Thursday 19 November 2009

Music I - Tech

The NPR music programme "All Songs Considered" is currently running a special on "A Decade in Music", articles, posts, videos, music can be found here and here.  The decade also happens to coincide with the time period in which I started to really listen to music and start to develop a "taste", so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about my experience of music over the past decade. I want to start with a dry topic: the physical shape music comes in.

I would very much like to pretend that the very first record I ever bought was Lauryn Hill's "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill", but that isn't true: it is in fact the one record which is still in my possession that I bought first, but there were many unwise purchases prior to that. The record dates back to 1998, but it took me a year to get it: January of 1999, we had just moved to a new house in the suburbs, and I was about to turn 12, with my first very own stereo (which is still the one I use: it stores 25 CDs and has a slot for an additional one, and two cassette slots which was important for recording tapes, when recording songs from the radio was still something you did to get new music).
By that time, most people already used a portable CD player - I still played tapes, and seldomly listened to music outside, and never when I was getting to school or anywhere else - the back seat of my parents' car, on the way to some scenery holiday location, was about the only place where I'd listen to music or audio books with my headphones on. The point here is that I started to collect music before the onset of what is now dubbed "the age of digital music": before I ever listened to an mp3-track or downloaded a song, I already had a huge CD-collection. The first portable device I bought was a minidisc-player which I adored - I digitalized my music, and it was the first time that I could take a considerable portion of the music I owned on the road, outside the confines of my own room, because even though the capacity of one disc was nothing compared to that of an average mp3-player now, you could take more than one.
This was probably also when so many other things happened at the same time: My parents finally consented to get an internet connection. Memory space of conventional computers became huge compared to the years before (my first PC had 8 MB), and filesharing started - which meant that you could listen to music that you'd never even known about before. Before that, I was completely dependent on radio programmes (FM4 helped, but getting the music I liked was still difficult, I didn't even know that independent record stores existed at that point, and there is only so much money you can spend on music when you're 15 or 16). Now, you'd stumble over something you liked, and find out online who the influences of this artists were, what people who liked that particular artist also enjoyed, or who else published their music on a label that resonated with your own state of mind (Saddle Creek and Kill Rock Stars are among the first labels I knew by name). I also profited from the fact that our local public library had an extensive music section  (the first things that come to mind are the entire works by Austrian band Attwenger and German band Element of Crime) - which was at least one redeeming fact about living on the wrong side of the river. This is how my digital music collection started to grow: and whenever I really fell in love with an artist, I'd start to search for their records in stores, slowly assembling a collection of CDs I truly loved (I still remember the day I found Cat Power's "Free" in a used record store, and got it really cheap just because there was a tiny scratch in the paper casing). This was before ordering anything on the internet was even a possibility for me - and I still prefer buying records in actual stores, because when I make a discovery, I know I'll remember the day and particular setting, while just unpacking a parcel seems rather dull in comparison.
And yes, I continued to see CDs as the primary medium to carry music. They came with booklets that sometimes contained the lyrics to the songs, where I would find pictures of the artists, or beautiful album art (Aimee Mann's "Lost in Space" has drawings and comics by Seth), and I enjoy reading about who contributed what to a particular song (I did, for example, fail to take note of the fact that Laura McFarlane didn't just play drums on Sleater-Kinney's first self-titled album, but also on their second one, "Call the Doctor", the one that contains the most widely known song by the band, "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone"). Most importantly, you can put them in a shelf for other people to see - not to brag about your great taste in music, but to start a conversation about something when you'd find out about a shared interest, or if you just wanted to quickly lend something to someone, which I still think is more charming than copying something on an external drive of some kind). Early on, I started to make mixtapes (and yes, I still call them that, even if they come in CD-form) - and the limitations are still something that I love about it, the fact that you can only put up to 20 songs on a CD, that the order the songs come in matters, that you can design a cover. Yes, I do appreciate the artistic value of music alone - sound, lyrics, all these things - but if I OWN a copy of a particular piece of music, I like it to be tactile, which is probably why I started an actual record collection (vinyl) two years ago. Part of the reason for that was the uncertain future of CDs - as shiny as the packaging might be, the disc never inspired confidence in me. Anybody who borrows them from a library realizes that they are not made for eternity the first time a song gets painfully stuck because it has too many scratches. Another reason was that my dad has a small collection of obscure Hungarian and Polish records that he never listens to - which I inherited when I moved out.
So now I listen to music in many different ways, which is probably a feeling many people have who were born inbetween two decades (this is also true with films: I still have video cassettes, but also DVDs and digital copies). I have a ridiculously overpriced and fancy mobile listening device that contains my entire collection of music - but I still listen to albums, in the order in which the songs were intended to be heard by the artist. I am still not a singles-person, not even when I'm outside and only using music as a soundtrack for getting from A to B. Back home, I listen to music on my stereo or on the record player: Because taking the disc or record out of the casing and looking at the cover is still such an important part of the experience. I even like the moment when the record or CD is over, and you have to actively do something - instead of just having a never-ending loop of music that doesn't require anything from you. Discovering new music and actually listening to it is so easy and uncomplicated now, but somehow, just a tiny bit of ... magic... is lost too.

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