Where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and the little things we lost along the way.
I often find myself reminiscing about tasks and pastimes that we enjoyed from the past and the technology that allowed us to do so. It’s fun to mock the innovations we thought were so cool at the time, but I also noticed with every step forward we often lose a little something along the way.
Today I’d like you to join me down memory lane as we look back on how we used to purchase and consume recorded music.
Disclaimer: By the time I was old enough to get interested in music, records already had one foot in the grave, so they were just barely before my time. I enjoyed my collection of kids records as a young lad, but by the time I headed out into the world to buy the latest hits with my allowance money, I was headed for the tape section. For this reason, you’ll have to excuse the omission of vinyl records, 8 track tapes, and any other media from the 70s and earlier, since I have no personal experience with these. If you have any insights into these, please share in the comments below.
What Made Tapes Great
The obvious advantage tapes had over records was portability. For the first time you could hit the streets with your tunes via a boom box or personal tape player with headphones. Feeling fancy when buying that new car? Forget the standard AM/FM radio and tick the option box for that tape deck upgrade.
And unlike those pesky records, you could use cassettes to record everything from your favorite songs on the radio to your own acapella version of Debbie Gibson’s latest using the mic on your Sanyo. Can’t find the words to express your love for Bobby Sue? Only a custom mixed tape will do. Envious of Bobby Jean’s collection of Merle Haggard tapes? Enter the dual cassette deck for some old fashioned copyright infringement.
Remember the little tab that gets broken off for preventing accidental recording? Remember slapping a piece of masking tape over that little square so you could use your Mom’s old and neglected aerobics tape to record Casey Kasem’s American Top 40? Sure you do. There was just something special about that little rectangle of plastic and the magic spool of magnetic goodness within. Just ask any Phish fan or Deadhead about their collection of bootleg tapes when you have an hour to kill.
What Made Tapes Bad
Hiss. What’s that, a snake? Nope, it’s what you hear in between tracks on that new Def Leppard album. Even with advancements in different tape formats and new tape player technologies, sound quality was always an issue with tapes that we begrudgingly accepted. And the more we played them, the more we recorded over them – every fast forward and every rewind – our tapes slowly died and sounded worse with time. Tapes grew brittle and broke. They unwound and got stuck and tangled in the guts of our stereo. We carefully wound them tight with a pencil and patched them with scotch tape, dreaming of a day when no cassette left on the floor would get smashed to pieces by the clumsy feet of our little brother.
And then there was trying to fast forward or rewind to get to your favorite song. Trying to time the button pushing just right without careening into oncoming traffic. Sure, you could get one of those fancy new car stereos that could detect the gaps in between songs automatically, but money doesn’t grow on trees. Time never moved more slowly than when you’re standing there in a towel dripping wet, waiting for your favorite tape to finish rewinding so you can press play and get ready for school.
And don’t get me started on that tape you carelessly tossed on the dash while you ran into County Seat for some choice 501 button fly jeans. A few minutes in the baking sun was enough for Adam Ant to sound like Adam Drunk and Sleepy Ant after the tape got warped.
The compact music disc was a miracle of technology straight from the future. Suddenly we went back to something that looked like a record but was a fraction of the size and got played with lasers instead of needles. Lasers! We could buy three dozen for a nickel from Columbia House and hang them from our rear view mirrors to blind other motorists.
What made CDs Great
If you’re like me, you’ll remember the first time you heard a CD. It wasn’t just the lack of tape hiss or scratches from a record. It was a whole new era of sound quality and clarity that we never thought was possible outside of a concert hall.
Don’t care for track 2? A simple push of the button blasts you to the next song. No longer were we slaves to rewinds and fast forwards. Think you know better than that coke-fueled music producer? CD players let us decide which tracks we wanted to listen to and in what order. Take that, The Man. That magic button labeled shuffle allowed us that rush of triumph when we correctly guessed which song was coming up next.
As compact disc technology aged like fine wine, we purchased CD changers with carousels and cassettes, holding five or more discs at once. We played DJ at parties while furiously programming tracks and taking request. We loaded up the CD changers in the trunks of our cars and never looked back at jankey road trip mixed tapes.
