Songs of Grooves and Songs Of Bits: Vinyl vs. Streaming in the 21st Century.
A Personal Journey Through The Changing Ways We Listen to Music.
Once Upon A Time:
I love music. More than, I think, the average person. I’ve been in (bad) bands, I’ve worked at a radio station, and I’ve amassed a hoarder’s collection of music: first on CD, then on Vinyl, and now digitally. And with the decline of the CD, the rearrival of vinyl, and the advent of online radio, how we consume music is ever changing.
So I’d like to take a few minutes, just sit right there, and listen to my story all about how I became… err.. we listen to music in the 21st century.
By early 2000, I had a small collection of CDs. We all did, I think. General pop fare fit for the teenager I was at the time: Blink-182, Puff Daddy, and even *Nsync—hey, a good pop album is still a good album. I remember owning explicit versions of albums like The Marshall Mathers LP and Ready To Die, and having to share headphones because other kids didn’t know what the beeps were on their versions.
My parents both are huge music fans, but for some reason we never really listened to music outside the car. We were more a TV family. But my mother was a member of Michael Bolton’s fan club, and dragged us everywhere to go see him. My father white boy jams out to classic blues and blues rock bands, especially to Clapton and the Allman Brothers Band. They brought me to my first concert at age six, Toni Braxton and Kenny G. But we rarely ever listened to the twenty CDs they had. I think I had more than they did. So it was strange when we got three copies of the same CD for Christmas.
That CD was a compilation by a band I had heard many times on the radio before. In a way it is the band, The Beatles, and the CD was 1, a collection of their number one singles. Many of you will be familiar with this collection—it has sold over 12 million copies since its debut—but for me it was revelation. The opening chorus of “She Loves You” is still a thing of awe to me, all these years later. And every song is brilliant, right up through “Hey Jude”, which may be the greatest pop song ever recorded.
Within a year, I had begun amassing all the Beatles CDs I could, asking for them for my birthday, and with allowance I would buy them. I had a guitar by 2001, and the first song I learned to play was “Paperback Writer” (albeit awfully). For a while, The Beatles really were my life.
Down In The Groove
On a separate front, I had taken my love of Blink-182 to new and strange heights. I had listened to their influences, and those band’s influences, eventually finding my way to The Ramones. After hearing their debut eponymous album, I knew I loved punk. So, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, my family found themselves in a minivan driving to Cleveland (the least punk vacation/city ever, I might add).
It was there in the gift shop that I spotted two very strange items for the early aughts: vinyl records. One was Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, the other was Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. Since it would be another year before I heard the full masterpiece that is Pet Sounds, I went with The Beatles record. The only problem was I didn’t have a turntable, so it sat like a relic amongst my other Beatles collectables.
That was solved the next year when on my sixteenth birthday I was given a Sony turntable, the only one they sold at Best Buy at the time. I hooked it up to my father’s old stereo equipment (which I still use, only adding a single speaker) and cranked up Sgt. Peppers. With whatever money I had gotten from my family members, I bought more music. I made my mother drive me to downtown New Haven to bring me to Cutler’s Record Store (which I wrote about here). There I bought a reissue of the Ramone’s first record. The guy that rang me out told me it was a great record.
Rock and Roll High School
Later that year (2003), Rolling Stone magazine came out with their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. I knew many of the bands, but I hadn’t heard so many of the albums on the list. Having just got my first job, I felt I could dip into my car savings a little. Or a lot. I bought almost every album in the top-20 that I didn’t already have. One of my great (and most favorite) life stories is when I received Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Exile on Main Street, Pet Sounds, London Calling, The Velvet Underground & Nico, What’s Going On, and Kind of Blue, all on the same day. It was like I went to Rock and Roll High School, and graduated in one night.
But then, it seemed like overnight, the world changed as music consumption began to be taken over by the iPod. I forget the occasion, my brother and I each bought an iPod. It was 2004, and I remember hogging an already slow computer, putting one CD after another into the C drive, uploading it to iTunes. By that time I had amassed a decent sized collection, it took me days to upload all my music on that computer.
