Updated July 2019 for grammar and continuity
With NowPlaying as evidence, it’s obvious that I’m a very big fan of music.
I started collecting music in a physical form while a teen. Just like anyone else at that age in that era, when I listened to music it required an AM/FM Radio or some form of actual recorded media. These days that’s a completely different story.
This article is not about showing off how “I was buying vinyl before anyone else”. Buying physical music just what you did. Anyone. Audio cassettes finally absorbed reel to reel when I was even younger, so my dad had reels of his favorite music and concert performances, but much tinier and portable cassette tapes were nearly a best selling standard (also overtaking eight track, which is another story that I wouldn’t be able to tell very well).
So, when we visited the local grocery store, there were 12” recorded albums near the flower, balloon and magazine departments. The artwork was much larger than the face of your music player’s screen and nearly called out to you, should the cover design be in full color, especially. I’m not that old, I suppose, and it feels distant remembering the scene.
I’ve mentioned it here before, but my first music purchase was a 45 rpm single from Donna Summer titled On The Radio. I’m not particularly fascinated with it today, but it sure brings back memories. It was playing quite frequently on my favorite AM clock radio station, and that’s why I bought it. From then on, my choice in purchases tended to follow the taste of my two older brothers, who bought records such as ZZ Top, Electric Light Orchestra, J. Geils Band, Alan Parsons Project, etc.
I think I agree with much of Ryan Irelan’s post about music formats and listening patterns, and the resulting connection one has with a record. And I mean the whole record, as one unit, not the individual tracks, because they were all connected physically, and you nearly every time just ‘put the record on’ (unless one track particularly stood out or was the hit of the day) and it would play the whole side through, your anticipation building for the next, as one faded. As a result, you would memorize what tracks came after the last.
Ryan talks of investing in an album, and he’s absolutely spot on. For me, unless you found a copy of a single from a musical artist, the album was the only way to be able to listen to it on demand, so if you liked one song, you made the value decision to buy the entire recording, hoping, or even trusting the artist to deliver on your purchase.
Today, you have the ability to purchase at any moment a single track, whether you heard it on a youtube commercial, “Shazam”ed a track you heard in your car radio, or any other of a zillion different ways of quickly accessing, previewing and purchasing a song, even when you’re on the go, commuting, traveling, etc. This is nothing short of magical. A fine example of Capitalism harnessing new technologies to make a profit.
But let’s go back a bit again. For years and years, I “managed” my music collection. I mean, I still do now, but very differently than before. Before, I had physical copies of the albums I’d purchased “access” to over the years. Cassettes, Records, Compact Discs, and even later when digital files were available (then Napster happened, an entire chapter of the music industry). Each of these things had artwork, liner notes, lyrics, credits, photo inserts, gatefold sleeves, and on and on, all things supporting the value of your purchase (call them Extras).
At some point, Pandora started changing how music could be enjoyed, streaming random song after random song just like a radio station, but you could actually steer it near something you enjoyed, similar to changing radio stations (including ads). I’m not sure if I was completely sold on the Pandora model, since I couldn’t control it enough. That and there were restrictions on how many tracks you could skip which was a bit frustrating, but understandable since it formed a format for listening that was ‘allowed’ by the music industry. But Pandora changed the scene, and I was able to listen to the founder speak at an event in Santa Monica some years back. Fascinating story.
I had recently (a few years previous) stopped using my favorite music (file) player named Audion and began using iTunes wholeheartedly and with increasing satisfaction as the app versioned-up and added features, including file meta tag editing, supporting album artwork embedded in the files, and even the iTMS. Already, now that music was in ones and zeros on a hard drive, managing was a serious thing. Files corrupting, music library digital files corrupting, forcing one to recreate the library, losing all of the meta data about when you’d purchased/added the file/album to your collection, and so on. All addicting features to a music lover.
So, when Spotify was announced, I quickly signed up, but then the US was locked out of access to the service, I presume because of licensing issues. For a long time there was no comparable service Stateside, but I think people were able to gain access through proxy services.
Then Rdio was released by a few folks, including some people that I’d met in the web industry. I still remember sitting with them over dinner at SXSW hearing a few details about the mystery product before launch. I was overjoyed by the service, quickly signed up, it added reference to all of my existing tracks in my music collection, for which I had vinyl, CD, and cassette backups. Then it allowed me to browse a massive library of artists, play at will, “Add” them to my Collection, see new albums, related artists, on and on and on!
My brain reconfigured itself and I’ve never felt the same way about music. But I quickly realized that the anxiety I had (admittedly) regarding record collection management, protecting the mediums from damage, etc., nearly vanished. It was an entirely new way of thinking about the enjoyment of music. Every track, every album, all ready to play at your fingertips, any time, from your phone. For only $4.99 a month, or something. This was a big deal.
Occasionally I think about the music I have stored in the garage in various boxes that haven’t opened since Rdio launched. Occasionally I’m asked to do something with them and get rid of them or sell them. But I can’t. Many people have written about absolving themselves from their record/CD collection, but still I resist.
Update November 2017: I gave away every box without opening them. Decades of music buying, some with concert tickets inserted into jewel cases, receipts from City Music Berlin, etc., all gone. Instant regret.
When I was in high school I loved to visit Tower Records in Seattle. I would travel for more than an hour to get there, and browsing recordings could take hours, …finding a few gems that I hadn’t seen before, new ones, etc. All a satisfying experience. But expensive. At some point, they started displaying large standup kiosks in the store with CD listening stations, where you could listen to the entire recording of a CD, fast forward through the tracks with the greatest of ease. But you didn’t always have the luxury of staying there to listen to entire recordings of the ones you’d chosen to potentially buy, and as a result, you felt ‘rushed’ to quickly formulate your opinion about how great the recording was, and whether it was worthy of purchase. This changed how I felt about music, and upped the anxiety. I only had a paper route at the time. I didn’t have scads of cash to drop.
So, the advent of cuing the next track had become available to cassette players similar to CDs and I can’t remember which format had it first. I’m not talking about just fast forwarding a cassette, I’m talking about a cassette player’s ability to detect a gap in the recording, rewind it a short bit, and play the next track. Brilliant! This truly was a great feature. Some albums had less than enjoyable tracks. FF. Problem solved. But when you’re in a record store, quickly forwarding through the tracks on a CD, it forced that value decision. For me, the first few seconds of a song now garnered huge scrutiny.
This isn’t how it should be. No chance. Not fare.
I would argue that this was the beginning of music surfing and it’s just an ongoing detriment to music artists and their craft. I can’t discredit streaming services for a frustration that I’d felt years earlier. Streaming services add many ways of getting to something you’d enjoy: Search, Related Artists, Other Albums, Top Tracks, Who Else is Listening, What They Liked, What They Added To Their Collection, etc., etc.
I don’t remember the statistics about record sales and whether sales of physical recordings went up or down during these turning points in the industry, but I know that lately, vinyl recordings are in fact making a comeback, if you could call it a comeback. And they’ve held on to a level of sales numbers that will hopefully support their existence as a medium for some time to come.
Streaming services are excellent, and after 5 years, I’m still in love with Rdio and still in awe about how the music industry has grown, and when I like an album, it’s because I’ve had a chance to fully ingest the music, informing me about the value of the vinyl recording I’ll invariably buy.