What made CDs Bad
Like their vinyl ancestors, compact discs were a bit delicate, and quite frankly, mysterious. I for one enjoyed CDs so scratched up they looked like somebody took a belt sander to them with no problems. And yet another disc with barely a nick or thumbprint would skip like crazy. I don’t know about you, but I’ve wasted precious months of my life spent breathing on CDs and gently rubbing them with my t-shirt.
CDs were expensive. The going rate for a standard pop cassette tape from 1988 to 1990 was $9.98, while their CD siblings cost $14.99 or more. That was a lot of dough back in the day for an album that you weren’t guaranteed to love. And while you could easily dub a copy of your friends latest New Kids on the Block tape, this sort of shady practice couldn’t be replicated in the early days of the compact disc until computer CD burners became affordable.
When CDs hit the market, many music lovers were hit with a dilemma of choice shoved in their face by new technology. Do I hold onto my vast collection of tapes and continue to buy them new or do I make the switch to CDs for all future purchases? What about all my favorite tapes? Will I take out a home equity loan to replace them all with plastic discs? I for one struggled with this crisis after I purchased my first CD player, losing all desire to listen to my crappy tapes yet too poor to replace them with discs.
Of course, this isn’t unique to CDs replacing cassette tapes. We would face the same Sophie’s Choice regarding Beta and VHS. VHS and DVD. DVD and Blueray. Anytime progress regarding physical media is made there will always be painful transition periods.
And finally, what was up with those weird long boxes at the store?
For this section we’ll focus on any digital device that played music from the likes of the iPod, Zune, and dozens of other personal music players that used various types of file formats. Let’s lump them all together and label them “MP3 Player.”
What Made MP3 Players Great
Despite what Apple would want you to believe, Steve Jobs didn’t invent MP3 players when the iPod came out in 2001. Various companies such as Diamond, Creative, Nomad, Archos and others, all threw their hats in the rings in the late 90s with various music players that ditched physical media.
For the first time, we were able to attach these gadgets to our computers and load them up with songs. Storage was paltry at first, but as the iPod and its competitors fought for consumer dollars and new storage technologies blossomed, we soon had the ability to hold hundreds and even thousands of songs in a device smaller and lighter than a pack of Merit Ultra Lights.
My first MP3 player was a Creative MuVo TX FM 128 MB model (pictured above), basically a USB thumb drive with an LCD display that plugged into a little battery pack. And it was awesome. It boasted all the features of a CD player yet wouldn’t skip even if you grappled it like a Shake Weight. It even had a FM tuner (that I didn’t use)! I eventually stepped up to various generations of the Microsoft Zune before finally ditching a standalone play for a smart phone.
One of the best things about MP3 players along with the personal computer was our ability to rip our purchased CDs into MP3 format and store them on our computers and players. We no longer had to worry about scratched and lost discs once our favorite songs were turned into ones and zeros.
And during these heady early days of the MP3 Player came along a little Internet phenomenon you may of heard of called Napster. Along with it’s cousins Limewire and Kazaa, morally loose consumers had literally thousands of songs at their fingers tips available for free (i.e. stolen and totally illegal). Personal music libraries soared overnight and we enjoyed them on our MP3 players.
What Made MP3 Players Bad
Arguably, Napster would have happened without MP3 players, but the explosion of pirated music in the early 2000s went hand in hand with our iPods. The music industry was flipped on its head as execs figured out a way to get us back in the stores to drop fifteen bucks on a CD.
Although I loved my MuVo back in the day, 128 MB of storage didn’t go far, only a few CDs worth. Dragging and dropping, deleting and sorting, was a common task for me as I decided what tunes made the cut that day. Even when I stepped up to my Zunes, I never had enough space to hold my entire music collection.
Without a computer, most of the early MP3 players were useless. A PC with a USB port was the only way to load up our devices and sometimes the software we were forced to use was less than stellar. iTunes for Windows comes to mind.
Then there was the constant temptation of new devices that hit the market. Flash memory prices were on a steady decline and just when you dropped a few bucks on a new MP3 player, the company would release a new model with double the capacity for practically the same price.
