I’ve been lucky enough to grow up at an exciting time for the human race. Technology has evolved incredibly rapidly over the last 20 years, but when I was first born, the Internet was just getting started, cell phones were the size of your laptop, and all our music sat on magnetic tapes, vinyl records, and CDs. The MP3 boom came around just as I got my hands on a Minidisk player. (Those too young to remember, just imagine it as a floppy disk with about 2 CDs worth of music. What’s a floppy disk? Go ask your parents.)
The Minidisk came and went with no fanfare, but it still stands as my favorite way to listen to music, for the same reason the previous generation would rather painstakingly and manually record a mixtape on the outdated magnetic tapes than create a playlist on Spotify. To better understand why this is, let’s skip forward a few years to when I got my first iPod.
Up to the creation of the iPod, all MP3 players followed a very similar pattern. USB-stick shape, a few fiddly buttons, and a tiny blue screen. If you were really lucky, it’d have an organisation system built in, and you wouldn’t have to organise your music in ridiculous folders. It was a pain, but we put up with it because we didn’t know any better. The same story goes for smartphones before the iPhone.
Then along came the iPod. It threw out the rulebook and reinvented the entire music industry. Music wasn’t ripped from CDs or downloaded from Napster, (ask your parents) it was bought on iTunes. The record labels still made millions, Apple would quickly rise to become the Internet’s biggest music vendor, and the customer could grow their music collection without even leaving the house.
We could create playlists of hundreds and thousands of songs, and put them all on a computer in our pocket and listen non-stop for days on end.
But the new generation of music-lovers was greedy. They also had astonishingly bad taste. But mostly, they were greedy.
The new generation wanted more music than they’d know what to do with. So they’d share music with their friends on MSN Messenger, download albums on Limewire, borrow CDs from one another at parties; I know because that’s my generation. We wanted music and we wanted it bad. We didn’t have the same thrill of buying a record as our parents. We wouldn’t save for weeks and run to the record store and pick up the latest Pink Floyd album, stick it on in our bedroom and just lie in one place for the next hour listening to it. We’re too busy for that. We need that song now. We need to put it on our iPod while we finish this level on Tony Hawks Underground, right before we go to Bob’s party and drink WKD and complain about how loudly our parents listen to Pink Floyd. (Not that we don’t like Pink Floyd - we got their entire discography 26 seconds ago on Limewire)
So what was next for this always-on generation? Streaming. Companies like Spotify and Rdio quickly caught on to the idea that these kids don’t want to own music forever. They don’t care. They’ll download a song, listen to it once, and then forget it even existed. Other songs they’ll listen to hundreds of times. The music industry can’t survive with everyone illegally downloading, so what can they do? Stream it of course.
And now, our music collections aren’t limited to our local record store’s stock, the budget of our iTunes account, or even our ability to download illegally. We get all the music we could possibly want and then some.
I pay for Rdio every month so I can listen to music I don’t (yet) own, compile playlists to share with friends, and get unlimited streaming on my mobile devices, too. I pay for iTunes Match so that I can have the music (and movies) that I do own on any of my devices, as well as a backup of it all so that I can save some serious space on my hard drive simply by deleting the music I don’t listen to. It’s almost a perfect system.
But there are a couple of things I miss about my Minidisk player. The physicality of having an album in my hand. Not too big to fit in my pocket, but not too small to easily forget the effort of creating an album that went into it. The collections of disks. The mechanical clicks as the disk begins to be read. And the restraints that a device of such limited storage imposed. Just 2 albums on a disk. Sometimes I wish iTunes would only let me put 20 songs on a playlist, or made mechanical clicks as it switched from one album to the next. One can only dream.