I press the Play button and the music starts, instantly available whether I'm sitting at home or out in the world. Every track is one of my favourites, personally selected from almost the entire history of recorded music, ranging from scratchy 1930's blues singers to computer generated sonic landscapes and from global megastars to one-hit wonders on transient local labels. Should a song not quite match my mood a quick nudge will serve up another, and so on until I either find something suitable or take the few seconds to select a specific track. It's good to be living in the future!
What's even more impressive is that this miraculous setup isn't some expensive audiophile system only available to wealthy nerds but the default option in most (even vaguely) modern computers. I've been a Mac user since the First Jobsian Epoch so for me it's iTunes and iPods/iPhones but regardless of your platform of choice there'll be a free app to acquire, organise, play back & download music to a cheap, (reasonably) high-quality mobile player. Unless you're after something particularly obscure you'll be able to find & buy it with a couple of clicks and even if it's not immediately available it's often possible to track down a fan group who can help out - sometimes by putting you directly in contact with the artist, a delightful outcome. In virtually every case if you want to hear a piece of music you can find & buy it within minimal effort and then listen to it whenever & wherever you want. It was not always so...
Although I have no recollection of a radio playing in my childhood home I assume it must have been there, even in my early schooldays I was very aware of pop music and can remember dancing & singing along to the Beatles, Cliff Richard and/or the Shadows, the Hollies and many more. When we (finally) acquired a TV set I could watch as well as listen, in addition to the perennial Top Of The Pops variety shows would often feature a performance from the pop charts and in the Swinging Sixties everyone wanted to be associated with the latest trend (although it was 'trendy' rather than 'trending' back then). An miraculous extra source of music came when my grandfather was able to procure discarded singles from juke boxes and pass them on to me, suddenly I had my own collection and could listen to them when I wanted although this did entail fiddling around with removable spindle adaptors and mastering my parents' radiogram. A taste of things to come.
Somewhere in this period we acquired a huge, wind-up 78rpm gramophone with a small selection of disks from many decades back, presumably as a bequest from an elderly relative. Rather than preserving it as a valuable relic it quickly became a toy for myself & my sisters and we had endless fun playing the polkas & light comic songs while fiddling with the nail-like styli, tweaking the speed adjustment control and opening & closing the doors to change the tone. In our childhood innocence this wasn't something hopelessly out of date, just another type of music. I don't know what finally happened to the old thing but I'm pretty sure that a few of the disks ended up heated over the cooker and reshaped into primitive frisbees.
In my early teens, bolstered by paper round wages and increasing pocket money, I started buying my own records. My first was Ride A White Swan by T Rex, a precursor to the glam rock explosion of the early 1970's and in retrospect a prime example of a simple song contrasting with the increasingly sophisticated musical landscape. This could be down to my increasingly selective musical appreciation or just whatever happened to be popular when I could finally afford the eight shillings, to be honest it's too far back for me to remember. My singles collection slowly grew, occasionally I'd take them round to friends' houses or the local youth club but mostly they were just for my own entertainment.
As the years rolled on and my disposable income increased I started buying more albums than singles and listening to more 'progressive' stuff than pop songs. Music became more of a solitary pursuit - I would discuss it endlessly with friends but hadn't yet found a social group who would sit down and listen to a whole album side together with the sort of focussed reverence that I wanted. As I started on more 'serious' music I found myself working backwards through the albums that had come out before I was old enough to appreciate them, making my own, highly unsystematic way through the explosion of creativity in the Sixties as I discovered the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Jimi Hendrix, the less commercial sides of the Beatles & the Rolling Stones, and many, many others. At the same time there were lots of new releases coming out: the German electronica of Kraftwerk & Tangerine Dream, the prog rock excesses of ELP & Yes, the emerging heavy rock/metal of Black Sabbath & Uriah Heep, and so on. It was a great time to be young.