Smart Phones and Streaming
Which brings us to today, with our smartphones and streaming services. With most of our songs living in the cloud, storage anxiety is a thing of the past. With thousands of songs available to stream for around ten bucks a month, we have no reason to rip off music from shady file sharing sites. In the meantime, algorithms are paying attention to what we’re listening to and suggesting artists based on our tastes. It’s pretty amazing how far we’ve come since my bought my first Boston cassette from Kohls Department Store.
What We’ve Lost
As far as technological advances go, we often lose a little along the way in the wake of progress.
Nobody can deny the convenience of clicking a button and downloading a new album in seconds, but what we lost along the way was the experience of the Music Store. Whether it was Sam Goody at the mall or that independent record shop with the geriatric hippy behind the counter, the music store wasn’t only a place to shop, it was an activity. Flipping through stacks of records or CDs with your friends was something to do. Finding that rare import EP was exciting. Rushing to the store on release day of that highly anticipated album was an event.
Sure, there are some used music stores still floating around, but the damage is done. I for one haven’t purchased a physical piece of recorded music from a store with walls in a decade, at least.
Album Art & Inserts
The best part of coming home with that new CD clutched in your hands? Removing the shrink wrap (which was designed to be way more difficult than it should have been, if you ask me), cracking open that pristine plastic case, and flipping through the CD insert. If you were lucky, hopefully it would be filled with cool illustrations and photos of the artist. Pages of lyrics for every song? Jackpot! And don’t forget about that last page of people the band wish to thank, where it was recorded, and what brand of instruments everybody played. This was the stuff us super fans geeked out over before Wikipedia and YouTube gave us our fill.
When I was in High School my friend Sack had a huge wooden case on his wall that held hundreds of his cassette tapes. And Sack was mighty proud of that collection he’d acquired over the years. Personally, I enjoyed arranging, rearranging and categorizing my tapes and CDs by artist name, release date, alphabetical order, etc. A music collection was something you tended to like a garden. Even slipping all your compact discs into one of those binders gave you a little rush of endorphins as you flipped through the pages taking in all the different designs, typefaces, and colors.
The Sweet Stereo
When I started working in High School I was finally able to ditch the hand me down boom box and started purchasing components for my dream stereo (to the best of my meager earning ability). I started off with a receiver here, a tape deck and CD player there, and finally the Pièce de résistance, the kick ass Infinity speakers I could barely afford and still miss to this day.
Like our record, tape, and CD collections, we were proud of our stereo systems, always looking to add one more component or step up to speakers the size of a refrigerator. Sure, it’s still possible today, but a majority of us listen to tunes over our Bluetooth headphones from our phone or some wireless speaker courtesy of Alexa or Google.
Same goes for our cars. The factory installed sound system in my no-frills 2012 Ford produces sound that would have required hundreds or even thousands of dollars’ worth of upgrades 20 years ago. This is a good thing, I will freely admit. But I sort of miss the old days of subwoofers that took up entire hatchbacks, equalizers hanging below dashboards, and stereo face plates that pop off so you can take them with you to deter theft. Stock car stereos in the twentieth century were shit. Those who spent the time and money upgrading them into something special did so with pride and filled those who couldn’t with envy.
Listening as an Activity
This last point may not be universally agreed upon, but it certain rings true for me. I don’t just sit and listen to music anymore. And I mean just listen to music as an activity. I almost always have my earbuds in as I’m working in the yard or cleaning the house. The music is on in my car because I’m using it to get to someplace else.
When I was a poor college student, I’d slide in a CD, plop down in my chair, and just listen to music. Maybe I’d read along with the lyrics, or daydream that I was Alex Lifeson, but I didn’t do anything because there wasn’t anything else to do. I didn’t have a TV, iPad, Xbox, smartphone or any of the other gazillion things competing for our attention these days.
Even if I sat down tonight and started playing some music on my home theater, which sounds great by the way and I still never do it, it would be just a matter of time before my hand drifted over to my phone or I started wondering what was new on Netflix.
Although I do yearn for the good old days from time to time, it is amazing how far technology has taken us over the decades. I for one am looking forward to firing up my head chip years from now to pipe some classic rock directly to my ear canals under the close watch of our robot overlords.
Robert Brumm is the author of several books. Rumor has it that Alex Lifeson is his biggest fan.