Video did not kill the radio star, despite a famous claim by The Buggles in their chart-topping 1979 one-hit wonder that became the first video on MTV.
So-called “disruptive technologies” have long piqued Wall Street’s enthusiasm. A new gadget will come along and virtually commandeer the earnings tied to a more traditional version. As The Buggles hit puts it, “they took the credit for your second symphony, rewritten by machine on new technology.”
Hyped expectations for digital tech led to the dot-com bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s. Investors thought the internet would permanently replace the way we buy and sell everything from dog food to greeting cards.
Just before the dot-com crash led to a turn-of-the-century recession, Excite@Home paid $780 million for Blue Mountain Arts in 1999. A young Boulder entrepreneur, best known today as Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, had published his family company’s artistic, special-occasion cards on the internet. Investors thought digital cards would commandeer a multibillion-dollar industry dominated by Hallmark.
Two years later, Excite@Home sold Blue Mountain for less than 5% of what it paid. A month later, Excite@Home filed for bankruptcy. To this day, physical cards take up rows in pharmacies, supermarkets and big-box retail. They aren’t going anywhere soon.
“Competition for the Online Greeting Card Sales industry mainly stems from sales of greeting cards in brick-and-mortar stores,” says a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) by market research firm IBISWorld. “Traditional retailers such as card shops, paper goods stores and gift shops are preferred by consumers who like to see the product firsthand.”
Conventional wisdom had the internet killing off radio and most varieties of print. Cellphone cameras would render film cameras moot. Tablets would make libraries and bookstores irrelevant.
Traditional, tangible products have met the onslaught of virtual disruptors — products that began as props in science-fiction novels — and defied all odds. They have done so despite the fact all those once-futuristic visions tend to deliver more than was promised. “Star Trek” showed baby boomers the “communicator” — a wireless flip-phone-like contraption with unlimited reach for person-to-person verbal communication. “Star Trek” writers never thought to use the communicator as a navigator, camera or research tool with access to more information than is stored in the Library of Congress. That may have seemed a bridge too far.
Despite mind-blowing innovations of the past 100 years, convenience stores continue stocking magazine racks. Newspapers, some 25 years after they began publishing content in digital formats, land on driveways long past the predicted demise of print editions.
Technological advancement destroys some traditional services and goods but struggles with replacing the human need to touch and feel products that seem real.
The book is back
The smartphone, tablet, laptop, and internet all converged over the past 30 years and would, almost certainly, doom the future of books. Anyone who bet against the book made a mistake.
Fiction writer and journalist Bob Brown was likely the first to challenge traditional books. In 1930, Brown envisioned an electric reading tool described in his futuristic manifesto “The Readies.”
The written word needs to get with the times, he implored. He crusaded against “the tyranny of paper and ink!”
“Writing has been bottled up in books since the start. It is time to pull out the stopper,” Brown wrote, calling for “a bloody revolution of the word.”
To carry out the revolution, Brown believed humans “must have a machine. A simple reading machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light plug and read hundred-thousand-word novels in 10 minutes if I want to, and I want to.”
Today, anyone can download “The Readies” onto a Kindle, phone or iPad for $9.99. It involves no trip to a library or store where consumers search through stacks of shelves. Simply type “The Readies” into Google and suck it into a “machine” in less than a minute. For readers wanting to close their eyes and rest, or those who cannot read, the machine will translate the words into soothing audio.
The machine stores more books in an eighth-inch sliver of plastic than would fit on shelves of most bookstores or libraries. It likely exceeds Brown’s wildest expectations.
Books, one might reasonably conclude, could not possibly compete with today’s version of Brown’s vision. A book requires the harvest of a tree, transport of the tree, processing of the tree into pulp and conversion of the pulp into paper. From there, the paper must ship by truck or train to another factory. Next, a big and expensive machine applies ink to the paper. Another machine binds the paper into a book with a cover.
The book typically travels by truck from the printing plant to a warehouse. From there, it travels by truck to a consumer or retailer. Copies that ship to a retailer physically transport again when customers travel to buy them. Each time the book changes hands, it travels the old-fashioned way. One small book will take up more space on a table or shelf than hundreds of books inside the machine.
All that, competing against the nearly cost-free and wireless transmission of data directly from the seller to the buyer. Any notion books would ultimately withstand this competition seemed absurd, to those with economics-first mindsets, just five years ago. Never discount the value of absurdity.
