Back on track: exploring the vinyl revival

Professor Michael Beverland considers the resurgence in 'legacy technologies'.

As digital technology promises us whatever we need at the touch of a button, countless consumers are stepping back to the old ways of doing things – from vinyl records and film photography to board games. Professor Michael Beverland’s research considers the reasons behind this resurgence in ‘legacy technologies’ and what it means for consumption and design. 

Sales of vinyl LPs in the UK have risen from less than a million in 2013 to 4.3m in 2019, and vinyl displays are now commonplace in supermarket aisles. Realising that existing theories of consumption could not explain this trend, Michael was keen to find out more. “The rational view is that, once a dominant design is disrupted, it dies. Consumers embrace the new and don’t go back,” he explains. “But music sales are bucking this trend. And it’s clear that the move to vinyl wasn’t driven by nostalgia or an opposition to technological advances.” Around 50 per cent of vinyl buyers are aged under 35 and have grown up with digital music as the norm. Many continue to listen digitally as well as collecting vinyl but see each format as having a very different role. So what is the appeal of old technology in a digital age?

To find out, Michael, together with Karen Fernandez from the University of Auckland, used an ethnographic approach, conducting semi-structured depth interviews with 26 vinyl collectors in the UK, New Zealand and the USA. By immersing themselves in their interviewees’ worlds, the researchers were able to unpack the motivations, understandings and practices of vinyl consumers. Four of the collectors were also owner-managers of independent record stores dedicated to vinyl, so were able to provide useful insights about trends in music consumption.

Senses working overtime

“One of our key findings was that – although digital music is functional and convenient – users tend to care about it far less than they do about vinyl,” says Michael. For its growing number of fans, vinyl is about more than just the music. It’s a multi-sensory experience – taking in sound, vision, touch and even smell. Collectors talked about the record sleeve as a work of art and the pleasure of reading the sleeve notes, while one described the visual importance of the record itself, saying: “You can see the grooves and you can see the tracks and where they start and where they end and how long they are going to go on for. And then you put the needle on and you watch the record spin. It’s this visual aspect that’s really cool.”

Several collectors emphasised the importance of owning a physical object, with one commenting that “digital music doesn’t really exist.” This physicality also enables users to actively engage with the process of playing and listening to vinyl.  Streaming music is often just a background to other activities, but vinyl demands more attention, and therefore forces listeners to focus. “You can see it and feel it and it becomes more of an experience,” one collector explained. “People often forget that you can see music happen. Toddlers are quite interested, because of the cause and effect – when you put the needle down it plays a tune. You don’t get that when you’re hitting play on the remote control.”

Lost in music

Michael found that the enhanced engagement with the music was one of the most striking differences between vinyl and digital. “The people we interviewed said they felt like the artist was in the room, singing directly to them.” One described the connection with the record as “all encompassing – you really feel like you’re engaging with the music more than if you just click play…and that’s what’s important for people who are really into music – to feel a part of it.”

In fact, this active involvement and focus on the music turns listening to vinyl into a form of mindfulness for many collectors. One explained how the “ritual and ceremony” of playing vinyl records leads to more relaxation and enjoyment: “Taking things out of the sleeves, listening whilst reading the lyrics… just works perfectly with how I want to consume good quality music.”

Michael believes this process has much in common with the so-called ‘slow movement’ seen in many fields, from food to fashion. “People are slowing down and re-skilling. With things like baking sourdough bread or knitting, people are embracing the sense of achievement and creativity that comes from forging greater connections with the objects they use and the products they create.”

Collectors also described how their active engagement with vinyl makes putting on a record a much more of a social experience than listening to MP3s or streaming services. One interviewee explained how he listens to music with friends: “We’ll take turns in picking records and putting something on and we’ll surprise each other with what we chose… It almost becomes a communal shared experience.”

A growing trend?

Michael believes there are some limitations to vinyl’s rise in popularity. “Serious vinyl collectors need space, money and time, so it’s not for everyone. It’s become a new luxury,” he says. There are also challenges on the production side. “Vinyl is the biggest selling physical music format but there are challenges. Making a disc is very resource intensive, for example, so manufacturers need to look at how to make the process more sustainable.”

Implications for industry

“It’s fascinating to study an area where consumer behaviour has confounded what experts might predict,” says Michael. “I think one of the important findings for industry is that complexity isn’t always a problem. Products that require more input from users actually build greater engagement and give users a sense that they’re in control. It’s also important to note that consumers really appreciate things that slow them down and allow them to be in the moment – countering the fast pace of the rest of their lives.”

Michael BeverlandAbout the researcher

Michael Beverland is Professor of Marketing and Head of Department of Strategy and Marketing at the University of Sussex Business School. His main area of expertise is brand management, in particular brand authenticity and brand innovation. He also writes on consumer culture theory, sustainability and dietary practices, design-driven innovation, and manufacturing.

Read the paper

Au, Aq & Fernandez, Karen & Beverland, Michael. (2018). As the record spins: materialising connections. European Journal of Marketing. 2018. 10.1108/EJM-12-2016-0828.