Cultural Biography of Music Storage Devices

Published: 2021-09-15 00:10:09
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Category: Music

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Music has, is and will always be a fundamental part of how we live, associate and celebrate with people at a given period of time. Music evokes memories, it facilitates thought and is more often than not a prized possession, which is why how we collect and store it becomes an ever-essential part of the whole musical journey a person experiences.
It’s not that intangible files make us not think about music; it’s that physical formats, to a certain extent, encourage distinct, slower and emotional sorts of consideration. As it turns out, material matters after all.My Experience with Music
My first memory of having my personal music storage device is in the form of a cassette. Around 2008, my mother allowed me to go to the nearby music shop with a list of my favorite songs and get them made into a cassette. It took two days after I handed over the list of sons, for the cassette to be up and running. In many ways, it was my first personal possession. Music has the quality of being customizable and personal, something which is yours even though the whole world listens to it. The cassette had my tracks, in the order I wanted and it completely defined me.
Soon after, I started using CDs to add my favorite songs myself, without having to go to a third party to facilitate the same. I got my own mini-version of the iPod in the form of a Philips MP3 Player, which my parents gifted to me on my 14th birthday but even then it lacked the touch of the cassette I first made. And finally, I let go of any and every external music device since I got my first smartphone in 2015 after which I had a playlist for every mood and time of the day. Today, he biggest facilitator of the music for me is my phone and the Saavn music app but I often think how much, if at all, they define me.
Target Cultural Group
The analysis so conducted maps the impact that the changing mediums of storage had on the European listener. Specifically, the target is on the middle class and upper middle class European music listener, anywhere between 15 to 45 years of age, who was molding himself or herself according to the changing trends and inventions. This group was impressionable and the way they listened to music changed over the period of time. The older age group, post 60-year Europeans, was comparatively more settled in their choices. If they had vinyl records as their preferred medium, it was unlikely that they would switch to CDs or iPods just because they were the new trend at the time.
Thus, the objective of this paper becomes to map out how young and middle-aged Europeans accepted new music storage mediums, changed their preferences accordingly and what these new storage devices meant to them.
Before the record and the gramophone came into existence (1887), the only way people listened to music was social; the closest to a musical experience was playing an instrument either for someone or for yourself, or looking over a score in peace. You got to sit in a concert hall, if you had the money, seeing and taking in the music.
The first ever record was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. However it was in 1888 that Emile Berliner invented the first flat disc record, which came to be known as the Vinyl record. These records, made of vulcanized rubber were around 5” in diameter. Popular opera singer Enrico Caruso single-handedly raised the reputation of recorded music when he signed a contract with Victor in 1904. In 16 years he made up to $5 million from record sales.
The phonograph with the vinyl record
In 1889, Berliner’s discs were first marketed in Europe and it became the first big advent of audio storage devices. The Vinyl meant that the average European listener could then listen to his favorite artists, not just live, but also in the comfort of a bar or Phonograph Parlor. The Vinyl didn’t signify anytime access to music nor did it signify convenience. For the middle-aged, working European, it was just an additional way to listen to their favorite bands- new artists who hadn’t sung live up till then and classical operas which were hard to catch live. Since it was a new method of consuming music, it signified modernity and to some extent, scientific intervention in music. Soon, collecting records became a pass time and an obsession of youngsters. If you owned a phonograph, it signified you had class and taste because we have to keep in mind, the devices weren’t cheap.
The Compact Cassette, also called the tape, was invented by Phillips in 1962 in Europe. It is not until the 1970’s however that they became a popular recording device. The tapes changed music forever, not just in Europe but globally. When they first became popular in Europe, it was because they were portable, compact, cheaper and functionally easier to use, when compared to the Vinyl.
The most noted feature, especially for youngsters in Europe, became that the cassette had two sides- A and B- on which they could record voice, music or sounds. Thus was the born culture of mixtapes. It came to signify your personality- the music you chose to record was equivalent to sharing your emotions with someone. Popular culture music references started realizing the value of tapes which was reflected in lyrics like “So I don’t buy records in your shop/ Now I tape them all.” Albums in the range read: “One side what you like. One side whatever you like.” Sonically, the Compact Cassette was not a high-end invention and it was never meant to be. Instead, the company had succeeded in putting together a format for recording, storing and playing back audio that immediately made sense.
1980: Compact Disks
In 1980s, the first CDs came out, made by Sony and Phillips. In 1990, Phillips and Sony made CD-R’s which were Recordable Compact Discs, a function similar to that of the cassette.
The main edge that CD had over vinyls and cassettes, functionally at least, was that it was easy to handle, seemed technological and modern and in a way, was a fancier mini-version of the vinyl. The CD players and computers, though expensive at that time, were complementary to the disk and signified a new wave of gadget-savvy youngsters and listeners.
Till about 15 years from its inception, the CD overtook the minds and hearts of the average European listener. Most European youngsters aged 15-25 years at that time had the Silver soundtrack as their first purchase. It came to signify that they were modern, catching on to the latest development and changing their habits to be trendy. So intense was the effect that people started buying CDs of albums and songs that they had on Vinyl, which is also what led to stark rise in CD sales.