“Only by living absurdly is it possible to break out of this infinite absurdity,” wrote 20th-century Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar.
“A prophet or an achiever must never mind an occasional absurdity, it is an occupational risk,” 19th- and 20th-century British parliamentarian Oswald Mosley said.
Market trends tell us consumers are not driven primarily by cost, efficiency and comfort. Sensual, tactile considerations seem to outweigh convenience, efficiency and cost — at least in some fundamental consumer decisions.
“Books are Making a Comeback While E-book Sales Plunge,” says an April 2018 headline in Life as a Human magazine.
Publishing insiders and bookstore owners do not mention “retro” fashion when explaining the survival, resurgence and domination of books. They credit the human need to touch, feel and smell.
“Reading a physical, printed book is a very different experience from an e-reader device,” Life as a Human asserts. “Each book has a distinct material, scent and cover, as if it embodies a personality of its own. Readers can also see how far they’ve read and where they’re at as they turn each page.”
An article in The Guardian, about the decline in e-book sales and the corresponding increase in book sales in Europe and North America, says “hysterical cheerleaders of the e-book failed to account for human experience, and publishers blindly followed suit. But the novelty has worn off.”
Tommie Plank, a founding co-owner of Monument’s Covered Treasures bookstore, sees first-hand the resurgence of books since the dawn of downloads and the mainstream emergence of e-readers about 12 years ago.
“Seldom does a week go by that we don’t have a customer say ‘I have a Kindle and I really like it. But when I’m reading at home I want a book.’ They grew up reading books and that tactile feeling of holding a book and turning the page is part of the joy of reading,” Plank says. “They mention their appreciation for the smell of real books.”
Plank says children’s book sales have always been strong and show no signs of slowing down.
“People realize how important books are in the developmental years,” she says. “They are important to developing social skills, reading skills, eye-hand coordination and more. Children need to be able to read at grade level by the end of third grade as a predictor of success and the likelihood of dropping out of school.”
Education researchers Patricia A. Alexander and Lauren M. Singer reviewed studies and conducted primary research that compared and contrasted the comprehension levels of college students who read digital media and those who read print.
“Overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading,” they conclude, as reported in Business Insider.
That doesn’t surprise Plank, who keeps up with studies about reading to discern future trends for her store. She references multiple studies that document humans retaining more information when reading printed words on paper, as opposed to digital words on screens.
“When our brain retrieves information, it’s almost like going to a file cabinet and pulling out pages, as opposed to trying to recall something that happened on a monitor and you have no physical sense of where that information was stored when you read it,” Plank explains.
Though books are back, Plank had reason to fear Amazon, the Amazon Kindle, the iPad and smartphones.
“Amazon hurt us when they first came along,” Plank says. ‘Then, electronic media hurt us. In each case, our business has come back. In the case of Amazon, people realize personal service and interacting with a person is part of the experience of buying a book. People are tired of everything digital all the time. They get more pleasure when something is real.”
“Real” includes the ambiance of a store.
“Successful bookstores are designed in a pleasing way,” she says. “You see some books familiar to you, or authors you know, and it is a connection people make and they feel rather at home. People want a nice place to go to.”
Plank says book clubs are as popular as ever and their members enjoy meeting, attending book signings and buying their books in bookstores.
Vinyl whistling past the grave
Just as books are roaring back, consumers are driving a market phenomenon considered laughable 30 years ago.
For much of the past 30 years, adult lectures about the old days included describing records to kids. Parents walked to school in deep snow, uphill both ways, and they played music on primitive black discs. Each disc had a spiraling groove. A record player rotated the disc so its groove would vibrate the player’s needle. It generated music and a low-decibel hissing caused by the friction of needle and groove. It was primitive but real, unlike those MP3s, searchable silver discs and streaming services that practically give away songs.
Tell the old record tale in 2019 at the risk of sounding like a troglodyte. Vinyl records are all the rage, especially among youths. CDs, downloads and streaming services are increasingly passé.
A year ago March, the Recording Industry Association of America released its latest sales data. Combined vinyl and CD sales exceeded download sales for the first time since 2011. Vinyl records accounted for the only real surge in audio sales, up 10% from the previous year. CDs dropped 6%. Digital downloads plummeted by 25% for single tracks and 24% for albums. Data for 2019 show the intensification of those trends.
The movement vindicates Chad Kassem, a modern music-industry icon living and working in the middle of Kansas.
