'98 to '08: What we lost along the way

Donald Bell takes a look back at how our listening experience has changed over the past 10 years.

Photo of Sony Discman CD player next to Microsoft Zune 80 MP3 player.
If nothing else, we've certainly redefined our notions of portability over the last 10 years. Donald Bell/CNET Networks


In the '90s, when the MP3 was new, it was difficult to predict the medium's effect on the music industry and our culture. Today, the results of the MP3 revolution are starting to show, and I sometimes wonder what we won.

It's fitting that 2008 marks the 10-year anniversary of two of the first MP3 players, the Eiger Labs MPMan F10, and the Rio PMP300, but chances are you didn't listen to a first-gen MP3 player in 1998. With the first iPod still three years off, most of us were in the heights of our compact disc addiction 10 years ago, content to hear our music on portable CD players. Hell, some of us still listened to cassettes.

The Sony Discman pictured above belongs to me. I never use it, but I like holding on to it because it reminds me of how amazing I once thought CDs were. Sure, they would skip like crazy, get scratched, or even break, but compact discs were the first medium to usher in the idea of "permanent" music--albums that (if treated kindly) would never degrade over time. After a lifetime of warped LPs and worn-out cassettes, CDs seemed almost magical.

Today, most of us take for granted that our MP3s won't wear out or skip. In fact, there's tons of antiquated annoyances we no longer worry about in the age of the MP3. For instance, when was the last time you had to special-order your music at a record store and wait a week or more for it to arrive? When was the last time you wanted to hear an album you know you own but couldn't locate in the mess of your apartment? As the music in our lives has evaporated into noncorporeal ones and zeros, the troubled memories of acquiring and maintaining a physical music collection are quickly fading into the past.

Despite the advantages of the MP3, I'm willing to wager that somewhere in your home you have a shelf, closet, or box filled with CDs, records, or cassettes (maybe even MiniDiscs). Why do we hang on to these antiques? Is it nostalgia? Is it the fear of losing something we can't regain? Or are we just lazy?

Screen shot of Apple iTunes music software.
Programs such as iTunes perfectly sort my digital music collection, but also homogenize artists into a spreadsheet of flat, impersonal squares. As a music lover, I can't decide whether technology has improved my relationship with music or simply sanitized it.

Call it the MP3-era hangover, but even as online music providers are finally offering the DRM-free downloads we asked for years ago, I'm starting to realize that my fascination with the MP3 is starting to wane. As a music fan, I can't completely accept that MP3s are the end of the line. I won't be reviving my old Discman anytime soon, but I can't help but wonder if we've lost more than we realize in the process of virtualizing our music collections.

I want to hear what you guys think, but to start you off, here's my list of music listening habits I had in 1998 that for reasons directly or indirectly related to the advent of the MP3, have died off. Admittedly, some of these habits are also related to the difference between being 19 and 29 (you can decide which are which).

Borrowing music

I know this may sound weird considering all the P2P music "sharing" going on these days, not to mention music-focused social networks such as Last.fm, but I miss borrowing CDs from friends. Like lending out a good book, lending music used to mean the lender actually gave up something, and that sacrifice imbued the music with personal meaning. Borrowing physical media also involves face-to-face interaction, oftentimes leading to great conversations. The modern age of copying, uploading, and linking to music has allowed me to discover new music at a much faster rate, but those discoveries seem much less personal.

Album artwork and liner notes

As far back as I can remember, whenever I brought home a new cassette or CD I would pop it in my stereo and immediately look over the album artwork and liner notes. Back then, I remember feeling ripped off if a group didn't include printed lyrics, but these days, I don't think twice that most of my music collection exists as a grid of basic metatags. Sure I can always jump on a band's MySpace page or Wikipedia entry if I want to know where they're from, what they're singing about, who their drummer is, or what their album cover looks like at full size, but I wish that information was still a part of the "product."

Used music

I spent more than two years of my life working in a new and used record store in Sacramento, where used CDs outsold new CDs about four to one. Used CDs not only offered our customers an inexpensive way to acquire new music, it gave people who were bored with their music a way to put money back in their pocket.

Putting aside my nostalgia for used music stores, I think we forget that MP3s are the first music format consumers cannot legally resell. Maybe I'm weird, but over the past 10 years, I've been happy to find myself on both sides of the used music economy--selling CDs to make rent, and buying great old records at garage sales. iTunes has never helped me pay the bills, and aside from illegal file sharing, there's no way to put your MP3s back into circulation after you're tired of them.

Music as furniture

I've known people with CD and record collections that take up an entire room of their home. Personally, I love going over to a friend's home and seeing what's on their shelves (books, CDs, DVDs). As our music collections disappear from our shelves and become entombed in our computers and iPods, something gets lost. Sure, it means dinner guests can no longer judge your bad taste in music, but it also means that when you want to hear Nick Drake on a on rainy Sunday afternoon, you'll need to boot up Windows Media Player or scroll through your iPod. Personally, I miss having Nick Drake live on my shelf as a tangible part of my life, and I miss seeing friend's music collections laid bare for me to analyze and admire.

So how about you? What do you miss about how you experienced music 10 years ago? Has today's technology made you feel more or less connected to the bands and musicians behind the music you hear today? Has the shuffle feature on your iPod opened you to new music, or just erased your attention span? I really want to know, so sound off in the comments.

 

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