We ❤ Retro Media

November 8, 2012

Off Book is an amazing series of videos I’ve just discovered from the US network PBS. The videos are short – about 7 minutes – and cover things like design, animation, culture, art etc.

I’ll definitely be watching more of them, but the one we’re interested in here is We ❤ Retro Media, where a string of people talk about why they love older, ‘obsolete’ analogue media for their entertainment, in preference to MP3s and digital downloads. Among those formats getting a loving mention are VHS, cassette, vinyl records and Super8 film.

What’s so great about retro formats?

Of course, a lot of the people are into these formats for nostalgic or hobbyist reasons – they remember using them back in the day, and enjoy them. But the talking heads on the video raise some great points, which we should try to take into other aspects of our lives of convenience:

  1. These formats need action and attention to use them. You need to choose a disk, for example, look at its cover, wrestle it onto the turntable and place the needle into the groove. So you become familiar with the cover art, the structure of the sleeve, the album name, the track list and so on. The suggestive montage of iPod wearers who don’t appear to actually know what they’re listening to is damning enough for me.
  2. Memories are created: what was the first album you bought? Do you remember being overwhelmed by the shelves of CD cases or vinyl sleeves? Do you remember the shop? Or tearing the wrapping from the Christmas present? There’s a good chance. And now do you remember the first time you downloaded an MP3? No, probably not.
  3. There are factors of rarity, and comparison. You can pass them physically to a friend, forcing you to place value in what you’re losing (albeit temporarily) by giving a way, or what you’re gaining through the exchange. There’s social interaction and friendship all bundled in there for good measure!

Perhaps unsurprisingly these formats lend themselves to niche trends (psych-folk, Dutch House, avante garde cinema), and this is because you can interact more directly with an analogue production method. You can scratch film or smudge the chemicals on a Polaroid to get unique results, perhaps even different to what you thought you’d get. This just adds to the specialness of the specific example you hold in your hand. It’s yours.

The magic of analogue

As well as listing the benefits of semi-obsolete formats, we mustn’t forget the magic embedded in them and in their use.

Think of the strange effects you get of partially recording over a programme with another programme, and the jarring transitions (or odd continuities) that result. As one man says of analogue film photography: there’s a “warmth and chemical chaos” which you just don’t get when you use the same filter on Instagram as you mum does.

When you use the unpredictable world of analogue, you can’t help but set yourself apart from other artists.

Rightly, another talking head mentions that there’s no point arguing over the superiority of one over the other. Digital has great strengths – portability, convenience – but when you want to immerse yourself in a favourite activity, or lose yourself in unique creativity, then there’s nothing like embracing the entropy of messy chemicals and decades-old technology.