Kassem, who grew up “Cajun” in small-town Louisiana, packed his bags at age 22 and moved to Salina, Kan., in 1984. He was there to recover from substance abuse and get on with life with a business he might love.
Friends and acquaintances questioned his newfound sobriety when he founded Acoustic Sounds in his apartment. The business would buy and sell vinyl records in 1986 in an isolated town of 47,000 residents. CDs had emerged in most record stores in 1984 with extraordinary hype. They were the next big thing. They sounded clean. The listener could easily skip from one song to the next. They were easy to store. People thought vinyl was dead and Kassem was oblivious.
When the local newspaper prepared for its annual Progress Edition, featuring new businesses, an acquaintance of Kassem suggested a feature on Acoustic Sounds. Former Salina Journal reporter Dan Hess remembers colleagues rolling their eyes.
“They were skeptical of the whole concept,” Hess recalls. “Selling vinyl. How stupid is that? No one thought the business would survive the year.”
Kassem stuck to it, running his business while working for minimum wage on the side to help pay bills. Gradually, Acoustic Sounds grew. He added a sound studio and a record-pressing factory to create vinyl for musicians who did not like CDs.
They traveled from Chicago, New Orleans, Kansas City and other major markets.
Today — with 100 employees, 100,000 square feet of floor space and soaring sales — the recording industry views Kassem as a maverick who predicted the long-suffering recovery of vinyl. He led what can only be called a back-door disruption, doggedly replacing the new with the old.
As it became increasingly difficult to write off the Cajun-record-guy-in-Kansas, Billboard magazine featured Kassem on its cover in 2002. The headline read “Audiophile Labels Put a New Spin on Vinyl.” Fast-forward 17 years and audiophiles comprise a tiny niche within the mainstream record rebound.
Kassem began with no business or audio background; no Ivy League pedigree. He simply loved music and trusted his ear like a famous chef trusts his tongue. Like successful book publishers and sellers, Kassem attributes his industry’s success to humanity’s desire for high-quality, tactile, sensual stimulation.
“Records sound better, and I knew that the moment I heard a CD,” Kassem says. “Records are inviting. There is more emotion. They pull you in. Play a CD and even dogs leave the room. It’s sterile, brittle, harsh, clinical and cold.”
Colorado-based sound engineer Michael Hupfer agrees, despite founding one of the first cutting-edge digital recording studios west of the Mississippi in the 1990s.
“The fidelity of vinyl is far better than digital. It is better than the highest-rated digital products with massive files,” Hupfer says. “The CD is horrible sound. It is like comparing a movie produced on film to something produced on videotape. They are both moving pictures, but the viewer’s experience does not compare.”
Tim Skorick, a senior managing security consultant for IBM who lives near Colorado Springs, describes CDs, streaming and download audio products as “fads” that were never good enough to kill off records. They will stick around as secondary audio options, he predicts, but vinyl will dominate for the foreseeable future.
“The experience of vinyl is just so much better than compressed files,” Skorick explains. “Compressed-file audio products offer convenience. They have their place, but the consumer is clearly in the mode of seeking something more than convenience.”
He says young consumers have come to appreciate album covers, sleeves and the occasional poster inserts that complement a vinyl album’s superior sound. He quotes Trent Reznor, founder of the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.
Reznor talks about “the warmth of the sound” and “the interaction it demands from the listener, the canvas artwork, the weight of the record. The smell of the vinyl. The dropping of the needle. The difficulty of skipping tracks.”
That last part gets Skorick jazzed.
“The vinyl LP favors listening to the entire record of songs in the order the artist intended,” he says. “It causes listeners to discover songs they are not familiar with. I dig that.”
Eyeglass sales barely fazed
Just like the anticipated permanent disruption of books and records, eye doctors anticipated the demise of eyeglasses long ago. Late in the 20th century, eye surgeons offered radial keratotomy to correct near-sighted vision, potentially eliminating the most common need for glasses.
Newer procedures — including LASEK, LASIK and PRK — offer patients more affordable, safer and less-invasive procedures that permanently correct common vision problems. The costs keep coming down. Throw in the constant improvements to contact lenses, including the kind patients can wear overnight, and glasses should be doomed.
They are not. Members of the American Academy of Optometry, which held its annual convention this past month in Florida, say eyeglasses are hotter than ever.
“Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when LASIK caught on, a lot of practitioners were very concerned with eyeglasses sales,” says Dr. Augustin Gonzalez, an ophthalmologist, optometrist, and member of the American Academy of Optometry’s communication committee. “We sell service and we sell a product. We were concerned about earnings potential being diminished by refractive surgery making our eyeglass sales less relevant.”
He says eyeglasses sales held steady, mostly because of surgery’s early costs and the fact some consumers cannot wear contacts.
“Then Harry Potter comes in,” Gonzalez says, referring to the launch of the hit movie series in 2001. “That made a big segment of a whole generation come to see eyeglasses as jewelry … now instead of having one pair of grasses, people may have three or four or more pairs of glasses.”
He says Harry Potter fans eschewed surgery and contacts for the chance to wear round glasses and look like the star of a movie they love. Since then, other celebrities have popularized eyeglass styles. The moment one style goes out of fashion, another athlete, actor or TV pundit generates a new wave of eyeglass fashion.
President Donald Trump, as a candidate in 2016, mocked fellow Republican contender Rick Perry for his glasses. He said the former governor of Texas wore them to make himself look smart.
“There are a couple of psychological studies that make that conclusion — that glasses make a person look smarter,” Gonzalez says.
A study released this year by researchers at the Germany- based University of Cologne and the Netherlands-based University of Groningen examined perceptions of western politicians with and without glasses.
It concluded, “wearing glasses can robustly boost electoral success at least in western cultures.”
Put down phone, grab ‘Polaroid’
For the past decade, amateur photography has become convenient. Smartphone cameras keep improving, enabling users to frame photos, view them on the screen and take a shot without incurring much cost.
Before the smartphone and digital camera, the simple family photograph could be an ordeal. It involved costly film one had to manage and pay to develop.
Most cameras in the late 20th century required users to wind the exposed film back into the film cartridge before removing it from the camera. Forgetting to do so meant ambient light would ruin the entire roll and destroy every shot. God only knows which great photos were lost forever to light attacking raw film.
Working-class families tell war stories of film in freezers, waiting for a day they could afford to develop it.
Tiny drive-through photo shacks operated in strip mall parking lots. They charged small fortunes for film and developing services.
To avoid all that, one could invest in a camera that would spit out a pricey square chunk of film that developed in plain view. The market offered multiple brands, but consumers typically referred to any instant-photography camera as a “Polaroid” — a trademark no less protected than Kleenex or Coke.
Given the convenience of cellphone photography, one might expect consumer film to remain a relic of the past. Not so.
Film photography is back.
At nearly any social gathering, one can find teenagers and young adults taking group pictures or selfies with brand new cameras that develop film on the spot. Young people call them “Polaroids,” as did their grandparents, even if made by Fujifilm or Kodak.
More than 10 years ago, a group of instant-photography enthusiasts believed their favorite cameras would rise again.
Led by 28-year-old Oskar Smolokowski, the group bought the last remaining Polaroid factory and the brand in 2008. Known as The Impossible Project, Smolokowski and friends debuted the return of Polaroid’s vintage 1977 OneStep camera in New York in 2017 — 80 years to the week of the Polaroid company’s founding.
In explaining the resurgence of instant photography, MTV writer Alina Bradford wrote “we want to hold something, dammit!’
“It’s time to put photos back in people’s hands and on their fridge,” she wrote.
That’s exactly why 18-year-old Vivian Beck, a recent graduate of Palmer Ridge High School in Colorado’s Tri-Lakes region, carries a slick Fujifilm “Polaroid” to most social functions.
“It’s convenient, it prints, and it looks cool,” she said after taking a selfie with friends. “All of my friends have one.”
She still snaps photos on her smartphone, but those are different.
“A cellphone picture is great for social media,” she says. “The Polaroid helps me decorate my room.”
We should co-exist
Kassem, who staked his future on the premise vinyl would survive, believes predictions of new inventions “disrupting” their predecessors are typically overblown. The success of one product does not necessitate the demise of another. Not in a free market of consumers who value choice, he says.
“Fast food is convenient,” Kassem says, explaining a McDonald’s does not destroy nearby midlevel and high-end restaurants.
“We can live in a world that has trains, cars, airplanes and bicycles,” Kassem says. “Cars aren’t going to put bicycles out of business. Planes don’t put cars out of business. CDs did not kill records. I prefer vinyl, but I don’t play records in my car. I play CDs in my car. The world needs both.
“All of these products can and should co-exist.”