Will the revolution be analogue?


In opposition, David Cameron memorably chided Gordon Brown as  ‘…an analogue politician in a digital age,’ adding: ‘You are the past’. All true in a political sense, but perhaps Cameron was wrong (or not quite right) about the direction of the digital age. Many in the arts are now arguing that the future is analogue.

Recently the author Jonathan Franzen passionately defended the permanence of the analogue book against the instant gratification of the e-book. As he put it:

‘Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.’

I believe Franzen is mistaken. I love reading on my Kindle, and enjoy the instant access to Amazon’s virtually unlimited selection of titles. What could be more permanent than an eternal life in the cloud? And it’s still a ‘real’ book — there’s no degradation in the quality of the author’s words from a paper book to the screen of a Kindle.

Music, however, is different. As Wesley Stace, aka the singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, noted at The Economist ‘The World in 2012 Festival’:

‘…when CD’s first appeared nobody would have believed you if you had said the next [music] format will be numbers that are delivered in a degraded sound format that in no way replicates the quality of the music you are now listening to” adding  “ the revolution will be analogue.’

And last week, in an interview at the Sundance Film Festival, Neil Young complained about the‘quality of the sound of music today,’ arguing that ‘we have the worst sound that we’ve ever had. It’s worse than a 78 [rpm record].’ Intriguingly, Young also noted that the greatest pioneer of digital music Steve Jobs listened to vinyl at home

I mostly agree, and I’ve been travelling down Stace’s and Young’s analogue highway for a while now. A few years ago, to create space, and in the misguided belief that the future was digital, I sold most of my records to Reckless Records in Islington, only keeping my most precious Clash and Factory Records vinyl. It’s one of the biggest regrets of my life.

But, over the last couple of years, I have been slowly putting right my mistake, firstly by acquiring a new Rega turntable, and of course by buying lots more vinyl. And as many LPs now come with a free download code for the digital version you can still play the music on your iPod or computer.

It has been wonderful to listen to my old vinyl albums again. It’s been like meeting an old friend after many years, remembering the unique scratches and personality of each record, something altogether missing from the clone copies of digital music.

Also, with digital music the pleasure of record covers is lost too. There’s no chance to admire the ferocious energy of Pennie Smith’s photos of The Clash or the uncompromising purism of Peter Saville or Jamie Reid’s graphics on that tiny square on your iPod screen.

But it’s hard to argue with flexibility of digital music; after all you can’t go running with a record player or share a vinyl Spotify playlist.

In the end, the format I chose to store my music on comes down to levels of love. My most precious music will always exist both on vinyl and digital; for the rest, it’s CDs and MP3s on my hard drive; and, finally, the music I’m not sure I wish to own streams from the cloud

The real revolution of now is that I can have it all.

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