Standing At The Crossroads
Within those three years, I found myself at a three-way crossroads (or is it a fork in the road?). I had started a record collection, a digital collection, and began the final descent of my CD collecting. It created somewhat of a dichotomy in the way that I listened to music, and a paradigm shift in music culture at large.
On my iPod or on iTunes, I would listen to music randomly. Sometimes by artist, sometimes by genre, and what I was doing was essentially creating a personal radio station, only the music I liked, hand selected by me, of singles and deep cuts.
On vinyl, I would listen to an album all the way through. Most critically acclaimed artists usually piece together albums with this intent. Sgt Peppers being a classic example, but also newer bands like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, both critically acclaimed masterpieces without a major single to their name.
These two ways of listening to music are now what dominates the market.
Almost a decade has gone by since I first got my iPod. In that time the internet has grown measurably faster. I don’t just read about music, I stream it, I watch whole movies and tv shows, not just trailers and clips. And with this speed came the 21st century radio.
It started with simple streams, clones of what was happening on the FM dial, but it soon grew to be a completely different phenomena, more akin to what I was doing with my iTunes. The first I remember was Pandora Radio. It was almost always used in Dorm Room parties, and the setup was always the same: small computer speakers and some kind of pop-Rap or Electronic coming out.
The interesting thing about streaming online radio is the idea that it is a music discovery tool. But when I first tried Pandora, I didn’t like it. I almost invariably use Wilco for these things, and when I chose them as the starting band, I ended up with a few of my other favorites, but nothing that blew me away the way that Wilco did (but then again, Wilco is just better than most, if not all, of today’s bands).
I wasn’t discovering anything, and I had to use the next button more than it would allow, and eventually went back to my iTunes library where I knew I liked everything. Streaming radio was in its infancy, but I liked the idea of it. I just had to wait for the software and algorithms to catch up.
Been Caught Stealin’
In the meantime, most people had stopped going to music stores, browsing the aisles and walking away with a new record. Most people, in fact, weren’t buying anything at all. They were pirating it.
I “shared” a lot of my music with a few thousand college friends, and they shared back on a P2P network someone had set up. This was the 21st century, “hey man, you should check out this record”. The school inevitably got hit with a cease and desist, and the sharing platforms were blocked. But I built up quite a collection doing that before it was shut down, let alone some of the “sharing” I did with the college radio station where my friend, Geoff and I had a show.
Most people were generally more and more uncomfortable paying the exorbitant prices for CDs and upwards of $1.29 per track digitally. P2P networks and Torrents still rule the day, and pirate consumers are curating massive libraries, downloading entire discographies at a time.
By the time my final year of college rolled around, I had an apartment with Geoff and another guy, Will. It was a hundred year old victorian in Willimantic, Conn.; dilapidated, but roomy, and I finally had space to bring my record collection and sound system.
It had a lot of benefits. We all had records, some our parent’s, some our own, and it resulted in an eclectic mix. Geoff had a ton of Americana type stuff, CCR and Springsteen. Will had mostly his father’s old collection, but those records were my first introduction to Brian Eno, Rachmaninoff, and Gershwin. My collection had swelled to about a hundred, and I brought the classics: The Beatles, Dylan, and Paul Simon.
We’d always have something on. We’d have a discussion about the lack of love for Rumours among our generation, or arguments over They Might Be Giants being more than kid’s music. And in a way, we became music critics. The kind of people that listen to the full album, first song to last. It wasn’t about hits, but stuff we weren’t going to mind being on for thirty or forty minutes. The whole album really had to be solid.
And we were gourmands. There was what I called a trash place on Main Street in Willimantic, and we’d spend hours going through it looking for maybe one or two good records. We drove an hour in each direction, looking for record stores, spending countless hours digging the crates. By the end of the year, I had close to 200 records.
For a graduation gift, I bought myself the record player you see pictured above because the Sony finally conked out.
In A Future Age
I believe the future has been solidified in the past few years—until they start sending music in waves straight to our brains (wait, isn’t that how music already works?).
Reports have shown that as the CDs and MP3 sales sink further and further, vinyl record sales have increased. This comes at no surprise given that CDs were exorbitantly overpriced and MP3s can be so easily found for no charge at all. But this renewed interest has really altered the landscape of vinyl record buying.
