A friend over at the Fall Online Forum (FOF) recently started a discussion called “Music Formats and You.” There had been a little sparring among members about digital vs analog formats in various threads, so to pull the conversations into one place (and possibly to reduce bile levels elsewhere), he framed a new discussion with a simple statement and question:
All of us on here, I’m presuming, started out with music in an age where vinyl/cassettes were the norm. But music purchasing/listening has undergone a radical transformation over the last thirty years or so — so what has your experience been?
I responded to the question there in the community thread, and my answer turned out to be longer and more complex than I would have thought. So I decided to bring it over here and flesh it out a little in a couple of places, to see if stimulates any of your own reflections about how you’ve chosen to tickle your ear buds, then and now, and maybe tomorrow.
Here ’tis . . .
Being a child of the middle ’60s, my parents had a record player, and so I played records. (Nobody called records “vinyl” back then. I wonder when that affectation started?) From my earliest sentient years, I can remember having my own little record player, I think inherited from older neighbor kids. It was a little portable job, with red and white checkered paperboard casing and a white plastic handle, perfect for playing 7-inch singles like “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen, over, and over, and over again. It had 16, 33, 45, and 78 rpm settings, which added to the amusement factor when those singles were played at the wrong speeds.
At some point, I moved into fiddling with my parents’ record player. It was a bit more complicated, and I wasn’t sure why the discs on their platter were bigger than mine were, with smaller holes in the middle. But I persevered, and started trawling through their albums, with some unexpected consequences, in one notable case.
When I was living with or near my grandparents intermittently during the late ’60s and early ’70s during my dad’s military tours overseas, my aunt (who was just a few years older than me) had one of those groovy space ball 8-track tape players, so I used to play her 8-tracks a lot when I was there. Steppenwolf Gold is still a fave album from having overplayed it for years on 8-track, but I still expect to the hear the distinctive ker-CHUNK sound in the middle of some cuts that were split for time sequencing reasons.
My Dad was in the Marines and liked tech, so when he came back from Japan some time in the early ’70s, he had a cassette tape console for the home stereo. I had friends who were using little reel to reel recorders to tape songs off the radio, so I had a leg up on them in being able to make better mix tapes from radio and records, and to listen to the mix tapes that my Dad made. I am pretty sure we were ahead of the curve as a family on this format, since I do not remember other kids having cassettes so early.
I got my own little “all in one” stereo for my bedroom in 7th grade. It had radio, record player and 8-track, but no cassette. (We were still ahead of the curve on that front, apparently). I started earning my own money around this time with various small jobs and most it went to buying records. I mostly stopped making mix tapes since I had to be down at the family stereo to do that, and I preferred being up in my bedroom alone. As one does.
I got a knockoff replica of a SONY Walkman in 11th grade, and since I was not making many tapes in my bedroom at the time, I started buying pre-recorded ones so I had stuff to listen to while walking about, and later driving. When I went to the Naval Academy, we were not allowed to have any stereos or other music playing devices throughout the entire plebe year, but I carried this Walkman and a dozen favorite tapes in with me to Annapolis, and listened to them late at night under the covers. Plebe Year offered many challenges, and for a music junkie, being starved of tunes might have been among the most formidable of them, psychologically speaking.
Sophomore year at Navy, I got both my own modular stereo (now radio, records, dual cassette recorder) and a TEAC Tascam 4-track recorder. I bought tons of albums through college, and I made tons of mix tapes, along with recording my own music.
Compact Discs emerged during the latter part of my time at Navy. The first one I heard was Pink Floyd’s The Wall at high volume in an audiophile friend’s room and it was awesome. But by this time I had a collection of about 2,000 records and big carrying cases full of cassette tapes, and I really did not want to re-purchase everything in a new format. I knew that once I switched to CDs and embraced their (seeming) convenience, sound quality and durability, it was going to render my record collection obsolete, so I resisted CD’s charms for a long time.
