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  • Writer's pictureEric Doades

The Romance of Vinyl and the Future of Nostalgia

Vinyl provides a tactile connection to an artist, and stands as an artistic statement amidst the ephemeral nature of streaming. Join us as Tristra talks with Karlyn King, a researcher whose work attempts to decode the enigma of vinyl's unwavering charm. 

“We live in the post ownership economy. Music is just a rental service, you're renting the right to use it – like an apartment. Whereas the vinyl experience is completely different…We’re looking for concrete experiences. People are just looking for that little physical anchor.” 

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Episode Transcript

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0:00:10 - Tristra

Hey everyone, welcome back to Music Tectonics, the podcast that goes beneath the surface of music and tech. I'm your host for this episode, Trista Newyear Yeager, chief Strategy Officer at Rock Paper Scissors, the PR agency dedicated to music innovation. Today I'm talking to researcher, speaker, teacher and author, Karlyn King, about her work digging into the culture and business of vinyl With a published dissertation on the subject. Karlyn has spoken at conferences, music institutions around the world and has written extensively about vinyl and its enduring impact and romance for music lovers. So thanks so much for joining me today, carolyn. 

0:00:47 - Karlyn

Thank you, it's fantastic to see you again. 

0:00:50 - Tristra

Yeah, I think we ran into each other many moons ago at South by Southwest and I was really just excited to meet someone who was thinking so seriously about a subject like vinyl and music fandom and all those things from an academic perspective, but also from a music loving perspective. 

0:01:08 - Karlyn

I'm definitely both. Yeah, first and foremost, I'm definitely just a total music nerd. That's the best thing about this business. Yeah, and the fact that I could then make that my job has just been tremendous. 

0:01:24 - Tristra

Wonderful. So let's start out by asking the most basic question why are people buying records and who in the world are the people buying them? 

0:01:33 - Karlyn

It's so fascinating. That really is the million dollar question. So people are buying records. In my research, what I found, because they romanticize them. Ultimately they see them as a connection to an artist and an artistic intention that you don't get when you click on Spotify. It's about feeling grounded and possibly in a perceived more optimistic time, you know, when vinyls were really the only choice. So that time in history and music history has been very much romanticised by today's vinyl consumer, particularly the younger ones. And yeah, we're looking for concrete experiences. I think digital saturation has certainly crept in. That's definitely a thing. We're feeling overloaded by the digital world, by the constant slavery to phones. 

0:02:33 - Tristra

And don't get me wrong. 

0:02:34 - Karlyn

I use all these things but, yeah, I think people are starting to feel quite oversaturated by it and slightly drained by the digital world and starting to really recognize that there could potentially be some dangers within it. Um, I mean, I was speaking to someone about ai weaponry last week and, yeah, the fact that these things could take a dark turn. I'm a huge fan of the show black mirror, um, and how these things could potentially be bad. So people are just looking for that extra little anchor, but what's really interesting is that it's concurrent with the digital world. You know, we're still streaming, we're still using AI, we're still doing all these things, but we also want that little physical, concrete anchor in what is a scary world. 

0:03:23 - Tristra

Yeah, are there particular types of people, and I don't mean necessarily gender, demographics, etc. But if you have some information about that, that'd be really interesting to discuss. How would you characterize the vinyl buyer or buyers? Are there a bunch of different persona that you could point us to who are really interested in engaging with music in this way? 

0:03:46 - Karlyn

Absolutely so. Certainly, my research looked at the UK and I'm going to be extending that to the US soon but certainly in the UK the younger consumer, who you know wasn't alive when vinyl was the only choice, for example, they see it as expensive but valuable. They see it as expensive but valuable. They see it as a way of supporting the artist. They love the idea of having, like a signed record and that again connection to artists. So it's almost like false intimacy, you know, because ultimately you're just exchanging money for a product, but they perceive it as a level of intimacy that maybe you don't get on twitter or facebook or instagram or tiktok. A signed album is feeling and I actually felt it myself. You know, in la two weeks ago I saw a signed serge tankian record, a very small limited run that he did. I'm a huge fan of him and you know I really wanted that connection to him. It's bringing me one step closer to him and his artistry and my love of his artistry. So very much the younger consumer, um, that that is their mindset, whereas the more longer term consumer that can remember vinyl when, when it was the only choice potentially for them, it's less about that, um, and it's more about value for money. They are able to perceive the compression within mp3 files. They're able to perceive that and see that we are ultimately being short-changed. 

