Back in the Groove

The commercial begins with a woman dropping the needle on her turntable, then settling back on the sofa as a French tune plays. It’s an ad for the new prescription delivery service offered in New York City by drugstore chain Rite Aid. But the real eye opener here is the prominent use of a vinyl recording to create a sense of comfort and ease, waiting at home for a delivery instead of trekking out. The record has a slightly crackly, vintage sound that has just the kind of warmth the commercial is trying to achieve.

No doubt there was lots of debate among production staff about the use of a vinyl record. It may even have been written into the scenario from the beginning. Or it may be entirely circumstantial, a set designer’s idea of something eye-catchingly different. Yet when a mainstream commercial features an old-fashioned record, played by an attractive woman in her Pottery Barn-style living room, can we take it as signal that vinyl is really back?

Vinyl record sales have been climbing quietly for a few years, increasing 14 percent from 2006 to 2007, with totals growing from 1.88 million in 2008 to 2.5 million in 2009. The numbers reported by Nielsen Entertainment were the highest in 20 years.  Young buyers lured by the novelty of vinyl are discovering its inherent warmth and richness, the pops and hisses that give a live and intimate sense to even studio recordings. Analog is an antidote to the antiseptically clean digital recordings that have been the dominate format for their entire lives. Having that woman waiting for her prescription delivery click on a digital download just isn’t the same.

As much as we move forward, we continue to find comfort in the simpler, not-so-perfect media of the past. A popular smartphone app gives snaps a grainy, color-drained Instamatic quality. Prominent tabletop displays at Bloomingdale’s last Christmas touted the fun of Polaroid’s new-version Classic Instant cameras, with plentiful supplies of film on hand.  (Now available at Target, $89.99.)  Lomography, a movement devoted to analog point-and shoots, now has two stores in New York.

Users may have to search a bit to find a place to process that film. But there may even be something in that. Those old enough to remember film canisters may also have memories of picking up a camera after some time and finding that there were a couple of shots left on the roll. Getting the film developed was always a bit of a surprise, revealing forgotten images from those days at the beach last summer, or that birthday party from a year ago. Such serendipitous, memory-provoking moments may be part of what we find so comforting in our speed of light time. The ephemeral nature of digital media is always on the edge of our consciousness;  it’s hard to hold onto, literally, and so easy to delete. But the reassuring crackle of an old LP is forever.