amounts of money.” I noticed the phenomenon a few years ago in a white sea on my kitchen floor flowing from a paper-thin plastic milk jug that tore (not broke, tore) rather easily. But the discovery that someone had put a name to it didn’t come until more recently. The concept surely offers enough flexibility to apply it beyond assembly lines and sweat shops.
One spots the phenomenon in Hollywood’s computer-generated graphics (CGI) that will strike our forebears as ridiculous looking as stop-motion King Kong strikes us. CGI makes life easier and cheaper for filmmakers (I know. I know. They stopped using film!) But does it really look better than George Lucas’s tiny models used for Star Wars, let alone Cecille B. DeMille’s cast of thousands in The Ten Commandments?
A mania for efficiency paradoxically results in waste. We no longer mend clothes. We throw them out. We fix washing machines at the cost of replacing them. Millions of Americans residing in exurban McMansions—swiftly constructed with soft, knotty wood built not to last but for quick profit—surround themselves in quality fade. Even our car bumpers can’t take a bump. Dwellers in a culture of immediate gratification quickly realize they live in a disposable age.
The 40,000 people last week buying Jack White on black wax, and the others who put two Led Zeppelin albums from the 1960s into a 2014 top twenty, speak unambiguously: the latest isn’t the greatest. Today’s throwaway songs, like the soon-to-be-outdated gadgets that play them, put a pricetag on the age. Like a digital download or an iPod shuffle, it’s cheap.
Antique dealers will look down on us for the junk we leave behind.