Um, you know some, some mp3 files are as little as 10 of the original file and that's what we're being fed on the dsps, whereas a record unless well, if it's digitally mastered, it might also just be 10 of the file. Um, however much of the original analog vinyl is is much more rich than that. So they see it as value, as a valuable exchange and, and if we want to get into fidelity of sound, they perceive it as warmer, even more alive than a digital file. So a digital file on a dsp will not age. It's static, it's unchanging, it's clonable. You know, you clone it and it's the exact same dna. However, um, you know it's just copy, repeat. Um. However, a record ages, like we do as humans. It changes in time, it gathers dust it, you know it evolves and with usage. So I think people like that. It's. This idea of living decay and actually seeing something transform in real time is a very grounding practice for the more longer term consumer. 

0:06:33 - Tristra

That's really interesting. I've never heard anyone point that out, but that makes a ton of sense that every time you listen it's a little different. 

0:06:41 - Karlyn

Yeah, absolutely, we're pretty weird humans. 

0:06:59 - Tristra

Yeah, absolutely, we're pretty weird humans, it's a. So we were talking a bit in general terms, sort of conceptually, about what these experiences mean to the, to the people who you've consulted in your over the course of your research. What have they told you about how they actually do like? What do they actually do when they listen to records? 

0:07:21 - Karlyn

for the more longer term consumer, it was much more the sitting down and listening, you know, paying attention, whereas the the more sort of younger consumers um, it wasn't so much about that, but they would sometimes pretend that that was an issue. But really when I would observe them listening, it wasn't really about that at all. It was more just being in the room with a record player. That was enough for them and that's really because technology has dictated listening to them already and that is self-selecting you choose, choose the song, skip through stuff. You know singular songs as opposed to like a full concept album. So if they don't know what it's like to sit and listen to an album in full, they're not going to do it but interesting yeah, but they will romanticize the idea of doing that. 

0:08:20 - Tristra

However, when it comes down to it, they won't actually do it one important aspect that a lot of people discuss about music and scarcity and this is coming out of kind of the Web3 world or the blockchain world, nft world is this idea of ownership, and there was a lot of emphasis on this during sort of 2021,. Right, you know you talk about the romance of the experience of sitting with a record and listening or having a record, but is ownership a concept that means a lot to music fans? Or what's your research discovered? 

0:08:57 - Karlyn

Yeah, so it's very much. We live in the post ownership economy, you know, because we don't own the songs that we stream on Spotify. Yes, when we select a song to listen to, it does make a digital footprint in our server. However, we don't own that track. But if we buy a record, there's much more of a perception around taking it home, physically owning it, having it in your collection. That's ownership, that is ownership of that piece of work. So this post ownership economy is very different, but it's understandable, given that it was the only way that the music industry could could claw back some money, you know, from people not paying for music, you know, and piracy and um, downloading the Napster era. But, yeah, what's happened is that we no longer pay attention to cover art because you can barely see it on, you know, spotify app on your phone and that's become irrelevant. Um, and that's become irrelevant. And, yeah, it's become like Netflix or Amazon Prime. It's just a rental service. You're just renting the right to use it like you would rent an apartment, something like that, whereas the vinyl experience is completely different. So what I found is that for the younger consumers, that wasn't such an issue and actually they could feel some ownership when it came to their DSP accounts, for instance, playlists that they've made, curated, saved. They felt a sense of ownership around that. But the idea of a record lending itself more to ownership was not really a huge issue for them. But for the longer term consumers, it was a big deal. It was a really big deal. They hate the DSP model. They want something they can hold in their hand. 

