I am currently listening to “Belfast” by 808 State on Pandora. I do own a physical copy this song on tape and LP, but I am listening to a copy on Pandora’s boxes now. A hundred years ago, if you wanted to hear music, you had to play it or go to a concert. Depending on how much money you had, you’d play a piano, a guitar or a bucket. All these personal ways of getting music into the house required that you learn to play on physical objects manufactured or found for the purpose.
With the advent of the record player, it became possible for one set of instruments, skillfully played, to entertain an indefinite number of music aficionados. All music fans needed to do was buy a collection of vinyl records and a record player. Over most of the 20th century, the music industry worked to increase the fidelity of recorded sound to the original performance, through reel-to-reel, hi-fi, quadraphonic’s, and record player imporvements. Focusing on getting the needle on the record was a life skill for any fan, executed gracefully at any stage of intoxication. You knew how much music somebody had by the feet of shelf space devoted to their collection.
Tapes were cheaper, less durable and more convenient. The real end of the music industry came with the compact disc. For the first time, consumers wer getting digital files on high capacity discs. It was only a matter of time before they figured out how to compress and transfer these files to their computers.
In the century of cylinders, records, reels, cassettes, and CDs, you needed to buy a player with speakers and keep a collection of albums. The album was key. Friends could make personal statements with mixtapes, but they had to pull their material from the compilations that the artist intended. The effort of switching albums, removing one and inserting another, was greater than the desire to have instant replay of the entire collection at once.
All that changed in the 1990s when computer scientists figured that you compress sound the same way you compress images. The MP3, and its dozens of esoteric cousins, meant that your entire music collection could be stored on a single hard drive. Before, you knew how much music somebody had on hand by how many feet of shelf space were devoted to records, tapes or CDs. Now, a tiny and a huge music collection take up the same space.
And it keeps getting more abstract. With Pandora, Spotify and others, I can imperfectly access all the music in the world. If I don’t like a track, I can switch to any other genre by typing a search term. Changing tracks, albums or genres is as simple as clicking the fast-forward button. Music has changed from the tactile and hard to the abstract and easy, and we are no longer in love with our music collections.