The Compact Disk: A trend that didn’t last long
But despite the fad and the hype around CDs, most non-CD users and market analysts realized that the CD was not here to stay. The CD signified synthetic consumption of music. It seemed like a lifeless thing spinning which literally took the music out of our hands, something that was earlier present in the cassette player and Walkman. It gave an impetus to the push/play and cut/paste culture. The Compact Disk seemed to lack the panache of the vinyl and the warmth of the cassette; it was cold, technological and clinical.
2001 and onwards: The iPod and the Mobile
In October 2001, Apple’s forward-sighted innovator Steve Jobs released a quirky new portable music player known as the iPod. iPod changed the way people not just listened to but bought and played music. The iPod was the much high-end version of the MP3 player but uniquely positioned since it could work only with iTunes.
The iPod made music the property of the listener. An average listener didn’t need to find a record and album he liked nor did he need to shortlist which songs to tape in a cassette or a CD. He/She had with him a library of songs, from almost everywhere, and they could choose what and how to listen to them. The iPod meant no paraphernalia, no extra devices- just you and your iPod.
The iPod introduced new features into the identity of the music listener. There was podcasting, a way of taking conventional radio commentary and delivering them in a downloadable format so that listeners by and large can hear it. Then came the “shuffle” feature which implied there are no big or mundane decisions to make about what music to listen to next. It became a reflection of individual personality. “What’s on your iPod?” entered the European and American cultural slang because it meant music lovers could have most, if not all, of their music library on a device as big as a card of deck.
The iPod laid the foundation for music to be presented on a handheld device, in a library format having increased variety and access. This was the proposition of all mobile phones which came forth after the iPod, in an attempt to replace it. Around 2008, people started integrating their music players in their smartphones. With advent of time, mobile stood for calling, camera and music- among other things. Today, it seems almost absurd to think of having a separate device only for music, thanks to music apps and in-built music directories in mobiles. Maybe that’s why the iPod was so ahead of its times, it stood for only one thing- music.
2010: The Return of The Vinyl
It had been almost 10 years since music was taken out of hands and poured in devices: seemingly colorful apps and systems where you could access as much and as many tracks and albums. But this was also the time when people started missing the experience of music. iPods and mobile phones were, at the end of the day, devices which were technological in nature. People now wanted to feel music, not just in their hearts, but also in their hands. As CD and digital sales declined in the wake of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, record sales were on the rise. In fact, the format had seen 260% growth since 2009.
Thus came the return of the vinyl. Millennials, not just in Europe, but all over the world started going old-school to physically collecting music in disks and playing them on phonographs. For the older generation who had seen the rise and fall of vinyl, it was pure nostalgia. Everyone realized it was lovely to talk about album art romantically, the collecting of hundreds of square-jacketed vinyls, running fingers over them, showing off the story behind every vinyl purchase and finally listening to the rough but sweet sound on the needle. As per LA Times, “ …they (millennial, hipsters or that most-coveted demographic, the millennial hipster) are deifying outdated things and repackaging them as contemporary culture.”
Residual, Dominant and Emergent Cultures
The residual culture in this cycle becomes that of the CDs. CDs, as a device, were the most short-lived of all. The reason for their rise had more to do with trend, than usability or emotion. When CDs finally disappeared from shelves and were back in the attic, no one missed them. The CD was always a technological trend despite its numerous functional advantages. And it can be very clearly seen that listeners of music always look for an emotional experience rather than a functional one.
The dominant culture is the digital wave which has changed music for us over the past couple of years. Musical storage doesn’t need a specific device anymore. The mobile has been the ultimate multitasker. Add to that music storage and streaming apps like Saavn, Spotify and even YouTube, it becomes a storehouse of favorite songs and forgotten tunes. This cultural shift is here to stay because as much as we miss music specific devices, millennials today love decluttering and admire minimalism. They want an all-in-one solution which is why the music stays in the mobile phone.
The emergent culture here arises because of the need to experience music, not just listen to it. Vintage culture made a comeback when people, especially millennials who were never around to experience long lost things, found themselves craving for age-old objects. Vinyl represented a love for forgotten times, a chance to display music, rather than store it on devices. It is difficult to say how long this culture of preservation of vintage things will prevail but for now, Vinyl takes people back to how music was enjoyed and they are trying to relive it.
In the journey of tracking the movement of musical storage devices, we see how with time, the culture of the European youth and middle-aged listeners starts overlapping with non-Europeans. In essence, initially we see that the way Vinyls and CDs were consumed and portrayed by Europeans was specific to their style but after iPods there is an unsaid generalization which may be because the whole world felt those shifts at almost the same times. So, how iPods were received in India and how they were received in Europe, aren’t so different after all. Music has and will always be an experience and not just a commodity. So wherever you store music, has a story to it. The story might be short or elaborate but it’s always there because music can never exist in isolation.

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