Tomorrow Never Knows
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Vinyl, Plastic, Electronic: The Changing Face of Music Technology
THINGS might get a little nostalgic today…
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as I delve into the history of music/technology - and how incredibly far we have come. Rather than quote from other articles and provide streaming figures: I want to show how formats and hardware have changed over the years. I was born in 1983 and, when I was younger, remembered the joys of picking up a cassette and putting it into the newly-acquired player. This is not the most scientific and business-minded feature you’ll find - but I wanted to look at the way music has shifted through my life – and whether the revolution has been all positive. The tape cassette was invented in 1962: it was a great time for British music: The Beatles were coming through and there was huge excitement in the air. Of course; fans were listening to vinyl and queuing to buy their music (of The Beatles). The invention of cassette did not instantly lead to an advent and transplant. Vinyl was still very much the chosen format of the masses and, from my parents’ record collection; they did not move to the cassette until the 1980s. I was born towards the middle of the decade but, even when I was old enough to produce memories and visions – around 1986/1987 – I remember the house was chocked with vinyl and sleeves. There were cassettes here and there but the honest record was what I heard when I was young.
I am not sure when vinyl came in but I know the first small record was printed in 1888. It was not until 1951 when Ewing Nunn founded Audiophie Records and released a series of 78 R.P.M.-mastered albums that were microgrooved - then, that was when the explosion began. In a weird way; I find vinyl to more capacious and versatile than the cassette. I am glad both are still in existence and, if anything, we are seeing a wave of artists produce their music on cassette. Vinyl has not radically altered the past few decades or so. It has got more expensive but the fact it was pretty damn-near-perfect back in the 1950s means there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Cassette, too, has not had the chance to shift and improve. One of the things that always grated me concerning cassettes tapes was their fragility. One could stick them into a player and, within seconds, hear a winding sound – to remove it and find it was unspooling and ruined. You could try winding the tape back in but, unless you got really lucky; the thing was beyond repair and gone – no real explanation why that particular album/single unwound itself to start with. Vinyl has its negative aspects but one needs to play it pretty vigorously until it scratches and becomes unplayable – the odd scratch and crackle actually add character to a record!
One of the reasons I feel the development of technology/hardware is a good thing is because we can listen to music in a more joined-up, accessible way. Vinyl is great but it is unwieldy and expensive; the record needs to be flipped and, if you are listening to a double/triple-record; you might need to unsheathe a couple of vinyl and stop-start a fair bit. Tape is laughably basic and flawed...If you want to access a particular track then you literally have to put your finger on the fast-forward/rewind button and keep checking – like someone at a petrol pump; you need accuracy and patience to get to the right point. I guess, like reel-to-reel film; it is impossible to add diverts and compartments so one can easily get to that point. It has been a few years since I last picked up a cassette tape so things might have improved; although, judging from the submissions I have sent; I know the technology is not advancing that format one iota! For all the ‘quirks’ and drawbacks; the sensation one got from picking up a tape/vinyl could not be matched. I am not going on some highway nostalgia trip but I miss the physicality of music. When I was younger, and my grandfather built a go-kart in his garage; one of the first accessories for it – it has a bar at the back where someone could stand as the driver peddled it – was a red boom-box/duel-player.
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There was a double tape compartment where you could put cassettes (slot ‘A’ and ‘B’) and so, within seconds, you could get an album underway and enjoy it at full volume! Not only was there the social side of cassette tapes – when you would swap them in the playground – but, I feel, music feels and sounds different depending on the format. Vinyl has that special quality where you need to be still and experience the music. They have not invented a portable vinyl player (even for seven-inch single) where you can drop the needle and listen to it on the move. Strangely, if one looks at the logistical flaws of music formats; there seemed to be revere-evolution as new technology came in. My earliest experience was with vinyl and cassette but there was new excitement and lust regarding the C.D. It was invented in 1982 but was not really common in my (and my friends’) house until the late-1980s. The 1990s saw a fantastic boom of world-class musicians so it deserved and demanded a full arsenal of technology. Vinyl was still much demanded and the cassette tape was holding strong: a third tentacle of C.D.s meant artists had plenty of options regarding release and distribution. If anything, music has gone back in that sense: C.D.s are the most-common format for new releases; artists release to vinyl but it is less popular than decades like the 1990s (and cassette tapes are pretty rare).
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I mentioned how physical formats had transposed evolution and fortune as we headed into the 1990s. The Walkman meant one could listen to tapes on the go; the (C.D.) Discman meant you could load a disc into your pocket and discreetly listen to music in the open. Of course, players and recorders simulated that but the mobility issues were clear. That said; one of the most memorable aspects of my musical childhood was one of the most comical: the way, if one moved when they walked, a C.D. would skip. Anti-skip technology did not come in until the 1990 and, for avid music fans like me; it was a relief and revelation. The fact you could listen to cassettes and C.D.s without their skipping, juddering and stopping was a breath of fresh air. It was ‘interesting’ negotiating the technologies of the 1980s but it all added to the fun and memories. I feel, if digital music was around in the 1980s, most of us would not pursue music and have such evocative recollections. It was the way I bonded with the Walkman and cassette; the pleasures of Discman ownership and the hours wiling my time away spinning vinyl that got music into the brain – and meant I would follow its allure and tease to this day! C.D. was the big leap forward that meant we did not have to wrestle with tapes and risk damaging them with ease.
