Concerts, LPs, CDs, print: Gen Z’s enthusiasm for all things touchable is resurrecting the analog economy—and costing parents

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Generation Z has unexpectedly become the primary driver behind the rapidly growing analog music and print book economies in the U.S. and U.K. While buying record and CD players, vinyl, CDs, and print books may be an act of nostalgia or an old habit for Gen Xers and those before them, it is an act of identity assertion, innovation, and a point of differentiation for the under-25s. It is also an act of defiance in the face of the formless digital world and a cry for respite from the enormous noise perpetuated by the 24/7 social media cycle.

“What really drew me in was the album cover. The colors and the contrast of his face against a pink background really stood out to me. I loved it,” says 13-year-old Charlie, enthusing over Tyler, the Creator’s Igor, which he listened to on repeat on Spotify for two weeks before receiving it as his first vinyl record for his birthday. Now he is the proud owner of six LPs and 10 CDs, all very precious to him.

Fatima (17) loves fashion, vintage markets, and charity shopping. She and her friends, all teenage students, are regular library visitors, preferring to study there and connect with each other in real life rather than on Snapchat. Before bedtime, Fatima often reads a copy of Vogue, i-D, or Dazed. “I like reading a print copy. The digital copies take away the essence of reading a magazine. Also, it feels nice to escape from the online world. I find it relaxing.”

All things touchable are music to their ears

The vinyl record industry has enjoyed a resurrection largely driven by Gen Z. Between 2006 and 2022, record sales in the U.S. grew from $14.2 million to $1.2 billion. In the U.K., annual vinyl LP sales reached 4.3 million in 2019, a rise of over 2,000% on 2007. 2023 saw the industry’s 16th year of consecutive growth with sales reaching a new high of 6.5 million, deemed by experts to be fuelled by 16 to 24-year-olds rather than middle-aged men, as previously.

In 2023, the global entertainment giant Live Nation reported its biggest year yet for both concert attendance and ticket sales. Valuing immersive music experiences, Gen Zers are at the forefront of the recent steep growth. Research from 2022 in the U.K. found that 17 to 18-year-olds were almost twice as likely as older age groups to have been to a live music event in the past month while 19 to 24-year-olds were twice as likely to have been to up to 10 clubbing events over the past year.

CD sales have also enjoyed decade-long growth in the U.S. Increasingly attracted to all things touchable, Gen Z music fans have taken up CD collecting as a hobby. Displaying CDs in creative ways has become a form of self-expression. They are also 33% more likely to buy artists’ apparel than the general U.S. population.

According to Sandy (15), who is passionate about photography, sports, music, and decorating his room, the digital world misses the aesthetics of album covers and their finer details. He first saw how a record player could add character to a room on a TikTok video—so he decided to buy one for Christmas. Now, his record player, along with the five vinyls he owns, make for a prominent room décor feature, differentiating his identity from that of his friends and family. He also finds listening to vinyl more special and peaceful than using headphones, which he feels disconnects him from those around him.

Expanding Gen Zers’ passions beyond the digital world is costing parents

The high cost of LPs means that young music connoisseurs only buy when the cover has as much appeal as the music. “The price of the Arctic Monkeys album I bought became more justified because I loved the music and I thought the album cover was cool,” reflects Sandy. These prized purchases are subjected to rigorous selection because the digital music offering still needs to be paid for.

Charlie’s mother, Lucy, attests to her bank account feeling the rise of the analog economy. She explains how she’s had to invest in hardware (a CD player, a record player, and a pair of speakers) while continuing to fund digital music, content streaming, and gaming. “You end up paying twice. Once to maintain the digital ecosystem and a second time to indulge the young generation and their interest in physical ownership and quaint analog technology.”

Both Fatima and Charlie say that they spend less time online now than during the pandemic, partly a function of being lockdown-free, but also of their expanding passions in the physical world, and their growing maturity and understanding of the downsides of social media. A recent Survation survey of 2,000 13 to 18-year-olds revealed that more than a third of U.K. teenagers think social media should be banned for under-16s. A quarter think smartphones should be banned altogether for that age group.

Some teenagers, like Fatima, are actively choosing to use their phones and social media slightly less by being out in the physical world more, studying in libraries, or reading physical magazines or books.

A 2023 report found that Gen Zers and millennials make up the largest group of library users in the U.S., with 54% of 13-40s having visited libraries within the past year. Even among those who don’t identify as readers, more than half had been to their local library in the last year.

Print book sales are at a record high in the 21st century in the U.S. and U.K. 669 million physical books were sold in the U.K. in 2023, the highest overall recorded level. 14 to 25-year-old readers make up a prominent consumer group of fiction, aided by book-loving communities like #BookTok on TikTok.

According to a Nielsen survey, 80% of this age group preferred reading a physical book vs. only 30% an electronic version. 788.7 million printed books were sold in the U.S. in 2022, making this year the second highest this century (behind 2021) for sales. Young adult fiction was the fastest-growing category, with sales having increased by 47% over five years.

Whether teenagers’ and young adults’ attraction to the analog world of music, books, and real-life experiences is an enduring or passing trend remains to be seen. However, the need to find calm and deeper connections within the physical world and tangible expressions of one’s identity is most certainly here to stay.

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