What a long strange trip it’s been through all the ways to buy and play music.
For my dad, it started with 78 RPM (revolutions per minute) records. The reason we call a collection of songs an “album” is because the first collections were like large photo albums that contained multiple 78 records in the sleeves (pages) of the album.
I became familiar with 45 RPM records through my two older sisters, Veronica and Janice, who bought records by artists like Ricky Nelson and The Everly Brothers. My sisters could harmonize like the Everly Brothers too!
It was about the time of the British Invasion (1964) when I started to buy records of my own. We lived in Leigh, Nebraska, a small town with no record store, but I was able to buy old jukebox 45’s at “Flossie’s Café”. The guy who stocked the jukebox would leave a box of singles that were either used, or new overstocked records. They were 25-cents each. I remember getting “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. Every once in awhile, my family would make a trip to one of the nearby towns that had record stores. The first new album (33 1/3 RPM) I ever bought was Little Deuce Coupe by The Beach Boys, and the first new single was “Because” by The Dave Clark Five. I still have the record sleeve:
Thus began decades of buying records…thousands of them. During high school, it was mostly 45’s, and of course The Beatles’ albums. Dad provided an old record player for my room, and once in awhile I’d even play records on the console stereo in the living room. Life was pretty good for a music-loving teenager. My collection progressed so well that I was the designated player of records at our school dances. It wasn’t really being a DJ, although there was a microphone for announcements, such as introducing the King & Queen at the Homecoming Dance.
Buying lots of records wasn’t always a given. When my wife, Jeannette, and I were first married (so young!), spending a few dollars on an album was more of a big deal. During a time in Memphis, we’d go to a record store that had open copies of popular albums and listening stations. We’d listen to albums, and then eventually buy the one album we thought was best.
The other thing that became part of our listening experience was a Sony stereo reel-to-reel recorder. I was making tapes and saving the records from the repeated ravages of a diamond-tipped needle. I could make my own “Greatest Hits” albums too!
Above is a recording console my friend Danny helped me build in 1973. The photo was taken at an apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska while I was attending college in 1975. Included are…a Sony 4-channel reel-to-reel on top, regular Sony reel recorder, Kenwood receiver/amp, AR turntable, and four Pioneer speakers. (Click photo to enlarge.) My wife provided the fern.
For a time in the 70’s, there were 8-track tapes. Never owned one. They did make music portable. Good idea. If you’ve ever heard 8-tracks, you know some changed tracks in the middle of songs. Bad idea.
At some point in the 70’s, Cassette tapes took the place of 8-tracks. Cassettes were good, but not the lo-fi pre-recorded ones. Instead I still bought records and transferred them to cassettes that had high-quality tape. So at this point, we had shelves and boxes filled with records, and self-recorded cassettes (that had replaced all those reel-to-reel boxes).
A miracle was about to happen…CD’s! Sure there were some early CD’s that had less than fantastic equalization, but damn they were so cool! I used to call myself a “record collector”, but the CD format made me realize the term should really have been “music collector”.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the experience of getting record albums, reading all the information on the covers, etc. I know there are die-hard “vinyl” fans who love the analog warmth of record albums…but there were problems. It’s not that the format is inherently bad; it was mostly the manufacturing problems of the records themselves. You would take off the plastic and remove the record, being careful to handle it by the edges, and gently place the needle at the beginning. Too often, the record would be printed off center (like Jackson Browne’s Pretender album), or be filled with “clicks & pops” (like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 4-Way Street). Today’s vinyl is a lot better, but also costs about $25+ per album.
CD’s have no wow-and-flutter, no surface noise, no wear, and never a click or pop as the final chord of a song fades. An average album might have four really good cuts, and even the best albums could have songs you wanted to skip. That was not a problem with programmable CD players. CD’s were first introduced to mainstream America in 1983. I always needed a way to record, so in 1986 I bought one of the first CD recorders. Blank CD’s were $6 each back then, and had to be special ordered. When my first CD recorder developed problems, The Phillips Company replaced it with a new model. Even today, I can plug an audio source into it in a way I can’t do with my computer.
(Shown with my 1980’s CD recorder is a Bakelite radio from the 1940’s, and a wooden radio from the 1930’s.)
If you’re like me, you never imagined the next step. Our son, Paul, showed us something new. He said it was an iPod. OMG!
(Above is the first iPod model, like our son showed us.)
Record albums could hold about 45-minutes of music. Tapes normally held an hour or so. CD’s hold an hour and 20-minutes. My 160-Gigabyte Classic iPod is the size of a cassette, has about 18-thousand songs on it, and it’s not full. A giant leap for mankind!
That brings us to today. CD sales have dropped dramatically as digital downloads and streaming services have taken over. Apple Music, Spotify and other services are the norm, especially for younger generations.
So where does that leave an old guy like me? I love the Playlist format. Using iTunes, I’ve loaded-in all my music, and have at least a thousand rare, alternate, and bootleg versions that no streaming service would have. Everything is at the highest-quality audio available, which is very similar to today’s CD’s.
I made a choice at the beginning to make almost all of my playlists CD-length (80-minutes max). Not only is that long enough to listen to an artist, but if a friend or family member likes the playlist, I can simply burn it to a CD (which costs about a quarter now). They can then load it into their own computers if they wish. Even though the CD format is fading, this still works for most people.
I absolutely love being able to organize my music collection with playlists. Too often we would lose track of music we liked, because the album or CD was stuck on a low shelf, or we just forgot about it. Now, we can simply scan the playlists to see our whole collection. Artists who’ve only had one or two hits can be included in multiple-artist playlists. Playlists can also be developed using streaming services, and by using the playlists they provide we can discover music from new artists.
With technology, the musical road goes on forever, but it’s not bad at this roadside stop.
Note: For a further technology update, please see the article on the Apple HomePod.