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Adam Thierer is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Against all odds, analog-era media products once left for dead are making miraculous comebacks. For decades, vinyl records, turntables, broadcast TV antennas and even printed books seemed destined for the dustbin of technological history. Many of us threw away our record collections and antennas and began migrating from physical books to digital ones. Now, these older technologies are enjoying a revival. What explains their resurgence, and what’s the lesson?
Vinyl records are enjoying success not seen since Whitney Houston regularly topped the charts. After a rapid decline in the 1980s, sales were almost non-existent in the 1990s. Today, they’re selling briskly — up 94 percent currently over the same period last year — and record stores can’t keep up with surging demand. Vinyl topped CD sales for the first time since 1986, despite consumers having to pay twice what they might for CDs or digital downloads.
Broadcast television never really died, but it felt dormant once people began getting their local channels in cable television bundles. Today, however, consumers are “cutting the cord,” with more than a third of U.S. broadband households abandoning cable. Millions are supplementing newer digital streaming services with old-fashioned “rabbit ears” to pick up free local TV. Antenna sales rose 4 percent over the past year.
Finally, despite predictions of digitized bookshelves bringing about “The End of Books,” physical books are selling. According to Publishers Weekly, printed books enjoyed their largest annual increase since 2005, with sales up 8.2 percent last year over 2019. The total number sold (751 million) was the highest since 2009, “the year before e-books started to become a meaningful part of the book business.”
There seem to be a few reasons for the dramatic revival of these technologies:
With vinyl records and printed books, people enjoy making a physical connection with the art they love. They want to hold it in their hands, display it on their wall, and show it off to their friends. Digital music or books don’t satisfy that desire, no matter how much more convenient and affordable they might be. The mediums still matter.
With broadcast antennas, the novelty of being able to capture “free” television (and radio) has returned in an age of metered media. Millennials are too young to recall over-the-air broadcasting as the norm, and they’re experiencing a bit of the same wonder as older generations who first affixed antennas to their homes and accessed signals from towers miles away without charge. It also helps keep media budgets in check.
Other analog-era media technologies seem dead and buried, however. Perhaps I may eat these 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. Phonebooths and rotary-dial phones are also unlikely to pop up outside of museums going forward.
Likewise, 8-track tapes from the 1970s and 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 mostly enjoyed at home for a rich listening experience, and portable digital music fills the other gaps quite nicely.
These are not the first technologies to experience a back-from-the-dead rebirth. Before the turn of the 20th century, electric vehicles were quite popular. The U.S. Department of Energy notes that by 1900, they made up around one-third of all vehicles on the road, and New York City had a fleet of more than 60 electric taxis. The internal combustion engine and cheap gasoline spelled apparent doom for electric cars, even if they were quieter and more environmentally friendly.
Of course, electric cars are experiencing a major comeback precisely for that reason. Some government mandates are accelerating their return, but it seems clear that they were destined to rise again.
It’s uncertain which other old technologies will get a second chance, but the next time someone tells you it’s time to throw away your old favorite things, consider holding on just 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 prognosticators have written off.