So really it's about adaptation, or, you know, convergence is sometimes called in the way that technology evolves and we just go with the flow. We go with what it tells us. You know, we buy a new phone and we learn how to use it, but for in the context of vinyl music being such a personal experience, there's a lot more resistance around that. So I mean, I interviewed people who absolutely despise the DSPs. You know, and, like I said at the start, I use all mediums. You know, of course I stream, but there were people who would flat out refuse to stream music and they said that when they did, their ears were offended. Yeah, and you know, they compared it to things like, you know, using embalming and you know, of cadavers, right, preserving something forever. They saw it like that, whereas this idea of normal sort of living decay was very important to them in the context of ownership. 

0:12:09 - Tristra

That is so fascinating, so we're going to pause here for just a second and we'll be right back after a quick break. 

0:12:16 - Speaker 1

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0:13:12 - Tristra

Okay, we are back with Carolyn King talking about vinyl and music experiences, and it's really, really fascinating. So, carolyn, one really cool point that came up in your research was how technology determines behavior, and we have this concept of technological determinism, meaning that the technology kind of will then push culture and will push cultural practices in a certain direction. So what we do is kind of determined by the tech we use, and it's a little bit inevitable, right? However, vinyl contradicts this idea and I love that you brought that up and this idea that tech will basically push people into certain types of behavior. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about what you've discovered in this and sort of vinyl as this weird counterpoint, to quote unquote, technological determinism. 

0:14:01 - Karlyn

Yeah, so this was really became the core construct of my PhD, was I? Ultimately, I'm a consumer psychologist or music anthropologist and I just really wanted to know, you know, if it's true that we do just follow what technology does and ultimately we have, you know, look at the cars we drive and the technology in our homes and you know, with the mobile phone, all of this, you know we do just follow what technology does we're doing it now with AI? Understand, obviously, ai has been around for quite a while, but only now it's gotten really good and I use it. You know, I use it for marketing copy. So, yeah, technological determinism, it does say that we just follow whatever technology gives us, and you know that's what makes people like Apple, you know, million billionaires, because they give us what we can't even comprehend yet. But once we get it, we buy into it and it becomes how we live our lives and so on. That's what they do. 

So, however, vinyl you know vinyl was replaced in the 80s, so why is it still a thing? I mean, yes, it did decline massively and the amount of record stores declined all over the world massively. However, some communities really kept it going, from what I've seen in my research and it was ultimately reggae, dub, electronic dance music and, yeah, those were the sort of core communities that were still still using vinyl. So it wasn't completely dead. But what's really happened is when the internet became widespread sort of 2000-ish it enabled us to find the information about vinyl, so things like Discogs. You know that's part of my research was combing through the forums on Discogs for clues as to how this has happened. And this is exactly it. So pre-internet, you know, vinyl would have been dead and buried, maybe apart from the odd community that would keep using it. But thanks to the internet, we can now seek it out. 

And I'm also seeing this now in my teaching. So I have students who are 18 years old who and I'll say they know more about 70s and 80s music than me. I mean it's really exceptional and the reason is TikTok. They're looking at this stuff on TikTok, they are gauging what year it's from, they're learning about it, they're finding it on Spotify or YouTube, instagram and they're educating themselves. So in some theories, like actor network theory, to go super academic, you know they would call the internet the boundary object and that is the catalyst for maintaining technology, even when it's massively moved on and vinyl also has all of these social factors ascribed to it, like that romanticization, like the idea of better sound authenticity that other formats just don't have. So it is very much an anomaly, but that's certainly. What I found is that people go and they do their research. Now you know they might not deep dive and they might just put it into chat, gpt and ask for an answer, but still the fact that they're able to do that is really exceptional. 

0:17:27 - Tristra

That's really interesting. So how, if, if we're thinking about music tech more broadly, like outside of vinyl and I'm asking you to be a little speculative here, so bear with me, carolyn, but how do you think we should think about technology's inevitability and how it impacts how people enjoy music or culture? As you were doing your research, as you're talking to people, do you have any thoughts just more generally, about how, especially folks who are trying to build new tech products need to understand this interesting dynamic that vinyl reveals? 

