5 Weird Things About Owning Records, Tapes, and CDs Future Humans Won't Experience
A couple of months ago, while my family and I were cleaning out our garage, I found the boxes that contained my old music collection. One box had all of my vinyl records, plus a shoebox of old mix tapes, and another box was full of my CDs. Our five-year-old daughter was fascinated by them at first because she liked the artwork. When I told her that there was music on all of them, her brain practically melted.
She had so many, if not all the questions. Understandable, seeing as she's only ever listened to music on our computer or on our phones. The concept of having a physical, tangible music collection just seemed so alien to her. But after answering her first few dozen questions, I noticed that the more I explained these things to her, the less sense it was making to me. The way we listened to music, collected music, and paid for music in the eighties and nineties makes no sense compared to how it is today. For example ...
We Wasted So Much Money On Music We Never Wanted
Much like today, music in the pre-internet time was marketed on the strength of the latest hit single by the hottest new artists. Gen-X, my generation, were the first to grow up with music videos. At the time, it was a bold, new artform and storytelling medium, and who are we kidding, they were all three-minute-long commercials designed to hypnotize us into going to the mall. They even filmed some music videos in malls, and we still didn't put two and two together.
First the mall music video, then the mall tour, and by 1988 Orange Julius had more power than some kings.
Why were malls so integral to the marketing? Because every mall had a record store. A national chain record store. Glossy beacons of soulless corporate greed that not only duped us into thinking it was a cool place to hang out, but also overcharged us for the privilege. It's easy for me to be cynical about them now that those stores are extinct, but in my youth I was there every weekend wasting my allowance.
Now that we have the internet, buying music is a much better experience. If you hear a song you like, you can buy just that song if you want. Hell, you can find it on YouTube and play it anytime you want without paying for it. The closest we had to being able to buy one song back in the day was to buy the "single." On vinyl or cassette, that meant you got the song you wanted on the A-Side, and the B-Side was some other song that the artist crapped out one afternoon when they had a couple hours of studio time left. The CD singles usually had bonus tracks like an instrumental version, and/or a dance remix that, despite being thirty seconds shorter, somehow felt like it was ten minutes longer.
Or, you could fork over the extra cash and buy the entire album, which contained the song you wanted, plus around nine other songs that, unlike today, you were not allowed to listen to before you purchased it. It was kind of a leap of faith every time. Keep in mind, in the eighties and nineties, quality control in the music business was directly proportional to the availability of cocaine, so the odds of that album being godawful was at least 9:1.
Yeah, sure, this is how music was sold since the invention of the phonograph, but how weird is it that this is the only product that was sold this way? If you wanted a Big Mac, McDonald's wouldn't make you buy nine other random sandwiches along with it. What's in those sandwiches? Guess you'll have to figure that out for yourself. What if you don't like those other sandwiches? Meh, you'll change your mind when that sandwich is in the background of a Tarantino flick one day.
Albums That Just "Appeared" In Our Collections Out Of Nowhere
With music moving to strictly digital, and collecting albums becoming more of a niche hobby, one thing that future generations will probably never get to experience is being able to look through their music and come across an album that they A) know for a fact they never purchased, B) never really wanted in the first place, and C) are left to wonder how the hell it got there. Yeah, sure, Apple installed that one god-awful U2 album onto all of our iTunes without our permission, but that only hit two out of those three criteria.
This isn't just about random CDs that maybe someone left behind at your place when you threw a party and they got mixed in with your collection. No, I'm talking about the ones that, for some reason, you are physically unable to get rid of. You could try to sell them at a used record store, but they'll slide them off to the side and say, "not interested." You could try to sell them at a garage sale, but no one wants to buy it. You could throw those albums in the garbage, watch the garbage collectors load the bag in their truck and drive away, and two years later that album would magically appear back on your shelf. You could even be at someone else's house, see that album on their shelf and think "Oh, God... not you too."
They weren't necessarily bad albums, they were just ... ubiquitous. Nearly everyone in your age group had a copy of it. Every generation has certain albums that are like a smallpox vaccination scar, or a tribal tattoo ... an indicator that you grew up in a very specific time and place in history, and it's like the universe materialized a copy of that album for you to serve as some sort of personal highway marker.
I know that theory is a bit out there, but the sheer numbers on some of these albums cannot be explained without delving into metaphysics. There's no way that many people bought albums like Tigerlily by Natalie Merchant, Dummy by Portishead, or Eagles Greatest Hits Vol. 2. Clearly, there are some strange attractors at play here. I have no memory of purchasing Legend: Bob Marley, but I know it had something to do with going to art school. I currently have three copies of Smash Mouth's Astro Lounge in a box in my garage. This has to mean SOMETHING!
Radio Stations Played With Listeners' Brains
Most of the cassette tapes I saved from back in the day were mix tapes full of songs I had recorded off the radio. It's honestly hard to believe my friends and I used to enjoy listening to these tapes. The audio quality was awful, the songs were all missing the opening notes because we didn't get to the record button in time, and the DJ always talked over the end of each song. It was free music, and we got what we paid for.
Recording music off the radio was a time-consuming hobby. Depending on the popularity of the song, it could take anywhere from an hour to all afternoon for the song to make it back around in the rotation. You could call the station's request line, but here's a fun fact: radio stations never play songs that listeners call in to request. Their playlists are almost always set by the management. They might occasionally say a song is "coming in off the request line", but it's always a song they were gonna play anyway, and listeners only called in their requests for the song because the station had played it earlier. It's a self-sustaining loop.
