You may live twice*

*The problem is, you most certainly have to die first to get the second chance, and nobody’s willing to do that

The International News Media Association (INMA) is not a superpopular organization. Nor is its CEO of the last 27 years Earl J. Wilkinson. Too bad, because Wilkinson, if anything, coined one of the good answers when confronted with the $1 million truly tedious question — “Will print media come to an end?”: “When I come across this kind of question, I think about a man, in the beginning of the 20th century, looking at an automobile and wondering if, in the future, there would be room for horses. Well, there’s room, but…”, explained Wilkinson.

There is another (not so) good answer for this same query. “It will most likely come to an end, but if you travel back to the turn of this century, enjoying the peak of CD sales, the beginning of MP3 downloads and the rise of the white earbuds, how much money would you bet that vinyl records would make a comeback?”. Wilkinson’s analysis is far better than mine because 1) it was formulated a decade ago; 2) it leaves almost no room for optimism.

There’s a reason, though, both answers resort to analogies — automotive and recording industries, respectively: analogy is a tool you use when all your reasoned arguments are frazzled. There’s another technique you may find helpful in lost cases: optimism — but that’s when you’re not arguing anymore, you’re just being kind.

This is me being kind. “Vinyl album sales grew 213% in the last week of April, rising to 547,000 sold”, Billboard highlighted in a recent article. Yes, April as in April 2017. “That’s the biggest week for vinyl sales since Nielsen began tracking it”, 25 years ago. And things get more riveting. Last week, Australians draw a bolder move by announcing their first vinyl pressing plant in over 30 years. Program Records will install “state of the art presses, along with a new plating/stamper making system”. You, Britpop fanboy, dying to raise your hand, calm down: could all of it be the logical outcome of Sgt. Peppers and Ok computer anniversaries? Probably. But if these are not two great reasons to be optimistic, I wouldn’t know what could be.

It’s easy (and tempting) to blame it on Lovely Ritas and Paranoid Androids, but it’s not accurate: vinyls have been practicing their comeback since the beginning of the decade. Last December, in the US, Nielsen Music reported that vinyl sales have been rising for eleven consecutive years. In England, according to The Guardian, sales reached a peak with more than 3.2 million units sold, a rise of 53% in 2015 and the highest number since 1991 — and 1991 is virtually another life, when Billboard no.1 Roxette used to join the joyride.

In order to understand vinyls’ unexpected revival it is vital to realize what happened to them: well, there is no good way to say it, they died. In 1986, vinyl album revenues reached the noticeable mark of $1 billion; seven years later, this revenue fell to a merely residual level, less than $7 million. The (after)life remained the same: incomes below the $35 million line for the following 14 years. Then the strangest thing happened; in 2008 the heart monitor started to beep again — and, fast-forward another seven years, US vinyl album revenues reached $400 million in 2015, which is quite amazing.

Some may call it an intriguing phenomenon, I prefer “course correction”. Despite all of RIAA clumsy efforts, music industry derrailed with surprising oftenness during the last two decades. Streaming services got us to that point where nobody has any idea who’s actually singing, the once esteemed album concept became outdated and no one under 20 understands that Side B and B-Sides are two very different things. Vinyls, contrariwise, mean the return to basics: owning, caring, taking one’s time and (really) listening. And, more importantly: this renaissance proves media is one of the few entities that may earn the right to a second life. Hang in there, iPod.

It is rare, obviously, after all we’re dealing with resurrection here. But it’s not unique. Comic books, for example, experienced the same resurgence syndrome. “Recently released sales numbers show that June 2016 was the (comic books) industry best-selling month since December 1997”, The Washington Post pointed out last year. Podcasts — although they never really turned into a mass media tool — also found their way back to the audience. New York Mag spent a couple of lines on the topic: “The podcast scene seemed to wither. Download numbers fell. People moved on to streaming. Now, top podcasts are full-scale productions with staff, budget, and industry expertise behind them”.

Before we proceed, a word about life (and death). None of these examples were exactly dead-dead. At some point vinyls almost faced the VHS tapes destiny, but they didn’t got that far. Podcasts interest definitely waned, and comic books underwent some sales hiatus, but nobody passed away.

Today, print media is heading towards the same journey vinyls experienced 17 years ago — it’s inevitable, it’s not like they could control the pace, they’re on a moving walkway. Nevertheless publishers struggle to recognize that and gamble the money they don’t have trying to stop the travelator, which is just one of so many things in this universe that make no sense to me.

Apparently, resurrection is a tricky thing… it is not about dying, it is about accepting death. On a daily basis, journalism tries to sell itself with a staged cliché packed with too many “firsts”: “digital-first”, “mobile-first”, “subscription-first”, almost an endless epistrophe. These media companies shout out loud, but they’re the minority. In 99% of newspapers around the globe the only “first” available is “print-first”. Yes, in a 2017 newsroom, I know. Well, there is some “praying-first” too, because these are the same people who fail to understand that disowning their origins could be the key to regaining some of the void space.

Unfortunately print media is not even close to embracing its fate with pride and — I would add — some optimism (I forgot to tell the other tricky aspect about resurrection: it is not a sure thing). The faster the death the better the chances of a quicker comeback. With some luck and the right schedule, they may even speed the process. If publishers had already given up paper (when readers and advertisers did, for example), they could be yearning for the next decade now: 2021 has a lot of potential to witness the revival of print media. That’s the year The Guardian turns 200, The New York Times, 170, and El País, 45. In need of a little help from my (vinyl) friends — after all, they know how to throw a comeback party — , 2021 is also the year of the 20th anniversary of Is this it (The Strokes), the 30th of Nevermind (Nirvana) and the 50th of one of the most iconic The Who’s albums (sorry, it was inevitable)… Who’s next?

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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