Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Once Upon a Time in the Pre-MP3 Era

Gather ‘round, children, for a tale of the days of old when music came from stores instead of cyberspace. What now takes up mere megabytes on a hard drive or an iPod once occupied actual physical space – be it piano rolls, sheet music, 78 RPM records, LPs, cassettes, 8-tracks, or compact discs.

The 8-Track Era

My first dip into the music-as-consumable-product pool came in my tween years. It was the late ’70s and the 8-track had dreams of knocking the LP off its throne. The chunky tape owes its existence to the impracticality of blasting Ted Nugent from a record player while tooling around town in a Trans Am. There was a trade-off; 8-tracks erased the luxury of dropping a needle on a specific song or location within one. And while records might scratch, warp, or even break if abused enough, they never punished listeners with loud, annoying ka-klunks mid-song.

With portability being the 8-track’s only pro and me being a few years shy of the teen dream of blasting whatever I chose from my car stereo, I inexplicably dove into the album world via the 8-track. My first album purchase was a K-Tel various artists compilation called High Energy. While mostly disco *ahem* “classics”, it also inexplicably included Styx’s “Renegade”. Why this album rock standard was keeping company with Amii Stewart’s funked-up take of “Knock on Wood” remains a mystery, but it got K-Tel’s grubby hands on my wallet.

The Cassette Is King

With an eye on correcting the 8-track’s flaws, the cassette introduced fast forward and rewind capability and – most importantly – recordability. Now any tune that traversed its way across the radio airwaves was within grasp of any kid with a tape recorder – so long as DJ-interrupted or chopped-off song intros and outros were acceptable.

My first tape garnered me no bragging rights of growth in musical taste. People deserve forgiveness for their first, generally peer-influenced and therefore often dubious, musical purchases. However, my pass had expired by the time I plunked down change for the Xanadu soundtrack, by Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra. Even ONJ and ELO fans don’t hail it as either’s greatest work. Nonetheless, I’ll confess to still having a “you’ll-always-cherish-your-first-love” fondness for it.

It was during the cassette-dominated first half of the ‘80s, however, that my radio dial shifted from Q104’s top 40 format to the album rock of KY102. Styx’s “Renegade” was no longer the abnormality amongst pop-oriented fare, but the standard bearer. When my friend Nick and I plunged into the buy-12-albums for-a-penny record club, my first acquisitions included Styx’s Paradise Theater (natch), Journey’s Escape, Foreigner 4, REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity, Queen’s Greatest Hits, and J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame. They didn’t afford me the hip quotient of Elvis Costello or the Clash, but they were a step-up from the Olivia, John Denver, and Neil Diamond fare in my eight-track collection.

My college years significantly expanded my musical palette. My roommate Steve was buying Aerosmith and Deep Purple and I was taping the Rush and Led Zep catalogs thanks to Steve’s head-banging pal Blake.

Ah, but Blake’s was only one music collection. Every new person represented a new audio library. More than once, I drooled my way back to my dorm room with handfuls of tapes borrowed from recent acquaintances surely skeptical about ever seeing their music again. To all the whoever-you-weres out there – thanks for Squeeze, Violent Femmes, the Smiths, the Indigo Girls – all the alternative-rock oriented stuff that most shaped my music personality. And yes, I think I returned everything.

When I wanted to actually buy music, options were limited. With Wal-Mart being my college town’s only music source, I had to satiate my hunger with occasional road trips to Streetside Records in Sedalia with my fellow tune-obsessed buddy Mike, who also conveniently had a car (a Mustang with “Bad Co.” vanity plates, no less).

Marillion, Malls, and Music Exchange

My most important college-era purchase, however, was over Christmas break during my freshman year. That fall, Marillion’s “Kayleigh” mustered a fair amount of radio airplay on KY. I was intrigued by the song, but hesitant to shell out the dough for the whole album. After all, these were pre-Internet days. There was no surfing to hear track samples. There weren’t used-CD stores for test spinning discs via in-store players. One had only the radio and friends to rely on – and if neither of them were playing it, you were out of luck.

However, taking the plunge was softened by my giddiness about being back on my home turf where I could shop at multiple music stores under one roof (kids, they called them malls – they’re now nearly as extinct as the 8-track). Having some Santa stocking money to blow made the art work of the song’s parent album, Misplaced Childhood, even more appealing. Just what was inside this painting of a barefoot kid in a military jacket surrounded by a rainbow, a magpie, and a poppy flower? Well, when I plunked my cash on the Camelot counter, I took the leap into what became my favorite album of all-time.

