Jan 01, 2016

Vinyl is dead. Long live vinyl.

My latest obsession is a very pretty, very shiny Pro-Ject Audio Carbon Debut DC turntable. Listening to music on it has quickly become my favorite way to listen, and not just because I get to use words like “plinth” in casual conversation.

I’m not alone. Amidst the sea of depression that defines the current state of the music business lies an interesting curiosity. While physical and digital album sales have been locked in a downward spiral since 2005, vinyl sales have exploded. In 2014 alone, digital sales declined 9.5% while vinyl sales increased by 52%.

The reason why may not be immediately obvious. After all, if you’ve spent any amount of time around a turntable you’d know exactly why vinyl was largely abandoned in favor of other formats.

Despite claims from many a vinyl purist, it doesn’t sound objectively better. It’s more expensive, less convenient, non-portable, requires more maintenance (both media and turntable), requires fiddly adjustments for best playback, can’t shuffle, repeat, or do much of anything. You can’t buy music for it instantly, etc. And for a minimalist model like mine, the only luxury is a tone arm lifter, which is really more for the benefit of your records instead of a convenience for you.

In other words, it’s not a terribly logical preference.

So then what’s the deal? Mass delusion? Those darn hipsters and their silly nostalgia? It comes down to one word. Experience.

As convenient and portable as digital music is, it has a singular flaw. It has no physical presence. You can’t see it, touch it, smell it. People who are choosing vinyl tend to be music lovers who are looking for a more emotional and personal connection to the music and artists they love. They also tend to have grown up in a digital only world, which is why experiencing vinyl is roughly equivalent for them to meeting a human in person for the first time when you’re only other contact with humanity has been telephone calls. There’s just no comparison.

But hey, what about CD’s? They’re physical media for sure, and the packaging can do some serious heavy lifting on the experience side of things when done right. But once you slap that disc in, you might as well be playing a digital file. It’s just another dead black box, and nothing like playing a record.

The satisfying thunk of the power switch as the record slowly spins up to speed. The few seconds of suspense as the tone arm slowly descends towards the platter. The thump that pumps from your speakers when it finally does. The few seconds of silence punctuated only by the occasional crackle or pop before the music starts. The fact that I have to get up and flip sides. The fact that I can’t just skip songs. The Rube Goldberg-esqueness of it all. And yeah, nostalgia is in there too.

On top of that, artists have recognized this new wave of vinyl enthusiasts and are pressing custom color vinyl to double down on the experience front. You know what’s better than a modern and minimalist turntable? A modern and minimalist turntable with a transparent red record spinning on it.

The Rider and The Elephant

The resurgence in vinyl despite the shortcomings of the format is handily explained by a behavioral psychology mental model called “The Rider and The Elephant”. The model was developed by Jonathan Haidt and is incredibly useful to explain how and why humans make decisions.

The rider represents your rational side, and the elephant represents your emotional side. The rider is in control, but that control is precarious. If the elephant decides to go in a different direction than the rider wants, the rider is powerless to do anything about it.

In the case of vinyl, that’s exactly what’s happening. Your rational mind may say “inconvenient!”, “expensive!”, “definitely do not buy this!”, but your (well, my) emotions say “honey badger don’t care”.

If you’re attempting to persuade someone to do something, you’re chance of success is much, much higher if you can convince both the rider and elephant.

When you don’t is when you hear statements like “I know it’s good for me (rider), but it looks and tastes gross (elephant)”, or “it fits my needs (rider), but I just don’t love it (elephant).”

When you do is when you hear statements like “shut up and take my money!”

Various industries tends towards trying to persuade the rider or elephant to differing degrees. The alcohol industry for example almost exclusively appeals to the elephant. People will want to sex you!” is the baseline pitch of 99% of alcohol advertising.

The automotive industry tends to do both. They make cars and marketing that appeal to your emotions, but then back it up with MPG, 0-60 times, safety test results, etc.

And then there’s the software industry. For most of its history the software industry has barely noticed the existence of the elephant. It’s been all rider, all the time. Apple’s rise to dominance was the event that finally had the industry stand up and say “OK, I guess experience really does matter”, but the lesson hasn’t fully sunk in yet. That’s why you still see site after site focusing on features instead of benefits. That’s why anything that’s not a bullet point feature tends to end life as an inglorious sacrifice on the altar of MVP.

But there’s an upside here. If you can identify and speak to the emotional drivers your customers have, you can compete handily against entrenched players in your space. Even if they have bigger budgets and more robust offerings. So acknowledge the elephant in the room. You’ll be better off for it.

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