Over breakfast this morning the subject of music came up and how it has changed over the years.
Let me clarify that — not so much how music itself has changed (although that certainly has happened), but how the packaging, purchasing and delivery has changed and even how listening to it is different.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, there was, for lack of a better term, a ritual involved. Once every week or two, I/we would hike the short distance (a few blocks, no more) to the two local independent music stores (where the staff (a) knew their product and (b) probably knew your tastes), scan the rack of new releases and maybe buy something to take home (maybe even something unknown if the little guy with the beard recommended it ). At home I’d listen to it while reading the liner notes and admiring (or not) the album artwork. Music was an auditory experience (duh) but also a visual one. Tactile too.
Whitehead’s words resonate here a little. (Oh, all right: “The progress of civilization is not wholly a uniform drift toward better things.”) For one thing, there are almost no locally-owned music stores anymore — if you buy music, you almost certainly buy it from a megacorp. And if you buy it in person, the kid (and it’s almost always a kid) knows that it’s music, but often not a whole lot more.
As a brief aside: about a dozen years ago I asked the kid if they had the debut album from a then unheard-of band. She heard the word ‘porn’ and before you knew it I was filed under the headings of ‘creepy’ and ‘dirty old man.’ They had it, but I had to find it myself — apparently some information travels quickly and the entire staff knew that I was a creepy dirty old man. Contagious too, as far as I could tell.
As packaging shrunk, liner notes have become more and more abbreviated, artwork has become rarer (it’s unlikely to find paintings of Li Tobler with lobotomy scars these days, for example), and so on. The tactile and visual parts of the music ‘experience’ have declined correspondingly. And these days, a lot of folks acquire music without any media whatsoever. The ritual has changed completely. (Because of this, I have two crates of music in the back room that I ‘inherited’ from a relative that I don’t have a cute Rose-related name for.)
And the ‘ritual’ of listening has changed too. Once upon a time it involved sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a large pile of electronics. Nowadays, a computer — and possibly a digital player of some sort — is probably involved in the process somewhere. This is where today’s story starts.
Recently I purchased a couple of albums from my, um, younger days. These were both a little obscure but well thought of and helped define a particular sound from that era. One represents a studio album, the other a two-disc live album with considerable overlap in content and musicians. I’ll cleverly refer to the various discs as 1, 2 and 3. (Originality exhausts me.)
As an aside — but one relevant to the story — I’ve bought one of the 350 million or so Ipods (possibly the ultimate triumph of packaging over substance) that have been sold. Well, actually, I didn’t really buy it. I ‘bought’ my original with ‘points’ and Apple replaced it (“Oh. That model. That’s the one that catches fire sometimes.”) to celebrate the death of Steve Jobs. Or something like that.
This goes a lot of places, one of which is the car. Which is when I discovered… an oddity.
I’ve copied the above albums — all three discs — to the ipod. These albums often contain three different versions of the same song. I discovered that, if the ipod software ‘decides’ to play a song from disc 1, it will follow it with the same song from disc 2 and then the same song from disc 3.
Even if the song has a different name on different discs.
After I noticed this, I did a little research online to find out if anyone understood the ‘shuffle’ algorithm well enough to explain this. I found out, though, that the algorithm is not well understood.