Obviously, not every risk has paid off so swimmingly. I’ve nabbed my share of duds that gathered dust on the shelf until eventual banishment to the discard pile. Still, even they resulted in fond memories. The artsy part of town that housed most of Kansas City’s bars also offered up the metro area’s best options for purchasing used music. I’d traipse down to Westport, usually with Steve #2 (so named here to distinguish him from Steve #1, my college roommate), to trade my cast-offs in hopes of venturing home with a new batch of listening treasures.

Steve #2 was quite the sport to tolerate my obsessive need to hit not one, but several stores on each spree. Music Exchange was a given, but there were other shops to hit as well. Steve #2 also patiently endured my methodical search through everything from A to Z. I often left with a dozen or more tapes. I might grab up four or five Sammy Hagar or Bob Seger albums, not because I wanted their complete discographies, but because I was trying to compile anthologies. Once I’d recorded the requisite tunes on to my own greatest-hits collection, back to the discard pile the source material went.

The Dawn of the Disc

I treaded reluctantly into the CD age. As music collectors can attest, there’s nothing quite so maddening as having to overhaul one’s music library to stay technologically current. My first venture into the world of discs was with Marillion’s 1987 album Clutching at Straws, the follow-up to Misplaced Childhood. I didn’t actually own a CD player, but had to have the bonus track not on my cassette version. Thankfully, the Steve who lived across the hall (Steve #3 for those keeping track), let me listen on his CD player.

Needless to say, it was far from my final CD. In my post-collegiate twenty-something years, I became a disc fiend. What used to be pilgrimages to Westport were now weekly treks to Disc Traders (often right after a trip to the library to read up on new releases in Billboard magazine). I was a regular on a first-name basis with the staff and bought more than a few of their recommendations. Thanks, Dan! Thanks, Saul!

A dozen years and over a thousand CDs later, I welcomed the new millennium as a newlywed and a thirty-something. I was now supposed to limit my music spending to only a handful of albums a year, and all by artists I’d first heard 20 years ago. However, music obsession trumps age and I continued to spend every bit of leisurely cash on music by new and established artists.

The Revolution Will Be Converted to MP3 Files

Another music revolution accompanied my life changes. This time, however, it came not at the hands of big-time record execs, but college student and computer programmer Shawn Fanning. The recording industry tried desperately to put the Napster genie back in the bottle. The same companies who shamelessly milked the record-buying public through the LP, 8-track, cassette, and CD eras now made the brilliant move of suing their customer base for illegal downloading and copyright infringement. This was the kind of PR nightmare that made the makers of New Coke breathe sighs of relief that finally, for the first time since 1985, someone else could be the brunt of all the worst-marketing-moves-ever jokes.

I expanded my music library by leaps and bounds. Initially, I burned my legal and ill-gotten booty onto disc (a Clapton in the ‘90s collection was the first CD I made). Eventually, though, the reality of the new age dawned on me and my computer hard drive now houses more music (35,497 songs as of this writing) than my wall of CDs.

What’s next? A card that fits in your wallet that lets you access your entire collection anywhere you go? Music on-demand just by thinking a tune and having it play in your brain? Who knows. But I’ll be ready to overhaul my collection again when the time comes.


  1. Amazing post. It sounds like we went through the same journey. I remember Gene Simmons' 1978 solo CD on our 8-track player. Later, a friend's brother went to the Army and gave me all his 8-tracks. That introduced me to the Police (Zenyatta Mondatta) and Van Halen (I & II). Cassettes were awsome and then CDs. I got into music reviewing in college which has resulted in a lot of CDs and cassettes and yes, a few records, finding their way to my mailbox. I like the idea of a card that fits in your wallet. I just bought a 100 GB HD for my MP3s and I see that lasting for... a while!

  2. Yes, I would guess that roughly anyone who loves music and was born in the later part of the baby boom and the early part of the X generation has similar experiences. My hope is that my blog entries aren't just personal comments, but experiences relatable to others. Thanks for the comment!

    P.S. Not sure who "prhmusic" is, but if you aren't already, you might want to become a fan of my Facebook page ( where I regularly post things like best-of lists and links to album reviews and videos in celebration of musicians' birthdays.