Many of us of a certain age remember the “day the music died” when Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper’s plane crashed. Or if not the actual day we get the reference that was most notably chronicled in the song “American Pie” by Don McLean. But there is another day that is harder to pin down, when digital music finally took over and we never looked back on CDs, cassettes, 8 track tapes and vinyl. I put that date somewhere around 1999-2000, depending on how old you were and how much analog music you had already collected by then.
It certainly has been an amazing period of time when you recall what music was like back in the day before all the iThings came along. For the most part it has been a mixed bag. Here are five mega-trends to consider.
1. Music is more mobile. Back then we had separate rooms of our homes where we could listen to music, and only in those rooms. The notion of carrying most of your music collection around in your pocket was about as absurd as Maxwell Smart’s shoe-phone. We had separate radio stations with different music formats too that helped with discovering new music, and would carry recordings to our friends’ homes to play on their expensive stereos. Stereos were so named because they had two speakers the size of major pieces of furniture.
Just about everything in that paragraph has changed in 20 years. Having two speakers to listen to your music is so limiting, and you can buy a multichannel system for a couple hundred bucks these days. My iTunes music library has more music that I can listen to continuously for two weeks and close to 30 GB of files, and I am sure yours is equally vast. Songs that I ripped to the digital format are still intact 10 years later (I know I have some of the CDs around here someplace), and I can listen to music whenever and whenever I want.
2. The whole music discovery process has also been transformed. You can listen to any of thousands of tracks before you buy them in the major digital music stores. And then there are sites such as NoiseTrade who offer thousands of entire tracks free for the downloading (tipping is suggested but not required): it has become one of my favorite places to find new artists. Playlists make it easy to set up groups of tracks for every activity, something that you had to be a love-struck teenager willing to spend the effort for a mix tape, or be a DJ at your college radio station.
3. Sharing is caring. At the beginning of this digital music transformation was Napster. It was the undoing of the music industry, making it easy for anyone to share digital copies of thousands of songs across the Internet. While they were the most infamous service, there were dozens of other products, some legit and some fairly shadowy, which I describe in this story that I wrote back in November 2001 that shows some of the interfaces of these forgotten programs.