It’s a full two months following The Great Hard Drive Meltdown of 2011 and the lingering reminders still pop up at least a couple times a week. Most of what I’m missing comes in the way of music, through some glitch in my iTunes folders, as even having an external hard drive failed to prevent the loss of nearly 4000 songs. Rebuilding the library has been a slow process, not helped by the fact that a good chunk of the source discs I no longer (or never) physically possess. As I flip through the master lists and playlists that were saved I am taunted that iTunes has kept file information and cover art for all these songs but not the actual song files themselves. It’s like paging through an album of lost relatives whose voices you can no longer hear.
Despite the initial shock and frustration, I’m not angry. Not anymore. Among other things, the loss and rebuilding has given me a chance to step back and reassess what my music is and means to me. It’s forced me to listen to songs that have long been overlooked in the grand shuffle, forced me to reconsider random shuffling of music in general, to rethink radio and my history of and with music, and made me a little sad over the loss of the vinyl album format.
The LP, the long-player. Such a strange evolution, both in format and in experience.
Early recordings began as cylinders of wax and then plastic holding between two and four minutes of sound. Leading up to World War I cylinders and early flat disk recordings were equal but the format that dominated a good chunk of the 20th century became the phonograph record. Originally 10 inches, then 12, the early disks ran at 78 RPM and would hold one song per side up of up to 3 minutes per side. This constraint established the 3-minute song as a standard that still rules pop music today, to some extent. Collections of 78s were sold in massive books with pages consisting of heavy paper sleeves that held three or four or even five of these two-sided records – up to ten songs in all! – and these were called albums. By the 1930s microgroove technology made it possible for disks to play at 33 1/3 RPM and allowed for up to four songs per side of a 10-inch record, an entire album’s worth of music on a single disk. The two-song, two-sided 78 became the 45 “singles” that filled jukeboxes and sold to a hungry post-war teen audience in the 50s while the 12-inch album collections of 8 to 10 songs became the standard for popular artists. Jazz and classical recordings were the first to utilize the expanded spaces on albums though rock and roll in the late 60s and early 70s would fully test the limits of continuous play. The Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (or The Beach Boys with Pet Sounds, depending on preferences) first exposed listeners to the idea of the album as a conceptual whole instead of a mere collection of recent songs. The songs could stand on their own, but the albums were programmed with flow and progression and a grander sense of concept. Soon there were true concept albums, music with a theme or a mood intended for a specific effect.
I’m pausing here because it was at this point in the 1970s when music first entered my pubescent consciousness. It’s when I first heard many of what are now classic albums enter the world as new music, and perhaps why I find myself in recent circumstances mourning the loss of this sort of sonic development. Mind, this is not a nostalgia, but a sense of something lost as a result of our growing digital technology.
Leaving aside the actual genres (many of which will divide diehard fans on all sides) when music went digital we made two very large leaps that changed the way we used to listen. First, compact discs gave us seamless collections of songs for an expanded length of 80 minutes which doubled the space available on a single LP record. Second, digital players quickly gave the listener the option of programmability, to not play certain tracks or to rearrange their order so that they would always sound fresh. The carefully, sometimes artfully, artist-programmed album was now simply raw material for the listener. It falsely empowered the music lover to believe they knew better than the musicians which songs were best and which order they should be heard in. Digital programming encouraged impatience, encouraged intolerance, encouraged the entitlement of ownership. All of this control at the simple touch of a button promised to make every listener a DJ of their own custom music collections but instead it enslaved us to the idea of the infinite shuffle.
Shuffle is what we do, it is the current cultural default. It was so subtle a shift, but a sizable one. We got our MP3 players and loaded them up with only the songs we really wanted, mostly due to space constraints but also because the individual songs were more important than their original organic sonic environments. We put our player in shuffle mode and thrilled at the effect of always being able to hear our favorite songs, and in an unpredictable but not unpleasant order. Our iPods grew in memory, the diversity of our libraries grew, and we entered the era of the perfect and personalized portable commercial-free radio station. And when it came time to add new music, iTunes and Amazon made it easy for us to download only the songs we wanted. Musicians and bands still release “albums” of new material, and people do download entire albums, but the majority experience is still filtered through our library in shuffle mode.
Now here’s a nostalgic image, the kind you can see in movies from the 50s and 60s mostly. A person comes home after a hectic day, perhaps after work or some other activity, and they are transitioning between the day and the evening. They may be planning a quiet evening in, or may be getting ready to go out on the town – no internet addiction, no instant movie downloads, or any other digital distractions. They maybe kick off their shoes, make themselves a lovely adult beverage, and then go to the stereo and put a record on to play. Could be jazz, or some breezy lounge music, something cool and soothing to the soul. It could even be a lazy way for the filmmaker to get some music in the soundtrack to keep things feel like they’re moving along when little is happening. Then, as the album side ends, they either get up and change for the night out, or flip the record over, or put on a different one. Rarely do we ever get to see or hear the entire album side played, the idea is implied as a shorthand for what people watching the movie would recognize as a commonplace ritual: the conscious listening of music.
This is what I thought of as I internalized the loss of the LP.
Though technology has always defined and driven the restrictions and formatting of recorded music, up until the digital age I had this sense that there was a certain level of respect paid to the music. The reasons and the uses of the end product varied – dance music versus contemplative classical for example – but from the listener perspective the music was given its own space. It’s that space that’s missing, that conscious decision to settle in and let the music deliberately fill our heads, our rooms, our lives with whatever joy music gives us. We program our phones with playlists for the gym, we run Pandora or Spotify stations to play in the background at work, we play plenty of music as a wallpaper soundtrack to our lives but we scarcely give it the attention we once did.
Another image. I’m in ninth grade, I’ve got a pair of headphones as a birthday gift (mostly so I can listen without disturbing my brothers in our shared bedroom) and I’ve gathered enough allowance to buy a new record. I didn’t have a big collection, nor the means to build one, so any purchase had to be carefully considered. I won’t go into specifics, but there was this band (Pink Floyd) who had a new album coming out (Animals) and it would be the first new album they released since I discovered them. I had to decide whether I wanted to spend my hard-earned lawn-mowing dollars on an unknown album of music or purchase an earlier disk that was chock full of songs I knew I liked. I decided to take the plunge, bought the new album, and took it home. I listened to it intensely that first time, just listened. I played both sides then flipped back to side one and played it again, reading along with the lyrics. After the second listening I had to take a break because plastic-covered foam “cans” on my headphones had matted down my hair with sweat. I listened one more time that evening and then went to sleep planning when I would next have the house to myself in order to play the music loud, to hear what it sounded like when it filled a room and could pound against my chest and rattle the windows.
When was the last time I did that? When was the last time a new album of music came out and I just sat with it? When was the last time I listened to any album of music from beginning to end, doing nothing more but listen?
You hear things in music, your head fills with images and races with ideas. I feel like there is something in that noisy meditation, something that has been lost. Though we still have the freedom to listen to the music as it was presented that very freedom has managed to abandon the long-play in exchange for the short-gratification.
As I rebuild my digital library I am taking note of albums I haven’t heard in a long time. I have a mental list growing that I may need to write down soon. One by one I intend to call up those albums when I have the time and simply listen to them as I once did. Perhaps I’ll grow impatient, or my attention span will wander out of a recently acquired habit and I’ll divert myself with some chore or task. But I want to give it a try.
I owe the music that much.