0:18:02 - Karlyn

Absolutely yes. So you're really talking about remediation there, or media convergence, sometimes called so. When hi-fi stereos were introduced, they were really embraced because they were told that they would sound incredible. First of all, so good marketing, but also the integrated features of a turntable on the interface. So it wasn't so scary for a new consumer like, yes, it looked different, it sounded different. However, it had these little markers of the previous technology to just smooth that transition into the new. 

I mean, a CD is a small, like a small vinyl record, visually as well. So so that is called like remediation. So when we take some some of the old aesthetic properties, for instance, and we embed them into the new technology and it just moves that consumer experience over. So I mean to answer your question in terms of tech companies who are trying to lead the way, like Apple, yeah, remediation, taking these older factors, and this is exactly what Crosley Turntable do, and they have gone through the roof because they've taken this old visual of a turntable from like the 50s and 60s, one that you could carry around in a little case and it looks nice. However, it's got a USB port, it plays digital records, you can connect it to your laptop and download the music and it's Instagram friendly, so it straddles both worlds and that's really yeah, that's how we reintegrate that technology. 

0:19:50 - Tristra

Fascinating. So if you're thinking about building something, especially something that wants to push the envelope of consumer behavior, try to loop it back to something that came before, as at least aesthetically, or suggest something along those lines. 

0:20:05 - Karlyn

Yes, there's, there's huge buy in that way because it's a little less scary. And it does go back to what I said at the start is that, like we live in quite a scary world and people are looking for a grounding concept, something to ground themselves um one writer calls it a bam, for you know post-modern malaise and that we have so many options, it becomes overwhelming. And this just grounds us in that perceived era of optimism, high consumption, rock and roll. It just grounds us in these perceivedly optimistic times. 

0:20:45 - Tristra

So what you're talking about and in some ways you know this has come up a bunch in the research that I've seen of yours is this idea of nostalgia, and nostalgia is all over the internet it is. You know. I have kids in their teens who are always talking about how weird it is that everyone's nostalgic for all these different, fairly recent times. So what is nostalgia's role in all this? How should we understand it? If we're thinking about music and digital culture, yeah, yeah, it's escapism, it's 100% escapism. 

0:21:20 - Karlyn

I love it. I'm a huge consumer of all this stuff movies using, you know, 1980s synth wave music and fashion, and you know, even like the stores that they would go to in the town that they lived in. You know, it was very much 1980s America. Um, again, it is grounding us in a time that was perceived as better, but it's very much romanticization, isn't it? And this idea of the grass is always greener on the other side. So, you know, because, I mean, I personally don't watch the news, but if you are someone who's consuming all that media all the time, that's a lot, and being able to escape into another era, often that you weren't even alive during, is the ultimate escapism. That's why we play video games, that's why we go to shows. It's pure escapism. I mean to go super nerdy, um, theodore adorno said that you know, walt disney was the most dangerous man in america because of the entertainment industry, being this malevolent dictator, um, distracting us from what the real issues were. You know, he was never quite clear on what the real issues were, what we should really be focusing on, but yeah, he very much called it a distraction. So, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. You know, I will personally sit and watch all of Stranger Things, um, and yeah, it got me really. 

I mean, look at what's happened to Kate Bush, you know. I mean she is treasured in the UK I don't know about in the States, but now she's gained all this new traction and had yeah, she's had an incredible but now she's got a whole new audience and it's thanks to this, it's thanks to this remediation nostalgia, and I've got final year students who are doing projects on this very topic and, yeah, they're trying to find out why. Why do we like this so much? And my answer is it's escapism, it's romanticisation and a lot of the stuff in the 80s, for example, was fantastic. So why should we not give it a new lease of life. You know, I'm sure Kate Bush is glad of all those new royalties and that new audience who potentially will go to her show and buy her merch. So I don't see it through the lens of Adorno. I see it very much through if it's another form of escapism and art appreciation. 

0:24:03 - Tristra

Yeah, adorno was not known for his optimistic view of culture in general. He was pretty cranky, that guy. By the way, for those of you who haven't had to go through a seminar on culture and modernity, adorno was part of the Frankfurt School. He was like a theorist who was talking a lot about the impact of popular forms on culture, and he was very much from the old school, like if it doesn't have a string quartet, I ain't interested. But he was also a very, very, very interesting guy. All right, so now that you've gotten a little bit of a lesson about early 20th century grumpy cultural critics, we're going to take a quick break here and we'll be right back with Carolyn and more about vinyl in a second. 