One of the biggest bugbears in all of music is the fact the C.D. has not leapt and improved since the day it came out. A blank C.D. holds eighty minutes of music which, for the most part, is fine. If you have a double-album then you might have to exceed that length but I wonder why C.D.s do not hold more data. Nobody ever records on both sides of a C.D. and the limited capacity meant a lot of people recorded on a second disc. I do not know why there is that eight-minute-limit - but it is quite galling! There were some tried-and-tested-and-failed formats like MiniDisc that had the same time limits but were not as revolutionary and popular as C.D.s/cassettes. The MP3 player was not introduced until 1998 but, like the C.D.; it did not sustain as long as you’d hope (trivia fact: Suzanne Vega’s song, Tom’s Diner, was the first song put into an MP3 format; Karlheinz Brandenburg was experimenting and wanted to see what was possible). C.D.s, to be fair, shared the same sort of vulnerabilities as a cassette tape. I have owned many and accidentally dropped them on the floor. Many survive but I have lost many without any provocation and real attack – they are brittle and can be derailed with a mere smudge or accidental scratch. The infantile frailness of these formats did not matter: the physicality and resonance compensated and it helped bring the most popular sounds of the day to the world.
That unity between handheld devices and physical formats meant music was able to reach more people than ever before – further and wider than vinyl ever could. The biggest step forward was the in the '00s when digital media took over. MySpace (remember that?!) was introduced in 2003; YouTube in 2005 – Spotify the following year. It was quite a quick and competition-led revolt that meant each owner/company wanted to get ahead of the other. If MySpace has fallen at the hurdle and had its leg broken – the ongoing competition between YouTube and Spotify exists in 2018. Spotify offers subscription and has a wide catalogue than YouTube: the visual aspect of YouTube means it is the best place to put videos on. One day, someone will supersede and subsume the mandates of both and integrate them into an all-powerful Godzilla that renders – Spotify and YouTube – obsolete. The first couple of years was all about testing and getting things solidified. I was twenty-one when YouTube was kicked to the world and, having graduated the year before; it was another fascinating development. Like MTV – I will discuss that in a piece tomorrow - we could see all the latest videos on the screen. Unlike the rather right-place-right-time nature of a T.V. channel; the fact we could pick up a laptop and watch a video on the move was the same sort of eye-opener as a Discman – albeit without the cumbersome stop-start issues and the lack of reliability. I cannot claim the digital takeover has been all bad: new musicians do not need a record deal to get their sounds heard and played on the radio.
The best part of the move from physical to digital has been the horizons opening and the market removing barriers. I will not get into a theological, liturgical discussion relating to the worthiness of the physical format – I have written about vinyl and how things were better, then. I am pleased we still have formats like C.D. and vinyl and I dearly believe either will see their final day. We can never replace C.D. and vinyl with streaming. Someone, somewhere wants to hold on to physical possession and there is a danger music is becoming too impersonal and machine-fed. So many new artists are, without irony, reverting to cassette tapes and C.D.s to release their music. They do not want to spend their lives marketing online and being detached from the production and design of the older formats – where an artist could get involved with the entire process and see that finished result come to life! Whilst it is fun to remember and cast back to a safer time: the only way music could ever evolve and come this far is because of the Internet-led charge. I would not be as passionate about music were there no streaming and music-sharing sites. The reason I am writing a few pieces about ‘older’ music is (because) it is important to see where we have come from and how the industry has changed. Technological advancements are taking place but we have reached the limits of what portable devices can achieve.
We can fit thousands of songs into a phone and do so without interference and problem. Things are as smooth and seamless as they have ever been. Sites like Spotify means we can listen to pretty much any song from any year at the touch of a button – can we go further and make another leap?! I feel we have hit the natural wall of what is physical and technologically possible. The greatest development is the access musicians have to get their music out to the world. Social media and streaming mean anyone in the world can discover a small, independent artist and share their music. We cannot live in the past but I think, with music growing by the year; we need to find new ways to accommodate the population and take that next step. I wonder whether a return to the past is, ironically, a way forward? Physical formats have been overtaken because digital music offers more options in terms of accessibility, capacity and affordability. I know we can stream songs for free and create libraries with thousands of songs but, if we do not want to become too electronic and inhuman – maybe finding ways of strengthening older formats would be a good idea. I long to get hold of physical formats with artwork and a unique edge. Maybe it would be too weird returning to past decades but there might be a modern way to make that happen. It is clear the cosmic blast from the dying days of cassette and the full realisation of Spotify has been immense.
I have been experiencing technological changes in music my whole life - and it is amazing to think that, in the past few decades, we have come so far. It would have been baffling, as a young boy holding vinyl and cassette tapes, to think my faithful tape-machine and Walkman would be replaced by something like a streaming site. The Internet did not come about until the 1990s and, when it was brought into every house; the dial-up modem – and its laughable dial-tone and slow speeds – did not seem like it could create progeny such as YouTube! People are always looking to push things as far as possible and see what that next breakthrough is. I am glad streaming and digital music are here and I know there will be that balance of physical and streamed. Let’s not hope the music industry chooses to retire C.D. and vinyl because, as I have shown, those memories and tangible times have made a huge impact in my life. The same can be said of so many others out there, too. Looking back can be dangerous but, in terms of the advancement of music – in terms of the formats that hold it and the way it is recorded – it has been an amazing time. I am thankful to the innovators and musical magicians that brought music to my young, impressionable ears: I am constantly thankful the modern-day innovators have made new and existing music readily available to me and…
THE entire world.