I am of the generation that has experienced possibly the largest changes in the way we consume media, in particular music in its recorded form. As a ‘Gen Xer’, I have had the privilege to travel from the end of the vinyl era, through tapes to the false utopia of CDs, the wild west of mp3’s and torrents and into the AI cloud of our benevolent overlords.
I started my listening journey, as a nine year old child, through the medium of cassette and vinyl. The tapes were nicked from my Dad, and for some reason that is still unknown to me, a pitiful collection of vinyl which included a set of Disney songs and a compilation of third rate Glam rockers in the form of Mudd and Showaddywaddy. The tapes were far more interesting by way of the nature of their illicit procurement. I remember vividly swiping ‘In Rock’ by Deep Purple (Oh, the cover – who were those hairy men? And why were they carved into the living rock of a mountain?), ‘The Early Tapes’ by perennially unfashionable Brit-funk popsters Level 42, and a water damaged copy of ‘In Through The Outdoor’ by Led Zeppelin. And with these three albums, my descent into musical nerdery, pedantry, fun and wonder began. Locked in my barely decorated room with a shit Binatone tape player (model long forgotten), my brain was subjected to an aural stimulation that may be akin in some way to the great leap of humankind from hunter gatherers to highly organised psychotic God worshipping supremacists.
Every moment of those albums was digested, repeated over and over. I even knew to the nearest second how long the gaps were at the end of each side. The covers were studied in minute detail and I even made hand drawn facsimiles, replete with my own naive ‘improvements’. The joy of listening to those recordings is etched in my psyche forever. In my innocence, I had no perception whatsoever of their critical value, their place in the great pantheon of pop culture (who cares about that when you’re nine?). This soon led to more swipings, and overtime, I devoured my Dad’s musical tastes; from the frantic rhythms and spiritual fret wankery of Santana’s Abraxas, the urbane smooth-perv muzak of Avalon by Roxy Music to the strange art-rock of early 80’s King Crimson.
Later, as I grew into pubescence and modest funds became available, I would buy one or two albums from Woolworths, tape them, then go back for either a refund or an exchange; “Can you say why you want a refund?” I would be asked.
“I don’t like the music”, or “the sound is faulty”, I would reply, waving the receipt in the air as if it were the coup de grâce.
Nine times out of ten I would get my way.
After a decade of pirating albums onto cassette, the age of CD dawned. Now much older, I engaged in an exercise of re-discovering classic albums and favourites in the belief that the sound quality was amazing, and more importantly, definitive. Thus, a more po-faced and pedantic consumer was nascent. The format was certainly more reliable (and with less undesirable hiss than cassette), but as we all know, many early examples of CD transfers were pretty terrible. However, the CD age enabled countless re-issues, remasterings, extra content, special mixes, extended cuts and glimpses into the creative process (The Beatles’ Anthology series is a good example of this).
And what about LP records, or vinyl as they are referred to today? Well, they still had a charm, and I had an ever growing collection of rare Jazz juxtaposed with oddities and easy listening kitsch purloined from charity shops. With this triumvirate, my musical needs were happily satiated; cassette mix tapes were still important, as were archival CD and nostalgic vinyl. What linked these different formats was the album itself, as an art form as important as the novel or play. It was the intended form of the work (albeit filtered through record label commercial considerations). In other words, the artist’s were speaking directly to me.
Collections took years to put together and many items eluded even my roving eye, and that was definitely part of the pleasure. Just like Christmas, or desire itself – the real joy was the anticipation, the thought of unwrapping unknown delicacies, rather than having them.
Then something went a bit funny, a bit off. I bought my first mp3 player in 2004. It was a Creative ZEN Touch Silver/White DAP-HD0014 Portable MP3 Player (20GB). An incredible change in my music listening dawned! I would be able to carry around pretty much my entire collection and access it whenever and wherever I pleased. The choices to make! The endless playlists! But, as I was to discover, this was part of the problem. One thing it did do well was to enhance my already OCD pedantry. In fact. The ability to alter metadata was a gateway to a deeper malfunction and skewering of the original pleasures of music. But, the worst effect that this new technology had was the democratisation of sound. I soon became miserable, obsessed with categories and obvious and not-so-obvious juxtapositions of songs. A pleasure, you may think, but not in my case. I became overwhelmed by the sheer size of my music library, and with this a disconnection and apathy set in.
How could this be? All of the music that had ever influenced, moved, backdropped my life now had become just like all the other noise. The static between am radio stations held more fascination. Was this because of age (I was in my early thirties, so surely not?), a mental dysfunction brought on by other factors in my life, or was it the new format for consuming music? I plodded on with the infernal machine, and as time progressed, my music collection graduated to my smartphone, then online music lockers (such as Google Play Music). My misery continued, and my nostalgia for the old ways grew.
Concurrent with the world’s inevitable move into the smartphone prison was the rise of Spotify, and others. Now the entire (as good as) world’s music could be accessed at will, with a nihilistic swipe over gorilla glass. Most people seemed happy with this, except for the musicians themselves who now found that they were receiving the ultimate butt-fuck over the counter in this history of entertainment. Royalties dried up overnight, and the old decrepit found that they had to tour their arses off to pay for their medical bills. The rest of the music chain was informed to stop relying on record royalties, and become multimedia business gurus instead. They were all told that this was a new golden age dawning, full of opportunity.
As a consumer, the same issues were there with streaming as with using an MP3 player, but with one difference; your every interaction was captured and analysed for monetization, to add to the great consumer avatar that exists somewhere in an arctic server. For 9.99 earth units a month you could pay for the privilege of having your emotional states monitored in exchange for every sound you could have ever wished for – a strange and somehow de-humanizing activity, and one that benefitted the corporate digital access technologies more than anybody else. But why should I, or anybody else complain? Don’t I have it all now?
The answer, of course, is that where’s the fun in all that? Like a child given the only key to the world’s largest toy and sweet shop, we sit like gluttons in a musical excel spreadsheet, victims of a technology that has become so adept, so slick, so terrifyingly good at categorizing, organising and homogenising the world.
On the other hand, maybe I’m just screaming into the future like an irrelevant old mollusc. The inexorable march of time has no sympathy for the holdouts, who become proud stalwarts of the old ways, left in the dust of convenience and centralised control. It is true that we can still access vinyl, cassettes and CDs (even MiniDiscs), and in fact a vibrant sub-culture exists for those who have the patience and time to enjoy music this way. But, I hope you might agree with me, that something special has been lost. Where will those first kindlings of musical awareness spark if there is no physical representation? My formative experiences of discovering music through my Father’s crappy tapes surely cannot be replicated by the bequeathing of a Spotify account from a parent to their child?
**Insert inspirational quote about enjoying the journey, not the destination here**