The biggest problem with listening to music on the radio is the way it conditions you to hear the song differently in your head. "Radio edits" would bleep or blank out all the naughty words, or even cut out entire sections of the song sometimes to get it down to a radio-friendly length. But stations also do a ton of processing to each song. Some of it is necessary, like when they equalize every song to the same level so their listeners aren't compelled to adjust the volume. They try to add as much bass as possible and bring up the quiet parts so you can hear the song better while you're driving.
But sometimes, they'll do some sneaky processing. Some radio stations are known to speed up a song up to 5%, which allows the station to sneak in an extra commercial every third song or so. When you hear that song on the radio enough times, your brain gets trained to recognize that as how the song is supposed to go, and when you hear the actual album version of the song, it sounds... off. Think about that, you'd be listening to the song they way the artist intended you to her it, and you'd think something is wrong with it just because some radio station manager wanted enough time to remind everyone it's Ford Truck Month one more time.
The Record Industry Really Didn't Give A Crap About Piracy Until 1998
The eighties and nineties were practically a golden age of music piracy. We would record songs off the radio, we would dub vinyl records and CDs onto cassette tapes, there were dual cassette decks that allowed us to make copies of tapes at the touch of a button. With the first commercially available CD-R drives, we were able to make exact copies of CDs. And the record companies never did a damn thing to stop us.
So who do we have to thank for the RIAA finally deciding that piracy was a problem? You could blame Metallica for getting their undies in a twist because their song "I Disappear" leaked early on Napster, cutting into what was obviously gonna be a ton of profits from the (checks notes) Mission: Impossible II soundtrack?!?
You could also blame Napster itself, but they were merely the RIAA's first major target for digital copyright infringement. No, the guy you really need to blame for this whole mess is an Australian hacker named SoloH.
In 1994, a German tech research organization named the Fraunhofer Society released l3enc, the world's first commercially available MP3 encoder. The free version of the software allowed users to rip their music into MP3s at a maximum of 112 kbit/s, which as far as sound quality goes, is pretty damn weak. Trying to enjoy music at that bit rate is the equivalent of drinking White Claw for the flavor.
But for the low, low price of $250 (around $440 in today's dollars) you could upgrade to the premium version that allowed a CD-quality bit rate of 320 kbit/s. MP3s were the wave of the future, and just like any brand-new technology, the price tag was gonna have to be pretty hefty until the target market could be determined. At least, that was the plan... until SoloH purchased a full version of the software with a stolen credit card, reverse-engineered the software, upgraded the quality, slapped a new interface on it, and redistributed it for free under the name "thank you Fraunhofer."
And just like that, all hell broke loose. Between that act of industrial sabotage and the rising popularity of peer-to-peer file sharing sites, the internet quickly became the Wild West of intellectual property. The record industry went into panic mode, sued everyone they could think of, and they've been struggling to put the genie back in the bottle for over 20 years now. The good news is, while they were busy tracking down pirated music online, the statute of limitations on the countless charges of copyright infringement on all my old mix tapes quietly expired. What a relief!
Columbia House And BMG Earned Their Special Place In Hell
Music streaming services are here to stay, and for the most part, they're... alright. Their business models are great for their investors, kinda sucks for their customers, and downright insulting to musicians. But despite all of their faults, I tend to give these streaming services a pass on their sins for one reason: they will never be as evil as Columbia House Record Club.
What's Columbia House? Well, when it first started in the 1950s, it was a mail-order music service designed to sell records straight to the consumer, mainly targeted to rural customers that didn't have a local record store to go to. Over the years, Columbia House, as well as its direct competitor BMG, started running their company more like a drug cartel than a record store.
They'd give you a great deal on your first taste to hook you in. You'd find one of their magazine ads that offered 13 records for a dollar, or another one that offered 10 records for $1.99, or 12 for a penny. Yes, a penny. They asked you to choose 12 albums from the list, tape a penny to the form, and mail it to them.
But once they got you on the hook, that's when they'd start screwing you. Much like their introductory offers, their membership requirements were all over the place and varied from member to member. I got in on the 12 CDs for a penny offer in 1998, and they told me I had to buy 12 more at "regular club price" (plus shipping and handling) over the next two years. Sounds reasonable, right? Wrong.
Their "regular club price" was always about $2 to $4 above what I could've paid at a record store, then they'd hit me with a $4.99 shipping and handling charge. And that's just for what I actually ordered! See, Columbia House also engaged in a practice called Negative Option Billing. They would send their members catalogs every month that was designed just like the kind of junk mail you'd be tempted to throw away immediately. The nefarious part was that inside that catalog was a "selection of the month" postcard, and if you didn't fill out that card and mail back within 10 days, they'd send you that CD and charge you $22 bucks for it (again, plus shipping and handling).
That's how I got hosed. At the time, the mailbox I had at my apartment complex was too small for those Columbia House packages, so the postal carrier would leave the box on top. Since I didn't know those packages were coming, I sure as hell didn't know when they were stolen. They'd always include the latest billing statement in the package, so I also didn't know I was being charged for them. I only found out after I came home from work one night to find a partially opened package by my front door. Inside was a copy of Kid Rock's "Rebel Without A Cause" and a bill for $188.93 for the last seven months worth of "selections." I guess I found the first porch pirate with standards.
Columbia House refused to take off the charges, so I refused to pay. The good news is, those charges were enough to complete the 12 CDs I was required to complete the contract and I managed to cancel my membership. That outstanding bill kept racking up late fees, and that, dear reader, is the reason I couldn't qualify for a home loan until I was 38.
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