Sometimes it's easier to remember the warm hiss and forget the scratches. The coming of a new era always brings a touch of nostalgic loss, a longing for the old and amnesia on its shortcomings.
Sentimentalists have no shortage of places to reminisce. There's tapedeck.org, for instance, a museum of blank audio tape cassettes. But don't look for any mention here of dodgy dashboard tape decks eating long ribbons of analog tape just as Jimmy Page got to his solo. And you won't get your fingers smelly from trays of Microdol-X developer or "stop bath" at camerapedia.org, but you will have a hi-res déjà view on every still film camera imaginable. VHS aficionados can walk the halls of the Virtual Museum of Vintage VCRs at totalrewind.org, where the clever VCR navigation controls work perfectly and the good parts never deteriorate to a hash of scan lines. Though all of these exercises are little more than museum pieces, they show that there are still people out there looking for tangible media.
But not all analog fixations are vessels of empty sentiment. Vinyl records are making a real comeback, according to independent labels and hardware manufacturers. In the UK, industry group BPI reports that 7-inch single record sales were up 13 percent in the first half of 2007. While less than 1 percent of music sales in the United States are old-fashioned records, and the RIAA stats show sales of the format level for the past decade, fans of the black circle say much of the new surge in vinyl is off the mainstream industry's radar.
The visual impact of oversized cover art and the A- and B-side arrangement of tunes lends an aesthetic value that may speak to a generation accustomed to playlists and downloadable art. Indie bands and their fans are flocking to the format as a way to demonstrate their, well, independence from the mainstream. San Francisco band the Society of Rockets released their latest album on vinyl and MP3 only. And the White Stripes raised some eyebrows this winter for both their choice for a new single - Patti Page's 1956 flamenco-inflected hit "Conquest" - and the move to release it as the A-side on a series of three special edition vinyl-only releases. The songs were recorded with old-fashioned analog equipment at the home studio of kindred spirit Beck.
Until recently, vinyl was one of the last bastions of the audiophile, the same fundamentalist crowd that still mourns the passing of vacuum-tube amplifiers. But the best indication that the LP is edging back into the market comes from one of the leaders of the digital retail revolution, amazon.com. In October, the largest online store of all opened a well-stocked section of vinyl music, where, in addition to the revivalists like Jack White, Abbey Road and the ubiquitous Dark Side of the Moon continue to enjoy long, healthy lives on the best-seller list alongside The Best of the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." Nostalgia can be blind. Deaf, too.
Gone are the days when a studio engineer would splice reel-to-reel tapes together - replaced by the tech advances of hard drives and pitch correction software. From recording and production through to purchase and play, more and more music is never touched by human hands. But the White Stripes and others seem to be tapping into a new demand. The appetite for analog might be a reaction against an industry that has become almost robotic and increasingly sterile.