This essay is one of my occasional digressions from the usual travel-related topics but it does deal with another passion of mine – Music.
Mostly I don’t think too deeply about music; rather I let the notes take me on an emotional trip; unless I am listening to an artist like Leonard Cohen whose lyrics demand attention and analysis. But earlier this year I got to thinking a bit more about music after subscribing to the music streaming service Spotify. At the time I thought it was just yet another move to a new music platform in line with several previous moves I have made at various points in my life since I started collecting music in the late 60s. But I now realise there are greater implications arising from the advent of streaming.
To start at the beginning: In the late 1960s I began buying vinyl 45s which were cheap enough for a kid with some pocket money. I was also able to buy the odd album when I’d get a “windfall” of Christmas or birthday money.
I can’t remember what my first 45 was but my first album was the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. This was followed some 6 months later by Gordon Lightfoot’s Did She Mention My Name. These two albums were also the start of a life long love affair with these artists’ music. In the case of the Beatles, who wasn’t a devotee in the 60s? Gordon Lightfoot, on the other hand, was more esoteric. Certainly popular in my native Canada but with a smaller fan base internationally.
My days of purchasing 45s were over by the early 70s when an after school job led to a sustained rise in my teenage disposable income. If I liked a single I heard on the radio I was now sufficiently wealthy to buy the album with the hope the radio single was indicative of the quality of the rest of the album. In some cases, excellent albums did not even have singles released from them. Led Zeppelin, for example, could be antagonistic toward singles and Gordon Lightfoot’s best songs (in my opinion) were often never released as a single.
As my album collection grew I took great pride in knowing every song on every album and in their proper order. To ensure I had this vital information at hand I would even draw up lists; although I had to give up this obsessive behaviour after a few years as my collection grew and I found other ways to waste time.
Once I finished with schooling and got a proper job my album purchases went into overdrive. Practically every payday I treated myself to a new album. It was my due for working so hard for the past two weeks.
My shelves began to groan from the weight of the albums. A bigger album collection meant owning some fantastic albums and also a fair amount of duds. But maaaan, I was proud of my collection.
The 1970s saw the “innovation” of 8 track tapes. For serious music collectors 8 tracks were a joke, in part because they corrupted an album’s tracklist. It makes me shudder to think of how the track listing for a classic album like Abbey Road was butchered to accommodate optimal tape length.
With some embarrassment, I admit that I had a modest collection of 8 track tapes but I plead practical considerations – I had bought a used car with an 8 track player. Once I had moved on to another car after a few years I also moved on to cassette tapes. Good thing too because 8 tracks were on their way out and were getting harder to come by as people came to their senses. However, while cassette tapes maintained track integrity their fidelity was poor in comparison to vinyl.
I was able to partially remedy this problem by recording my brand new vinyl albums on to high quality blank tapes. This also allowed me to save my albums from premature degradation as they were often only played once! An extra bonus was that ninety minute tapes allowed for an entire album to be recorded on a single side.
This state of affairs sustained me nicely until the mid 1980s and the advent of the Compact Disc. The move to CDs was a total break from all previous recording formats. There was no down side. CDs delivered audio clarity and were highly durable. Once I made the switch there was no more:
- handling albums by the edges so as not to smudge the grooves with oily fingerprints
- running a static-free brush over the album as it rotated on the turntable
- keeping my collection well away from even moderate heat sources
- snap, crackle and pops making their presence felt from the second play of any new album. (And of course wow and rumble made their unwelcome auditory appearance from the first play because I could not afford nor justify the expense of a high end turntable.)
- hassles replacing the needle
- tinkering with the turntable to ensure it rotated exactly at 33 1/3 rpm.
CDs have none of these irritants, which is why vinyl fanatics mystify me. In any comparison of CDs vs vinyl, the benefits of CDs are unassailable. And despite vinyl enthusiasts swearing up and down that vinyl has superior fidelity the evidence ranges from “in dispute” to “non-existent”.
