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.