Until the 1800s few would ever have dreamt of capturing the sounds of their environment, particularly music. Then, many attempted it but no one succeeded until Thomas Alva Edison discovered a method of recording and playing back sound. What had started out as an apparatus intended as part of an improved telephone led to the development of an instrument which would change the world, making it a happier, even a better, place to live.
We have moved on massively from the latter part of the 19thcentury; from wax cylinders– via wind-up 78 rpm gramophones, vinyl discs, cassette tapes, eight track cartridges and CDs - to electronic files.
A few months back I had the pleasure of discussing this progression with Generate Radio Director, Kyle Wilson, during a programme where we considered the changing habits and attitudes to purchasing and listening to music.
I have often pondered the way in which music affects us as individuals; so many things have a bearing on how we perceive it. Our mood, environment and many other factors will come into play to determine just how we react when hearing a particular piece of music. As an example I will consider Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’; a young person today could hear this for the first time accidentally with no pre-knowledge about the band or the album’s heritage, whilst others might come to it with the knowledge that time has viewed the album favourably and that many millions around the world consider it to be a masterpiece – will they hear it differently, regardless of where and when they happen to hear it?
I clearly remember the first time that I heard it. I had already been aware of the band, had seen them live and had appreciated their earlier work – but, despite my bias, before it’s release, Pink Floyd could not really be described as a major ‘supergroup’ with worldwide influence. It was late one mid-week morning in Bruce’s Record Shop, Stirling, when the EMI Rep arrived with a ‘white label’ copy of the album ahead of it’s release the following week.
Although we were generally quite excited to hear it, we had no real idea what to expect and probably considered that it would still be of restricted appeal. Luckily we had few customers that morning and so were able to listen pretty much uninterrupted on the shop’s excellent sound system, being blown away by the sublime genius of what time has proven to be an absolutely classic album, and with over fifty million sales to date it is now often claimed to be among the best albums of all time. How does a newcomer to this album feel when hearing it for the first time, knowing about its remarkable pedigree, compared to my first hearing? Perhaps this is a pointless question, but I still wonder, and feel so privileged to have been able to hear it when I did – before it was released for public sale.
Back then, in my youth, things were fairly clear cut. If you were very lucky a white label vinyl pressing would become available possibly a week or two before release but that was a very rare event and only really an option if you had close connections in the music business.
Generally the first time a new record could be heard was once it had been released and was available to buy in record shops, even radio stations rarely played white label copies (as far as I can remember).
I was lucky enough to have access to a reel-to-reel tape recorder that my mother, a primary teacher, had for use in her class room. I would regularly use the microphone to record songs from the radio; eventually I got hold of a lead and began to record without outside interference, although it wasn’t possible to hear anything during the recording process which meant that I would press record and then watch the clock, to stop recording once the show was finished.
As time went by cassette tapes became available; there were some pre-recorded sales but in many cases people would simply use blank cassettes to record albums and mix-tapes by recording from borrowed vinyl. One big innovation was the Sony ‘WalkMan’, ‘personal stereo’; built in 1978 and first marketed in 1979, it offered a real freedom to listen to music on the move more selectively than was possible with transistor radios.
For a brief period eight-track cartridges were produced, but they were particularly aimed at car drivers. One of the selling points was that they started to play automatically when the cartridge was pushed home into the player, but other than that they were fairly bulky and impractical; few people had players and even fewer had machines that could also record. We had a recording machine in the Stirling shop, but I’ll best say no more about that! Eight-tracks just didn’t take off and went the same way as BetaMax video tapes did later on.
The next big revolution was the introduction of the shiny and allegedly indestructible compact disc; I remember when radio DJs would specifically mention that a particular track was being played from a CD. The ‘WalkMan’ was usurped by the Sony ‘DiscMan’ in 1984.
Up until then music purchase was still fairly much controlled by corporate major labels, although the punk era did spawn a multitude of independent record labels that made it easier for new artists to get their music out for sale without having to be signed by a major label. The introduction of electronic files (mp3s etc.) changed things radically; although initially people still had to be pretty much computer ‘geeks’ / ‘tech savvy’, if they were to be able to get hold of new music; especially if they aimed to get it free or illegally. Filesharing sites like Napster did a lot to change the way in which people got hold of their music. It is now extremely simple to download or stream in order to listen on the move, and in a similar way it is relatively easy for people to record their own work to distribute directly themselves in digital formats. The latter situation has pros and cons; it does mean that artists can remain truer to their own creative integrity without having to modify things to satisfy the opinions of record company executives who control the purse strings, on the other hand it does mean that there is much more to trawl through in order to find the ‘diamonds in the dirt’!
We even have a specific term to consider, ‘format shifting’; with the advent of multiple listening platforms there is a need to ensure that people who are prepared to pay for legal copies of their music acquisitions can freely utilise digital technology to enable them to routinely convert formats as required for their own personal convenience.
Whilst most of my new music reaches me and is played electronically nowadays I still have a ‘soft spot’ for physical copies and will occasionally buy physical copies even if I have the electronic version. There is something magical about being able to pick up and ‘feel’ a 12” vinyl and savour the graphic design wonders of gate-fold sleeves, printed liners and other assorted inserts. In years to come I can’t really imagine anybody looking longingly at a file name in a list on a computer screen and reminiscing about the first mp3 track that they downloaded!
I mentioned a radio show where I discussed these issues with Kyle; during that programme I enlisted the ‘help’ of Southend-on-Sea’s Theoretical Girl to provide the music. Much as I love Theoretical Girl’s music, there was a very particular reason for selecting her music as the soundtrack for the programme.
I chose Theoretical Girl specifically as I have a number of different versions of her album ‘Divided’, and I thought the order in which I had bought them was rather appropriate for the show.
1 – I downloaded the album from i-tunes and burned the tracks to a CD so that I could listen in the car as I drove to see her play live in Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh. The venue had been a regular pub haunt for me back in the mid 1970s but this was to be my first visit in over thirty years.
2 – I subsequently sourced an official release CD.
3 – My next purchase was a pre-release DJ copy of the CD bought from e-bay.
4 – To mark the first anniversary of the release of the album, a limited edition 12” vinyl edition was released by Soft Power Records, a small Scottish label – having gone this far I simply had to get a copy!
5 – Following the Japanese earthquake / tsunami / nuclear accident, a white label test pressing was put up for auction to help raise money to go towards the disaster relief fund; well, it was obvious that I was going to put in a bid – I was lucky enough to get it.
Hence, with the exclusion of cassettes and eight-tracks, my purchases of the album pretty much represented a reverse of the development of music formats over the years.
Bottom line: I don’t really care too much what the format is as long as the music is good I will be happy to listen and will do whatever I can to include deserving artists in my radio shows.