And so it was that not long after I purchased my first CD player I sold off all my vinyl albums. This was too rash a move. Belatedly, I realised that one of the benefits of vinyl albums relative to CDs is their size. As CDs are physically smaller than vinyl albums their packaging is also smaller. When it comes to poring over album art, intently studying a CD cover is nowhere near as enjoyable as studying a vinyl album cover. Cases in point: Sgt Pepper and Alice Cooper’s Schools Out.
Despite this one drawback, I was an avid CD collector for some 30 years. This is a passion which my music-indifferent wife has tolerated even though she does prescribe the times at which I can listen to my collection – either through headphones or, even better, when she’s not home.
As the eighties moved on through to the nineties I was content in the belief I’d live out my days as a CD collector. But then iPods and iTunes came along in the early noughties. Initially, downloads were not much more than of marginal interest to me. I was still an album guy and despite shrunken packaging CDs had tactile appeal relative to downloads. I also bucked up against iTunes because of the price difference between the American and Australian iTunes stores. I hate being ripped off for anything. Instead I would strike blows against music corporates’ price gouging by ordering CDs from cheaper international online sites.
But I am a gadget guy and I had to get an iPod. It allowed me to carry my whole CD collection and made it easy to change music selections as the mood struck me. The iPod also proved a boon for our dogs as music portability encouraged me to take them for longer walks.
The convenience of downloads did over time gnaw at my resistance: Music could come straight down the telephone line, into my computer and onto my iPod. There was also the economic appeal of purchasing only an album’s best tunes.
Google searches also helped me to achieve the nirvana of downloading rare music cuts which were not even available on CD.
Inevitably given the rate and nature of digital progress, we have now come to the streaming revolution. And I use the word “revolution” advisedly because streaming is much more than just another evolutionary step of my music collection.
I joined this revolution a bit late – October 2014 – as I just assumed streaming music would be constantly interrupted with buffering pauses. I was wrong. My ADSL connection streamed well right from the outset.
Streaming also marks the end of the road for my physical music collection. My collection of rarities is pretty well complete so I assume that any new music I gather will be generally available via streaming. Nor will I have to keep re-purchasing the same music as artists remix and remaster their albums to keep pace with audio technology.
Then there is the question of fidelity. I have compared some of my best engineered CDs against their streamed versions. To my ears CDs maintain an advantage, but it is not great and I expect even this will narrow as streaming technology advances.
There is the also not inconsequential benefit that as long as my phone has an internet connection I have constant access to a music collection exceeding 20 million songs. My iPod’s 40,000 song carrying capacity looks anemic by comparison.
So I am a happy convert to music streaming; however, as Joni Mitchell sang “something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day”. When I bought albums, they became part of MY music collection. I enjoyed scouring record shops, from the New Releases section to the Bargain Bins, in my hunt for gems and oddities.. The hunt was part of the fun.
With streaming there is no hunt. I have easy access to great mounds of albums. And while album music is available to me at call, I don’t own them. This makes music very disposable. If I am bored with an album I delete it from my playlist. It costs me nothing extra to acquire this music so I am not attached to it.
So now I have a beautiful collection of some 600 CDs, few of which I will likely ever play again. There are a number I will keep like the most recent Beatles and Led Zeppelin remaster sets, mostly because I value their original album artwork (sure do wish I kept those original vinyl albums); and also because I consider each album to be a historical pop culture document.
I can also see myself buying an expensive box set of a classic album that is of sentimental value to me. One such set I would desperately love would be Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album. The album came out as I was preparing myself for matrimony so it viscerally resonates with me.
As for the other 90 per cent of my CDs, they are merely using up valuable shelf space. I have tried to sell off some of these but the bottom has fallen out of the second hand CD market; even my previously reliable used CD store has stopped purchasing my surplus stock.
But to end on a positive note – years ago I had a fantasy that if I won the lottery I would open a record store which would allow me to listen to all kinds of genres and artists. Streaming now provides me with my own (virtual) all-encompassing record store with enough new music to last a thousand lifetimes.