0:24:49 - Speaker 4

The news cycle of the music industry, and innovation in particular, is accelerating at such a fast pace it can be hard to keep up. That's why I launched Rock Paper Scanner, a free newsletter you can get in your inbox every Friday morning. Check out bitly slash rpscanner. That's bitly slash rpscanner. I scan hundreds of outlets for you, from the music trades to the tech blogs, from the music gear mags to lifestyle outlets, so that you don't have to scanner to sign up right now. Go ahead, hit pause and go to bitly slash rpscanner. Or find the episode's blog post on musictectonicscom and find that link. Happy scanning, but for now happy listening. 

0:25:51 - Tristra

All right, we are back. So one thing that I find super interesting right at this moment in the music business is a lot of talk about superfans, and superfans are. Last time I checked people and the interesting thing about research of the kind that you do, carolyn, is you are looking at people and their experiences, underappreciated or it's just downright missing when people talk about superfans, as if they were these widgets that didn't have their own personalities or impulses or needs. So I wanted to talk to you a bit about your research and how you conduct it, because I think it's a valuable perspective for folks in a more applied or business environment to hear how scholars think about this. So, first of all, how did you get interested in this kind of research? How did you decide what methods you would use to explore these topics? 

0:26:50 - Karlyn

Sure. So I come from Glasgow in Scotland and we have small but very close-knit music music scenes and I was very much part of the indie pop, twee scene and you know there are certain record stores that would be the hub for that. And as a kind of natural anthropologist, I just wanted to know, you know, how does this work? How does it create a cultural space for music and fans to gravitate to and build communities and scenes and make friends and discover new artists? And also, on the stores side, you know, how do they become the tastemaker, like the cultural intermediary if you like, that dictates what is good and what's not good. So I became really interested in that and for my master's project I looked specifically at Glasgow record stores. But then, you know, I thought, why would I not extend this to the full United Kingdom, great Britain? So, yeah, started my PhD and straight away it's very much an ethnographic project, which means you know you're going into the space and watching and interpreting. So it's not like the hard sciences where it's very much positive, negative, black, white, right, wrong, yes, no, it's not like that at all. It's much, much more interpretivist than that. So the methods that I used were observation, where I would just go in, blend in. You know I'm a record store person anyway, so I never really looked out of place and, much like Louis Theroux, just go in and observe what was going on. 

Looking at the dynamics between staff and customers, how customers interact with the products, how the store is laid out, was a huge thing in terms of this barrier between customer and staff. It was almost like they were up on a pedestal quite literally at times, and you know areas of the store. You know, one time I was interviewing Phil from a store in London called Sister Ray and he said come and talk to me through in the back room and that was like the treasure trove, all the real limited runs, the stuff that they didn't really want to sell, um, you know, stuff they wanted for themselves. And this customer just tried to walk in and it was very much no, get out, not in here. So this kind of access and secrecy is so interesting to me. 

And then I then extended that to interviews you know where I would interview staff customers and then also online forum analysis. So I would look through things like reddit discogs, and that's where the real the gendering of the space came out in terms of how women are perceived in the record space and, as you know, on an online forum people are so honest, you know they and especially if they're anonymous on that forum, and they will just say what they think, and they very much did. And that provided a whole data set for me to then interpret and code up into why there is a gendering around vinyl record spaces. So yeah, a combination of interviews, observations, forum analysis and interpretation, obviously factoring in my own positionality as a woman in the music industry. I had to also try and negate any bias around that and just purely report what I saw. 

0:30:22 - Tristra

The gender question is super interesting and I'd love to just take a second to look into that a little bit more. So when you did your first round of research, did you find a specific gender direction, meaning, were there more men than women involved, or was this seen as a male space, and has that changed at all in the last few years as vinyls become more popular? 

