Tag Archives: Music

This was a bookshelf

Diary date: 20th March, 1986Bookshelf

This was a bookshelf. It contained books, in which individual pieces of paper were bound together into a coherent whole. As a visitor to my house, my bookshelves told you a little about me, and what I thought was important and worthwhile. They gave you something to look at and to talk about. They helped you guess whether we were likely to get on, or had interests in common. Their arrangement gave you a sense of how I thought. Their coloured spines brought the room to life.

Today, my Kindle e-reader holds more books than all the bookshelves I’ve ever owned. But when you see it sitting on my kitchen table, it tells you nothing about me, my life, how I think, or what I might believe. It speaks only to me.

On the wall of my home, I used to keep silver discs piled one on top of the other, filled with songs and stories. Without you asking, they told you what lifted my spirit and spoke to my heart. Their covers brightened the room. Their number and nature told you part of my story.

Today, my iPod music player holds more songs than seems logically possible – you have one of your own that looks almost the same. But when you enter my house, my iPod tells you nothing about me. My music is a closed book unless we decide to open it together.

Next to my bookshelves, I kept jumbled stacks of films I’d enjoyed enough to want to own. When you looked at them, you guessed what made me laugh or cry, what thrilled or excited me. You compared my collection to yours, and made a note of films you thought you might like.

Today, the films I love are hidden from view, neatly stored and hermetically sealed in the cloud. Tours are available only on request.

Technology has created new spaces and new ways for you to learn about me through my likes and dislikes, and through what I keep, buy, show and share online. But in its headlong forward rush, it’s forgotten to take care of the world much closer to home. If I invite you to visit, I’d like you to know a little of me without either of us having to try.

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Now That’s What I Call…

Diary date: 23rd February, 1986

Having never been much of a shopper, it’s rare for my diary to mention things I may have bought at the time. But I made an exception on this date in 1986 and recorded with great excitement that I had belatedly added the cassettes of “Now That’s What I Call Music 3” to the others in my collection. For obvious reasons, I’m going to ignore the fact that the series has just reached number 87.

At the time, ‘Now!‘ felt ridiculously revolutionary. Companies like K-Tel and Ronco had been advertising and releasing ‘Various Artists’ compilations since the 70’s, but the tracks they had access to meant that you largely bought the records for the sake of two or three songs – or that you were buying material that already felt dated.

‘Now!’ was the first time two major labels – EMI and Virgin – had joined forces, and the result was a track list that was much more representative of the charts at the time. Not only that, but a combination of slick operations and genuine enthusiasm seemed to turn around each new ‘Now!’ more and more quickly. We started buying them as relatively representative of current music rather than out of a sense of retrospective nostalgia.

The other advantage of ‘Now!’ was the instant boost that it gave your mix tapes. Having previously spent hours on Sunday evenings with a microphone up against the radio – making excruciatingly poor quality recordings of Radio 1‘s chart show – ‘Now!’ gave you both high quality and a half-decent choice. Songs you hadn’t liked first time around were suddenly more appealing just because they were easily available.

With its numerous spin-offs – genre-specific editions, computer games, karaoke, quizzes, retrospectives, even its own TV channel – and its ability to react to market and technological change, ‘Now!’ has been a consistent thirty-year success story. The brand has adapted to survive the introduction of reproducible formats like CDs and MP3s, the advent of mass personal storage in the form of MP3 players, and the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Napster. As such, it stands in marked contrast to the music business as a whole, an industry which spent years in denial of the fact that – whether it was desirable or not – digital music distribution had changed everything.

From Walkman to iPod: Hello to abundance

Cassette and pencilDiary date: 30th December, 1985

My favourite Christmas present of 1985 was a Sony Discman my parents bought me to replace the ageing cassette-based Walkman that had served me so well on my travels over the previous four years. With its at-the-time revolutionary ability to jump from track to track instantly and its mysterious ESP – Electronic Skip Protection – the Discman (subsequently renamed CD Walkman) was a must-have for any mobile music lover whose collection was slowly migrating from cassette tape to compact disc. But despite its shiny shell and space age curves, it failed to solve the one issue which made travelling with a tape-based Walkman so difficult: the need to choose the limited amount of music you would take with you in advance.

Deciding which tapes – and subsequently which CDs – would accompany you on your travels was a major undertaking. Lack of space meant only a few albums or mixtapes would win a coveted place in your already packed rucksack – and the considerations and implications of your musical choices were legion:

Which of your current favourites had earned the right to come with you – and how would you choose them? Should you side with the novelty of the album you bought last week and still weren’t quite sure about, or was it better to stick with the tried and tested mixtape that could make you feel at home even when you were on the road? You might like both of them now, but how would they sound once you’d listened to them dozens of times in the space of a few days?

What would your choices say about you once your cassette cases were spotted by others? Would your tapes convey enough of a sense of taste, hipness, tortured artistry, fun and mystery? Would they make you more or less attractive to the opposite sex? And would your selection be sufficiently swappable and shareable as far as your friends were concerned?

How many albums would fit in your bag – and how many was it practical to carry? Which tape would start its life in the Walkman itself, and spend its non-playing days living in the cases of the other cassettes you’d chosen to take with you?

Then there were the practical considerations. Chief amongst these: batteries. I was lucky if my first Walkman lasted 2-3 hours with a brand new set of AAs – and even then the volume for the final hour would slip gradually ever lower. The condition of the tape itself was also important. Any cassette that had previously required rescuing with a pencil was immediately a non-starter. As for adding new music to your collection while you were on the go…well, a trip to a shop was obviously required, as well as careful thought about how it would fit into a bag that was already stuffed with the music you’d brought with you.

Today’s MP3 players have largely made the discipline and romance of restricted music selection a thing of the past. My iPod currently tells me it contains 1,985 songs, many of which – if I’m honest – I’m fairly sure I haven’t heard in a while. Albums too have been disassembled, with the miraculous instant track skip of the Discman replaced with the instant iPod shuffle between individually favoured songs.

These changes in the way we manage and consume music are symptomatic of the more general shift from yesterday’s scarcity of storage to today’s always-available abundance. Many of the choices we were once forced to make – trivial or otherwise – now feel like they belong to another age, and not a mere decade or two ago.