Also, streaming music has taken on a whole new spin. Spotify, has been a go to for the last few years, but it is like the worlds greatest music library if it was the library from the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last”. And unless you’re paying for the subscription, it forces you to listen to ads. Nothing is worse than having to sit through ads.
Something about the record as a commodity works on a nostalgic level, and some would say on a auditory level as well. The sheer act of putting a record on a platter and dropping the needle is pleasurable in a way that clicking a track in iTunes is not.
Because I’m running my turntable through actual speakers with an actual receiver, this means that the sound is actually better, not perceived to be. But it’s a misnomer that Records sound better. With FLAC on a computer through the same system, I get practically the same results.
Places like discogs.com have made it easier than ever to find those rare records that you want, and you can even catalog your collection, right down to the catalog number and runout codes (the number etched into area around the label). And it seems like whenever a record store closes, another one pops up somewhere. As my beloved Cutlers was closing, another was opening in Willimantic.
We Will Rock You
Competing with Spotify is iTunes Radio and, most recently, Beats Radio. iTunes Radio has the benefit of being connected with the iTunes Store, which already has data on over a billion purchases. So when I searched Wilco, I was surprised to find a few things I hadn’t heard before and generally liked. It’s a good product, but it’s missing a certain customization, an area that Apple is not well known for. It’s basically Apple’s version of Pandora, you say what you want, and Apple delivers to best of its computer algorithm’s ability.
To me, Beats Radio has come out of nowhere. When Beats headphones were first released, I never thought it would get into the radio business. Perhaps, I thought, it would go the way of Bose, producing quality middle of the line stereo equipment. But it’s really doing great things in terms of computer integration (computer speakers are generally dreadful), and personal speakers.But Beats Radio, too, is a good enough product. I have come to that conclusion after testing it for this past week.
A lot of the playlists are great, my favorite so far was “New York Rock and Roll”, which started with “I’m Waiting For The Man” and ended with “Walk on the Wild Side,” both Lou Reed classics (and pulling on my heartstrings). It’s “Play The Sentence” feature is a bit clunky, but some of the featured curators are great (Q-Tip and Rolling Stone are examples), and Pitchfork’s playlists are exactly what you think they would be.
Beats Radio has many more features than iTunes Radio, which would make me inclined to say it’s better. Trent Reznor, who helped create the service (after publicly supporting Spotify)—lending his voice to advertisements and releasing a remix e.p. on launch day—emphasizes that Beats Radio is an emotional experience unlike other radios, which feel like cold algorithms. And I have to disagree after an initial trial played me nothing but one bands albums (of course Wilco). iTunes Radio is probably stronger because of the data it already had. So maybe once more people use Beats Radio, it will have that emotional feel that Reznor is advertising.
In The End
That so many companies are banking on the future of music as a subscription service is no surprise. It certainly favors the companies over the artist and the user. And you have to either pay or deal with ads, which is exactly why I don’t want to listen to the FM radio (unless it’s 92.9 EHM in Long Island or 88.7 WNHU at UNH). But we are certainly a few years away from an optimal experience, before any of these services reach Hulu or Netflix level quality. Just don’t expect to see the streaming format disappear.
There’s always iTunes if you really don’t want to use a streaming service, but after a decade of stagnant updates all Apple has done is add pretty pictures and different ways to sort things. There’s no FLAC integration, which is what would really sell it, and in 2014, it still can’t find the right album covers sometimes. I don’t have an iPod anymore, only an iPhone, and I find the only time I use iPhone for music is when I’m exercising, which isn’t much.
I think I’ll stick to my records. After a decade of careful collecting (and not to mention integrating my girlfriend’s records), I have an impressive stable of classics to choose from (that is bragging, by the way). No ads, just a few warm clicks and pops. And while some of the records cost a little more, I buy so many for a dollar that I can’t argue when I have to pay a little more. Plus crate digging is one of the many pleasures of listening to LPs, it is the original musical discovery system.
But in the end, vinyl or otherwise, as long as I’m listening to music, I’ll feel fine.