0:30:46 - Karlyn

it has changed, thankfully. So yeah, initially what I found is that every store I was going into they were always run by men and the staff were usually men. And as someone who was a performer and a songwriter, you know I was always the only woman in the band, often the only woman in the room at times, certainly on the tour bus, only women. And I'm aware of the bias and you know the work that Stacey Smith is doing is super interesting. That's looking very much at the American artist, songwriter production space and how low the equity is there in terms of gender representation. But yeah, absolutely, I saw it with my own eyes in the record store. And when I did find a store that I mean, I had an interesting encounter in Rough Trade, which is a very famous store in London, rough Trade West, where there was a woman working in the store and she chose not to speak to me about my research because she thought that it's almost an area that men don't want to broach, so she wasn't going to broach it either. You know she felt that dissonance around getting into it, whereas when I was looking at reggae and dub stores in Brixton in London, they were all run by women, they were all owned and run by women, and women were the tastemakers, the ones that said what was good and what was bad. So what I found is that it's very much a historical thing it was. 

The turning point was around World War II, when predominantly male soldiers were given electronics, training, communications, and they then, the ones that returned from war, brought that back and it became hobbyism and, yes, they then that became the sort of the male space, if you like, and there's some what we would now call memes, um, but cartoons from like the 50s and 60s and the high fidelity press, you know, really displaying this misogyny around women trying to access that space. Because, you know, magazines like cosmopolitan have been around the whole time and they even had a male order vinyl club for women. You know their readership were women ultimately. So, of course women buy records, of course we're interested in vinyl, but there's plenty of women who dj using vinyl. You know, um, there's plenty of women who produce to vinyl also, but, um, they have been obscured in the press and there's this narrative being created that it's a male space. 

So, fast forward, especially with this resurgence as a result of the internet, that is now changing. There are so many stores popping up. In fact, I got a beautiful message from one called Eerie Street, vinyl in Ohio, who said that they'd read my research and it inspired them to start their own store. So that is really massive and a huge compliment. And you know, when I go to a lot of these events like Music Biz in Nashville, I do meet other women who run record stores. So, yeah, yeah, they do exist, they are growing in numbers and visibility and they're not going to be put into the box of it's a boys club anymore. 

0:34:11 - Tristra

That is so awesome and I have to say, my start in the music industry was as a young teenage, lone female record store employee. I think there was one other woman working at this record store, but it was definitely like a good crash course in how to get along in a space full of music nerds who may not always know what to do with you. 

0:34:34 - Karlyn

Yeah, it's so great and I mean it's so funny because you know, when I meet these women they're always like so happy to meet another woman in the vinyl space. And you know it shouldn't have to be that way. It shouldn't be like, oh, you're a woman and you're into vinyl, you know. But I think you know subsequent generations it won't be such a big deal and this will be one of those things that we look back and see what you know, what was going on. 

0:34:59 - Tristra

Yeah, we're not. Hopefully our future, our future music lovers out there, are not going to be nostalgic for that particular aspect of the early 21st century. 

0:35:09 - Karlyn

Yes, absolutely and yeah, if anyone is listening and wants to start a record store, please do it. 

0:35:16 - Tristra

I love it. Okay, let 1000 record stores be opened. I love it. Okay, let a thousand record stores be opened. All right? Thank you so much, carolyn. It's been a real delight to talk to you and thanks for sharing your research with us. 

0:35:30 - Dmitri

Thank you, it was great to talk to you. Thanks for listening to Music Tectonics. If you like what you hear, please subscribe on your favorite podcast app. We have new episodes for you every week. Did you know? We do free monthly online events that you, our lovely podcast listeners, can join? Find out more at and, while you're there, look for the latest about our annual conference and sign up for our newsletter to get updates. Everything we Do explores the seismic shifts that shake up music and technology the way the Earth's tectonic plates cause quakes and make mountains. Connect with Music Tectonics on Twitter, instagram and LinkedIn. That's my favorite platform. Connect with me. Dmitri Vietze, if you can spell it, we'll be back again next week, if not sooner.

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The Music Tectonics podcast goes beneath the surface of the music industry to explore how technology is changing the way business gets done. Weekly episodes include interviews with music tech movers & shakers, deep dives into seismic shifts, and more.


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