Loop North News
Serving the Loop and Near North neighborhoods of downtown Chicago

(Above) American Vintage II series of guitars recently recreated by Fender Musical Instruments Corporation.

High tech may have accelerated during the pandemic, but high touch has become equally important.

12-Oct-22 – We’re seeing an interesting resurgence in many different aspects of our daily lives of what I think of as the appeal of physicality. On a macro level, the primary concerns and the critical solutions for the next decade or two – whether we’re talking about climate changes, environmental issues, urban congestion, or food insecurity – will have just as significant a physical component as any software element. Software may have eaten the world, but it won’t feed your family or fill a pothole or house the homeless. Even a billion bits won’t build a new building.

We’re entering another cycle where manufacturing, material science, and simply making things will assume a new primacy and economic importance.

On a micro level, we’ve all realized the reassuring importance of the touch and feel of real goods, the smells and vibrations of machines and instruments, and the physical gratification and release which comes from all kinds of manual exercise, hard work, and serious sweat.

The Who in Tommy were clearly onto something, begging: “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me.”

We’re trying to get back in touch with ourselves. Any runner, any drummer, any builder, or any baker can tell you their version of the solidity, warmth, and authenticity embedded in these kinds of activities. There are emotional and physical reasons for the return of vinyl records and old-fashioned amps. Digital compression and portability were a short-sighted tradeoff for the immersive power and penetrating depth of the “real” music, which used to pound our heads and our hearts. After decades of the sterility of the digital world, it’s comforting and downright healthy to make something with your own two hands – whether art, music, manna, or material.

Amidst the angst, isolation, and anxiety of the pandemic, taking greater control of our own futures, making radical changes in our lives’ directions, and learning or teaching ourselves something new were all sources of release, relief, and satisfaction.

Photo by Steve Meddle

Turns out the Stones were wrong; you can get both satisfaction and just what you need – if you work at it.

Photo by Steve Meddle

Just one recent indication of the movement toward more meaning is the fact that more than 16 million people took up the guitar in one 16-month period of COVID-19. Fender’s sales of higher-end electric guitars almost doubled between 2020 and 2021 and the trendlines continue upwards. Another important indicator is the massive persistence in today’s streaming world of “old” music, which speaks more powerfully to us than the current commercial crap.

The gig economy – for better or worse – has empowered millions of new doers, makers, and creators. It’s not clear that this is a real way to make a viable living and, for sure, far too many giggers are working for peanuts. But not everything is about dollars and sense. There’s a lot to be said for the psychic rewards, both personally and collectively, in part because so many of these undertakings are shared and collaborative rather than asocial and solitary.

Admittedly, plenty of these activities are still tied to the digital world. But any conversation you have with these folks about the joy and passion, the real spark and energy, and the ultimate satisfaction that so many of these “students” and lifelong learners are realizing comes from three things:

• The immersive and compelling mess and the tactile connection that making anything by yourself provides;

• The pride and psychological rewards, which flow from repeated attempts, painful stumbles, and the eventual learning and mastery of a new skill;

• The confidence, independence, and sense of security that grows from the certain knowledge that you can now unilaterally create something unique, valuable, and important.

There’s another element in this ongoing evolution and it’s especially interesting and intriguing because – in every sense – it’s actually a palpable desire to get back to the past.

Photo by Richard Hadfield

Photo by Richard Hadfield

We may be kidding ourselves – in some ways looking back sweetly and sadly – to lost, happier times when, given life’s realities and the melancholy lies of history, those were, as always, the times that never were and the ways we never were. Nostalgia is an amazingly seductive and alchemic process whereby dreams become memories without ever coming true. It’s a lot like grammar – we find the present tense and the past perfect. But still, we hope and hang on.

We can look longingly back, with some care, because too much nostalgia can suffocate the present. As Neil Young wrote in Ambulance Blues:

It’s easy to get buried in the past when you try to make a good thing last.

We all need to keep moving ahead. We long for a smarter, slower, and less stressful time and, here again, it’s a throwback desire which we associate most easily with tangible goods – physical objects, concrete containers of tradition, legacy, and heritage.

In troubled times, nostalgia can be an efficient narcotic – soothing, stabilizing, and far simpler than the rest of our lives. For the magic to work and take hold, though, it helps to be holding tight to something. The older and more traditional the better. Dad’s tools, mom’s copper pots, a well-worn mitt or an ink-stained journal, or a trumpet you haven’t touched since you were 10.

And that’s how we ultimately arrive at a sad truth – while we regularly revere and constantly celebrate innovation, we rarely reward, appreciate, or acknowledge tradition. We disparage tradition too often as an easy excuse to avoid change, cling to the past, or hold on to the illusion of permanence.

Photo by Fabio Pagani

But change is everywhere today, and that rampant change is one of the few constants in our lives.

Photo by Fabio Pagani

However, this isn’t an either/or proposition because through thoughtful innovation we can recognize the value and importance of tradition and craft while we still change and move forward.

When you’re entrusted with a tradition, you’ve got to protect it. This may explain why a dozen or two of my favorite older entrepreneurs have all become classic guitar players and collectors. Or to be more honest, far more collectors than players, but it’s the thought that counts. They value and appreciate where they’ve come from and the importance of the continuity and connection to the past as they continue to build the cultures of their own businesses.

So many entrepreneurs are superstitious in their own ways, and if you asked why they’re attracted to these instruments, they’d say that hanging on to the past helps them deal with the fears of today. They understand that everything they’ve built might one day be simply swept away.

I expect to see a serious new wave of nostalgia, all kinds of revisited vintage material, a further explosion of thrifting and places like TheRealReal although maybe not as grand, and movement toward reissues and remaking of all kinds of oldies and goodies.

This is also why I was so excited to see that Fender has recreated an entire new line of classic guitar and bass models based on legendary instruments (Telecaster, Stratocaster, Jazzmaster) called the American Vintage II series. There’s also a video series called Music Never Dies featuring performers talking about how their own music was so heavily influenced by the past. Just looking at the images of these monsters of old is amazing, but the thought that millions of new young artists will be able to use them to connect with traditions is what is really exciting.

In a word, Déjà new.