Shamed by my kids who accuse me of being anti-technological and thus aging rapidly before their very eyes, I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the world of 21st century digital music. I know what Spotify is, am an avid user of Pandora and feel lost without my mp3 player or Smartphone as music sources. It was not always this way. Some historical perspective is on order.
In high school I was the guy with the most records (albums and 45s) and a fast-growing collection of custom mix-tapes. In college I was the guy with the biggest speakers in the dorm windows and the electronic muscle to pump my (stuck in the late 70s to early 80s) musical taste into the quad.
Mix tapes were a specialty and a road trip necessity; I was the only person I knew with two ultra-expensive cassette decks, for their (relatively effortless at the time) preparation. I owned a couple of thousand dollars worth of stereo equipment, when my friends had boom boxes and the like.
At summer camp I was the DJ (so to speak) for Saturday night dances, more often than not. My car stereo similarly was a source of (irrational) pride and expenditure. When Elvis Costello sang “Radio, Radio”, he was targeting me. The radio was my best friend, and often the only constant in my life that regularly warped out of orbit, from high school, to college, to graduate school with various far-flung summer experiences between.
I had, and for that matter still have, a decent collection of vinyl records reflecting my stereotypical late baby boomer tastes as well as obligatory albums one had to own for self-respect among one’s peers (e.g., Led Zeppelin IV). Of course, records are prone to warping and scratching, and cassette tapes respond poorly to heat, humidity, long-term storage, age, etc. Of course, in the mid 1980s I was blissfully ignorant of age-related decline. I, and my music, both were young and feeling invincible.
Even as I was denying changes in myself, technology changed. Video came along to kill the radio star. I eschewed MTV (other than Martha Quinn); I liked the music more before I knew what the artists looked like.
Times changed again. CDs came out and were more expensive than albums, could not be recorded onto (initially, anyway) and generally seemed like a giant conspiracy against my right to collect, listen to and play free or nearly-free music. Yes, the sound and durability was better with CDs, but I was displeased at music industry “gotcha.”
However, with changes in my life (girls, and eventually a wife, house, after a while more, kids) I less could justify the continued investment both in music and the media with which to play it. I found less time for music, except in the car. Even there, I’d gravitate to news and sports.
I came to joke how my musical taste become sort of a time marker for the day I graduated college; I came to be no longer familiar with the latest artists, sounds, trends, and that was OK. Just as Bruce Springsteen had grown up a decade before me, to my chagrin, ultimately I had grown up too.
I no longer could listen to some of the music of my youth. Most Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin sounded like noise, though I still had a wistful place for Stairway to Heaven and its iconic role at Saturday night dances at camp.
Technology continued to change relentlessly. When our company was young and I was about 40, a couple of 20-something employees were heavily into free music file-sharing software and programs that seemed tools of music piracy.
I prohibited their installation and use at the office, but a part of me looked at those guys and thought “I’d be just like that if I was in college or just coming out.” Secretly I was jealous, and wistful for the years when I was the go-to music technology guy and owner of lots of ostensibly-free music.
Mp3 players and smartphones ushered in yet another technological revolution, as did various online musical services as diverse as life insurance options (rent, own, rent-to-own, etc.). Gradually I became an aficionado of subscription music services, most of all Pandora . However, the biggest shift in the music collecting and listening experience in the last 5 or so years has been this: listening to music is much more a private experience than ever before. Between my headphones at the gym or in the pool (music is the soundtrack of my workouts), the privacy of my car, or the closed doors of my office, when I listen to music, nearly 100% of the time it is only me listening.
I now care not how others may judge my worthiness by the presence or absence of certain iconic songs or artists in my collection. I can crank up Donna Summer to my heart’s content and no one scoffs and tsks. I can disdain and disown all manner of classic rock no matter how iconic and essential my peers may judge a given artist or album to be, and no one knows. Jimi Hendrix may be an icon but to me he is un-listenable. Only with the help of my kids have I been exposed to some newer artists, of which a handful I’ve become quite the fan. Listen to Bowling for Soup, the Neon Trees or One Republic sometime.
These days the large speakers no longer are in the windows, and the wattage of my receiver has given way to more sophisticated devices. Music is more of a personal experience and not so much a communal one. I relish my headphones for the gym, and my waterproof mp3 player for the pool. The music is for me and less for everyone else within earshot. They have their music and their incorrect tastes in songs and artists. Live and let live; I’m not going to change them and have given up trying.
As recently as a year ago, my amazing new headphones (light weight, washable, gym-worthy and amazingly tuneful) still are connected to my mp3 player when walking or working out. Just when that mp3 player decided that a $100 pocket-sized device as too good to be true and stopped working altogether, my Smartphone was fast being discovered as an entertainment device, already having been relied on to deliver me Orioles games on the radio anywhere. And now, music too, from the pocket of my gym shorts.
Whether or not this is the end of the technological musical odyssey remains to be seen, but where we are works for me. I still have much of that old, massive equipment, but it collects dust and may not stand the test of time very well at all. The difference is, that’s now okay, for all of my music fits in the palm of my hand and on my head.