I remember walking into the record shop. It was located in an odd spot, a strip mall in Orange County (as if there’s anything else there?). But the selection of house music was superior for Southern California. They even had a small UK Garage section where I would, to my horror, drop $17.99 on an EP for an artist I vaguely knew, and in a format soon to be dead.
The German mathematician Karlheinz Branenburg and his scientist pals released the MP3 to the public In 1993. The innovation in the new format, meant inconceivably shrinking music files by more than 90 percent. Three years later some dude, going by the online name NetFraCk, formed the world’s first MP3 piracy crew. Known as Compress ‘Da Audio, the first track they ripped was Metallica’s “Until it Sleeps”. It marked the beginning of the end.
With Napster in 1999, file sharing had really arrived. The music industry went into a downward spiral — and no one was prepared. I was working at an independent record label that would soon make more money peddling T-shirts than the records it had depended upon in the decade prior. Meanwhile, the next 10 years (1999–2009) would see music industry sales more than halved from the cataclysmic effects of piracy. But paid or pirated on-demand music has done much more than save us a few dimes. It has revolutionised how we discover, share and enjoy our music.
Frequently I would pester the record store clerk asking what was playing. Enthusiastically, they would fetch me the LP sleeve. “Here it is. And if you dig this, you’re bound to dig this,” I’d often hear as they handed me some more tunes. This was no upsell — it was a genuine love of turning folks on to good music. I’d soon find myself approaching staff at cafes, restaurants, and even the odd yoga class to uncover what musical delight was blessing my ears.
But then came Shazam. And YouTube. And Spotify. These game-changers not only meant my inquisitorial behaviour became a thing of the past — it marked the commencement of the algorithm-driven discovery era. I’ll admit there are many upsides to having a computer know what you yourself didn’t even know you’d like, but I’d harbour a guess that it has made the majority of us passive and lazy music consumers.
Think about the last time you bought or even listened to an album from beginning to end. I can see your look of puzzlement through the screen. The point is, although we have access to an all-you-can-eat music buffet with today’s streaming services, more is not necessarily better.
“Oh, I put that track on my Spotify running playlist,” we tell everyone in our universe now. But, I might not care — or even know you. Sharing music is about knowing that a friend is going to love a specific tune. It’s a narrow-cast approach, not a broadcast one. There is something wonderful about a song (new or old) coming into your life through a specific person. It might act as the soundtrack to your endless summer, or more often than not, like a certain perfume — turning a moment into a memory.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. A friend told me about an online radio station, Rinse.FM. One day after listening to a DJ mix, another one automatically came on by Yasmin. I can’t recall an artist besides Michael Jackson that has had such a profound impact on me. I soon turned another friend onto Yasmin and months later on a road trip he confessed to me, “Yasmin changed my life.” It turns out that algorithms and universal access to online music can be a beautiful thing.
Shared musical experiences cannot be replicated on Beats by Dre headphones (a silent disco may be the only exception). There is something special, something primal, about the collective experience of watching a gig together. Besides it being really loud, live music enables an undiluted connection — a type of joint sense-making. It’s precisely why concerts are now making more money than ever before. A new generation is valuing experiences, and are clued up that listening online simply can’t replicate the real thing.
Of course, all things must die before they can be reborn — hence vinyl is having its resurrection. I know I plan to keep my collection until I’m six feet under. The simple knowledge that I own Off the Wall brings me comfort today. With its warm qualities, vinyl is how records were supposed to sound. And whether alone, with friends, or a swaying with a mass of strangers — it’s always been about how the music makes us feel.
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