The social side was developing around going to live performances. The technical college started putting on gigs, as did a couple of the local schools, but the biggest contribution came from the town council who organised (and paid for) a series of free performances in the park. I'm pretty sure I went to virtually all of them but the ones I (vaguely) remember included the Groundhogs, Pink Fairies, Arthur Brown's Kingdom Come, Hawkwind, Stackridge, the Bay City Rollers (really!), and Man. These sort of officially sanctioned events were ideal for an unconventional but not particularly rebellious teenager like me, real gigs with famous bands but cheap, local and not too scary.
When I went off to university I had to invest in my own record player for the first time - a cheap, tiny little thing that an LP would overlap on three sides. It wasn't the highest of fi but while I was living in small, house of residence rooms it seemed pointless to go for anything better. (When I finally moved out I ceremoniously threw it from a high window and watched it shatter on the tarmac below - a satisfying & cathartic moment). With new friends from across the country (and beyond) I made new musical discoveries, most notably the Funkadelic/Parliament universe of George Clinton and from that the world of non-pop funk which in turn prepared me for David Bowie's plastic soul of Young Americans & Station To Station. With the student union and nearby Reading there were more gigs around me and even more music in my life.
But it was moving out from university that produced the biggest change in my musical environment. I arrived in a shared house with what was to become the standard fittings of my subculture - a large, high-quality sound system, the varied record collections of my co-residents and the comfy seating required for serious musical appreciation. We usually owned a TV set but it was a small, cheap unit, the real focus was on the stereo. With two other music 'libraries' at hand and a fairly relaxed lifestyle it was possible to take time to investigate new bands, styles & genres, there was a good amount of crossover in our tastes - unsurprising for people who can successfully share a home - but a much wider spread of things either unknown to me or that I'd previously dismissed.
During this time a new format emerged - the compact cassette. This was never a serious buying option for me (the quality was notoriously poor) but the arrival of two new lifestyle appliances made it my first introduction to format shifting - copying music from one medium to another. The first device was a Walkman, a personal stereo system which I wore while out & about until the arrival of the second, my first car. Both required cassettes which in turn meant spending hours patiently playing records while recording them onto blank tapes, all the while dreading a jump, a blip through the mains when the fridge compressor switched on, or a mismatched recording level, any of which would require starting the whole thing again. The cassette was a convenient way of moving music around but it was always seen as a very poor substitute for listening to it on vinyl.
Despite its poor reputation the cassette did bring in one new innovation, the mix tape. Rather than just copy an LP you could make your own track selection and create personalised tapes for specific situations - for parties, driving, or simply to get rid of unwanted songs (it was often said that everyone who bought the Clash's Sandinista immediately made their own tape of the 'good tracks', although no two were ever the same). A friend who sometimes despaired of my lack of hip (an affliction that plagues me to this day) would present me with cassettes of his latest discoveries, it was through these that I came across early hip-hop (Grandmaster Flash), indie bands that I'd missed (The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain) and a whole host of others.
Another benefit of cassettes was their reusability, each reuse did tend to degrade the quality even further but they could be useful for transient recordings. By this time I hardly ever listened to the radio - DJs had become inane, babbling quasi-celebrities and most playlists were far too mainstream & bland for my tastes - but there was one shining exception, the legendary John Peel. His late night show was filled with quirky & interesting stuff but a lot of it didn't click with me so I'd often record a show and listen to it later, letting me jot down the names of songs I wanted to buy and fast forward over the rest.
Over the years I'd become something of an albums-only buyer but the arrival of punk and its aftermath brought back the delight of the single. This wasn't just down to the explosion of 'back to the basics' creativity but the emergence of small, independent labels like Stiff and, taking it even further, the possibility of home-producing your own records. Freed from the pressure to produce bland, radio-friendly 'product' a (new) wave of quirky, unconventional songs were unleashed, many of which ended up in my collection and bolstered my belief that there are many, many people with three and a half minutes of greatness within them. Playing singles was often fiddly on the fancy hi-fi equipment I was now used to so these would often end up on my own compilation tapes.
