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Adam Thierer is Principal Investigator at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Against all odds, media products of the analog era, once left for dead, are making miraculous returns. For decades, vinyl records, turntables, broadcast aerials, and even printed books seemed destined for the trash of technological history. Many of us threw away our record collections and our antennae and began to migrate from physical books to digital books. Today, these older technologies are experiencing a revival. What explains their resurgence, and what is the lesson?
Vinyl records are enjoying unprecedented success as Whitney Houston regularly tops the charts. After a rapid decline in the 1980s, sales were almost non-existent in the 1990s. Today, they are selling at a sustained rate – up 94% now from the same period last year – and Record stores cannot keep up with the growing demand. Vinyl topped CD sales for the first time since 1986, despite consumers having to pay twice what they could for CDs or digital downloads.
Broadcasting never really went away, but it felt dormant once people started getting their local channels in cable TV packages. Today, however, consumers are “cutting the wire,” with more than a third of US broadband households abandoning cable. Millions of people are supplementing new digital streaming services with old-fashioned “bunny ears” to catch free local television. Antenna sales have increased 4 percent over the past year.
Finally, despite predictions that digitized shelves will lead to “The End of Books,” physical books are selling. According to Publishers Weekly, printed books saw their biggest annual increase since 2005, with sales up 8.2% last year from 2019. The total number of sales (751 million) was the highest since 2009, “the year before eBooks started to become a significant part of the book industry.
There seem to be several reasons for the spectacular revival of these technologies:
With vinyl records and printed books, people like to make a physical connection with the art they love. They want to hold it in their hands, display it on their wall and show it to their friends. Music or digital books do not satisfy this desire no matter how more convenient and affordable they are. Mediums always matter.
With broadcast antennas, the novelty of being able to receive “free” television (and radio) has returned to the age of measured media. Millennials are too young to remember that live streaming is the norm, and they experience a bit of the same awe as older generations who first attached antennas to their homes and accessed signals from towers miles away. free of charge. It also helps control media budgets.
However, other media technologies of the analog age seem dead and buried. Maybe I can eat those words, but VHS tapes and video rental stores are probably a thing of the past. The streaming revolution has made great movies and television abundant and instantly accessible. Telephone booths and rotary phones are also unlikely to appear outside of museums in the future.
Likewise, the 8-track cassettes of the 1970s and the cassette boom boxes of the 1980s are unlikely to experience a renewal because they were never high-quality portable music solutions. Vinyl records and turntables are especially popular in the home for a rich listening experience, and portable digital music fills the other gaps pretty well.
These aren’t the first technologies to experience a rebirth from the dead. Before the turn of the 20th century, electric vehicles were very popular. The US Department of Energy notes that in 1900, they made up about a third of all vehicles on the road, and New York City had a fleet of over 60 electric taxis. The internal combustion engine and cheap gasoline heralded an apparent loss for electric cars, even though they were quieter and more environmentally friendly.
Of course, electric cars are enjoying a comeback precisely for this reason. Some government mandates are hastening their return, but it seems clear that they were doomed to rise again.
It’s unclear what other old tech will get a second chance, but the next time someone tells you it’s time to throw away your old favorite things, consider hanging in there a little longer. It’s hard to predict the future, and part of the beauty of our economic system is that consumers know the value of things that tipsters have set aside.