My wife Marcia brought that era to an end one Christmas when she got me a CD player. I think the first CD I bought was Hawkwind’s Masters of the Universe compilation. As predicted and expected, over the next 15 years or so my CD collection grew, often as a result of trading off my records for store credit which I immediately used to buy shiny silver discs. I still made a lot of mix tapes from CDs to cassettes in this era, mainly for listening in the car (early automotive CD players were terrible), or to send to friends.
I got online in 1993 and quickly found a group of music nerds to hang out with in various communities, one of which had a mix tape trading group called TATU (“Tapes Across The Universe”). Sometime in the late ’90s the core of the TATU team (now mostly moved over to a little online Tree House called Xnet2) switched to trading CDs, so I acquired the ability to play and burn CDs on my computer instead of just via the home stereo.
I will note here, though, that I was among a probably small number of people who actually acquired the needed adapters and plugs to record between CDs and tapes and back on the computer, rather than on the stereo. That was a short and pointless technological cul-de-sac, and it was just a world of little shiny discs for a long time afterwards, until file sharing emerged.
With some probably unwarranted sense of pride, I note that I saw Napster as an ethical monstrosity and I never had an account for that or any other platform for stealing music that I had not purchased. Artists united, represent!! As a result of that particular paradigm shift, though, I did watch all the brick and mortar record and CD stores in my town bite the dust in rapid succession as the world moved away from physical ownership of music and into a world of bits and bytes alone. That was a great tragedy in this story arc, I think, and one from which we’ve never really recovered.
And so enter the iPod and iTunes era. As had been the case with my records when CDs emerged, I resisted this brave new world, because I knew, once again, that when I jumped to another entirely new platform, I would buying the very same things for a third or fourth time, and my CD collection would be shed like a husk at some point.
As was the case with my records, it was Marcia who eventually pushed me into the new paradigm, when she asked for an iPod as a Mother’s Day gift in 2011. I had to get it for her, of course, and I had to acquire an iTunes account so I could put music on it, though in the beginning I still just converted stuff from CDs to digital files, rather than buying songs from iTunes.
Being somewhat averse to Apple products (I still do not like Mac computers), when I finally decided to find a way to buy music online, I chose eMusic, which was more heavily weighted toward indie and underground music while iTunes just had the hits early on. I liked eMusic’s subscription model too: you paid a certain amount each month, and could download a certain number of songs from any album or single during that month. The download rights did not carry over from month to month, so I actually explored and acquired a lot of stuff that I would not have otherwise this way.
But over the years the variance between their model and iTunes’ model closed and it just became easier to have the single account within the Apple Empire. I got my own iPod at some point, and then we got one for the new iPod compatible family stereo, which was a relatively tiny box with relatively tiny speakers, so the old Bose Speakers and CD player and amp and all the other things that had defined the Hi Fi experience went out the door when we moved from New York to Iowa.
That remains the status quo as of autumn 2018: I have an iTunes account on my computer with about 14,000 songs available to me, all backed up on an external 1.0 terabyte hard drive. I manage six iPods for myself and my wife, making new mixes as new things come in for all of the various players. Apple recently ended their own “gadget era” (e.g. no more standalone music players, since you supposed to get music on your phone or tablet), so these great little players are on their way out, and I have acquired a stockpile of Nanos and Shuffles to rage against the dying of this paradigm as long as I can. Yeah, I could play stuff on my phone, but I don’t like carrying it around, since I have a big phone, while a Shuffle fits nicely in my pants pocket.
I still purchase all of my music online, album by album and song by song, though more often than not I actually pay for it with points that I can get from my credit cards (rather than getting airplane miles or whatever). I have not yet made the leap to Spotify or any of the other similar subscription streaming music services as I still like “owning” and not “renting” my music — even though the physical embodiment of my ownership is just a bunch of data in a little little six-inch by six-inch by two-inch black box, not the glorious milk crates of musty smelling cardboard and plastic of yesteryear.
At some point, yeah, I know I will have to jump forward again, and Marcia will probably deploy the cattle prod to make it happen at some point. But for now, I’m fighting it, knowing that I will ultimately lose this battle, as I always do.
I guess it’s the struggle that inspires me. Along with the tunes.