As the years piled up my appetite for new music slowly waned and for a lot of the time I was content to stick with my existing collection, supplemented now and again with new releases from bands that I already knew. The switch over to CDs came gradually, the convenience of the new format was very tempting (as anyone who's struggled with stylus alignment & record cleaning paraphernalia will attest) but the prospect of paying to buy my existing collection again was both financially and emotionally off-putting. Eventually though the combination of buying new releases, searching through bargain bins and a continuing decrease in the amount of music I was listening to reached a tipping point and my vinyl collection was packaged up and sold to a secondhand record shop as a job lot. A few rarities and treasures were retained (and in some cases transferred to home-cut CDs) but my record deck was retired to the attic from which it never returned.
The move to purely digital music started with my hobby of teaching folk dance. This had started with cassettes (the format of most of the source music in the early days) but had moved on to CDs as the technology advanced. At first this had involved sneaking into my work on weekends to use the new-fangled CD burner but quickly became a routine chore once such a device was available in any new computer. However CDs had drawbacks when used for dancing as vibrations through the floor could cause them to jump or skip, leading to the use of elaborate piles of cushions to, er, cushion the player or using 'CD Walkman' units with anti-skip features. Having already digitised the music for CD it was easy to keep it in the computer itself and start using an iPod to teach with.
Meanwhile my interest in popular music had been given a nudge from a very unexpected quarter - MTV. After moving to northern Scotland where the local TV reception was very poor I'd reluctantly invested in a cable & dish contract and had found that in addition to the familiar terrestrial channels there were now a bunch of music video stations that came with them. Late night idle viewing led to some new discoveries, notably the way heavy metal had developed into such diverse artists as Rammstein, Korn and System Of A Down but also in a general rekindling of my musical curiosity. Sometimes the songs didn't stand up without the videos - Eminem does some great comedy shorts - but a lot of the time getting absorbed in the pictures gave the music a chance to sink in.
Eventually I took the plunge and decided to go fully digital with all my music. CDs were ripped into my iTunes library and then sold or given away and my original iPod replaced with a bigger capacity model, eventually itself superseded with an iPhone. I was a bit apprehensive about having my music collection consist entirely of just 1's and 0's with no physical media to fall back on but my backup system is well-tested & reliable and in the worst case situation - the house burns down - everything would go up in smoke anyway. As with the vinyl collection I've kept a few disks for rarity or sentimental value and have taken the opportunity to get some of the LPs that I don't think will ever come out as CDs or downloads professionally digitised.
Moving over to downloads as my main music buying channel has meant dealing (mostly) with the iTunes Store which has been (mostly) a really nice way to find & acquire new stuff. Every now and again it gets confused and can't connect or play songs from the store but this is becoming less and less frequent, most of the time it's quick & easy to browse, sample and buy tunes. The 'recommended for you' and 'listeners also bought' suggestions are very hit & miss but they're often a good starting point for wandering through all the songs on offer and seeing where I end up. Being able to buy single tracks makes me much more likely to commit to an impulse purchase but if there are three or more decent tracks on something I'll usually buy the whole album and trim out the filler over subsequent listenings.
Another advantage of the Store is that you can redownload tracks you're bought in the past so if you change your mind over a song deleted in haste you can just grab a new copy - this is similar too buying books for a Kindle where once you've paid for the content it's always available to you, regardless of whether you retain a local copy. I find this sort of thing amazing & wonderful, a tangible sign that we're moving into the Information Age where the physical delivery of something is a mere detail in my enjoyment of it. Sometimes the material aspect is still important - I enjoy comic books which don't yet work for me on a tablet - or the infrastructure isn't yet in place - I still buy DVDs & BluRay disks due to bandwidth or obscurity issues - but for most of my listening & reading I'm happy with getting the essential content as simply as possible. This abstracted approach shows up more & more in the modern world - I recently swapped laptops with a colleague at work by simply exchanging them and restoring from a backup, in less than an hour I had my familiar working environment on a completely new piece of kit. To say nothing of the magic of iCloud (and other non-local systems) where a note or diary date on my phone turns up on my laptop and iPad. But maybe this is a topic for another time.
Listening to more music has made me talk more about it which has led to recommendations from friends & workmates - in recent months I've discovered (or rediscovered) music by the Original Mirrors, the Len Bright Combo, Joan Osborne, Comus, Dr John, Levitation, Interpol, Shpongle, the Raveonettes and many others. After a couple of years I let my MTV subscription lapse (along with broadcast television in general) but the TV has remained an occasional source of new music through the BBC's iPlayer service, mostly down to their extensive coverage of Glastonbury, T in the Park and other festivals. There's normally far too much to plough through so instead I'll usually listen to the first song, something from the middle of the set, and the last couple of numbers to give a (hopefully) representative sampling. Acquisitions made this way have included Jungle (the band, not the genre), Poliça, Wolf Alice, and Warpaint. And my meanderings through the Aladdin's cave of iTunes have led me to Justin Adams (with Juldeh Camara, JuJu, and Les Triaboliques), Ian Boddy (& friends), the House of Love, Dragons, the Glitch Mob and many more, truly a bizarre collection of antiques & curios. Which is nice.
Once everything was in the computer (and iDevices) I used it in more or less the same way I'd always done - choose an album and play it through. But a small addition - an iPod shuffle that I used while cycling or travelling - proved to be the seed for a whole new approach. The little device only had a capacity of around 250 songs so once a week I'd use the Autofill function to load it with a random selection of tracks and set the playback to shuffle them, giving me a weeks worth of listening before the battery started to fade, enough for my regular cycling needs. At first I set up a playlist to use for filling the shuffle, sticking to uptempo & strongly rhythmic tracks, but this soon became a bit of a faff and I just loaded it from the whole collection. Now and again this would throw up something that I had to skip over but more often I found myself enjoying the unexpected juxtaposition of a drifting, ambient piece as backdrop to my sweaty exertions.
This random shuffle playback finally made it to my home system with the addition of a good quality iPod dock to my stereo, later replaced with a little Airport Express wi-fi unit that lets me stream music directly from the computer. A few tweaks to the organisation of my music library completed the setup - setting up 'smart' playlists to exclude things like spoken word and dance teaching tracks and to have a 'new stuff' list of things I'd acquired in the last month. Several of the albums include tracks that blend into each other which is a bit jarring when they're played singly so I regularly find myself stitching them together to produce self-contained suites, a fairly simple task with readily available music editing software. Now that I have a large capacity iPhone I don't even have to decide what music to carry around withy me - the entire collection fits easily and just needs to be synched after I've been on a buying spree.
Which brings us up to today. If I've recently bought something or want to listen to a specific track or album I'll go straight to it, if I've bought several songs fairly recently I might go to my 'new stuff' playlist but most of the time I'll just click on Shuffle and see what turns up. Depending on my mood I might skip over tracks until I find something that suits me but this is relatively uncommon, most of the time the system delivers a steady stream of goodies. The segues can be strange - going from a highly polished commercial pop single to a rough live recording of my current band can be a bit jarring - but this randomised sequencing brings with it a wonderful freshness and sense of surprise. By foregoing the conscious choice of what to listen to there's the chance of reliving (to some degree) the moment when you first heard a song and the delight at finding such a treasure. Rather than fading into the background the music becomes a series of seductive distractions, reminding me that this is actually the important stuff in my life and tempting me into dancing around the room or sinking into rapturous appreciation (luckily I have a working environment that allows for this, most of the time). Now that I can do the same thing with my capacious iPhone I've occasionally found myself becoming something of a public spectacle as I groove around, sometimes prompting complete strangers to ask what I'm listening to and in one case leading to a discussion of psybient trance music with a train conductor. Good times.
Familiarity breeds, if not contempt then at least reduced awareness. Since going over to this 'personal radio' way of listening I find myself rediscovering the glories of my existing collection just as much as the new additions, in fact rarely a day goes by without an old track stunning me with its inherent marvellousness. I don't have an exceptionally large music library - iTunes says I have 12 days worth which is about 400 LP's in old money - but not only does it provide a cornucopia of delights it implies that there's a lot more out there waiting to be found. Life is good.