I am a musichead. Basically that means I am constantly listening to music of a wide variety, and I have a strange obsession with music in general. I’ve always been a musichead, so when I attempt to map out the evolution of music listening, you can trust that I’m speaking from first hand experience. To really understand how we listen to music today, it’s helpful to see how things have changed over time (at least my time as a music junkie).
Disclaimer: I was too young to experience much of the 8-Track and Record days (except for the recent resurgence of vinyl among a sub-set of the musichead community). So my history begins in the mid-1980’s in the age of the cassette.
Sam Goody, Musicland, and the Radio DJs
There was a time when radio DJs held much more power than they do today. These were the days when the only way to know the name of song or band was if the DJ mentioned it after playing a tune on the radio. I can recall sitting anxiously through a tune I was really digging, only to be left empty-handed as the DJ moved on to the next tune without a word. Those were frustrating days!
If you could get your hands on the song title, or band name, then you were off to a record store like Sam Goody, Musicland, or Best Buy to scour the racks of cassettes or CDs in hopes that the album would be available. If it wasn’t you were again at the mercy of the store employees to order it for you and call when it arrived (requiring another trip to the store to pick it up).
But around the turn of the century everything changed with the rise of digital music, via a website full of scandal.
Napster: Digital Music Pioneer
Back in the days of dial-up internet access, Napster came into existence, providing music to the masses for the first time. The internet also gave us the ability to search for the names of bands and songs. Of course this was still rather rudimentary, being years before google would dominate the landscape of web searches. With Napster’s piracy platform people could get the tunes they wanted. No more buying an entire album for the two good songs. You could just “rip” the two good songs and be done with it! But legal challenges resulted in Napster being a short-lived experiment, and while music piracy continues to be a challenge on the internet, the spectrum of music listening moved on to the next evolution.
iTunes: Buying digital music online
The rise of digital music faced one major setback in those early years. Regardless of how many tunes you could download on your computer, you were still stuck burning the tunes to a CD to listen to them on your disc player. The world needed a portable player for digital music, and after several expensive low capacity models were released, Apple blew a hole in the competition with the iPod. Originally released in 2001, just as Napster died, it wasn’t until 2004 when the iPod Mini was released that the product gained a large audience. And with the introduction of the iTunes Store around the same time, Apple had provided the solution to the problem with digital music. For the first time, your entire music collection could actually fit in your pocket.
The years that followed were dominated by the iPod and iTunes. While other MP3 players existed (most notably Microsoft’s failed attempt, the Zune), the casual user knew of only one MP3 player, and the iPod became the device of choice, and iTunes became the source for purchasing music. While this period of music listening was thrilling, it didn’t represent a major change in how we collected music. Instead of trips to the record store, or mall, we could access the music online. But, after the brief flash of Napster, the majority were buying their music again, amassing digital libraries versus physical libraries. And instead of walkmans and discmans, we’d moved on to iPods and other MP3 players, but the overall approach to music listening hadn’t really changed. But then came a whole new way of listening, something truly revolutionary.
Streaming Radio: Yahoo Music, Pandora, and Internet Music
We tend to take streaming music for granted these days, as the advent of smartphones has blurred the line between what we own and what we “rent”, but in those early years music streaming was an amazing new way to listen to music. Yahoo Music was one of the first services offered in the early 2000’s, providing a catalogue of music to listen to online. In 2004, Pandora Internet Radio was launched and it remains to this day one of the dominant players in Streaming Radio. The new piece of data Pandora brought to the market was the ability to create custom playlists based on artists or songs you like. This was the first “music discovery” tool, which would come to dominate online music applications. Now musicheads had an entirely new way of discovering new artists, versus reading music websites, or (gasp) the variety section of the local newspaper!
Pandora has been joined by other services like IHeartRadio, Rhapsody, and Grooveshark; all services offering customized music experiences for their listeners. Most provide free content, supporting revenue through ads, and premium services, which remove ads and bring additional functionality, like offline listening. Those premium service wouldn’t have been possible without the newest tool in the music listeners belt, the Cloud.
Music in the Cloud: RDIO, iTunes Radio, and my Favorite, SONGZA
The news is dominated these days by stories of hackers breaking into different retailers and stealing consumer information, which is only heightening the casual user’s fear about what exactly “the cloud” is, and whether it’s a good thing to use. I can tell you simply that the cloud isn’t something you can avoid, and the benefits of online storage (which essentially is what the cloud is) far outweigh the potential risks. Anyone who shops online is at risk from identity thieves and hackers, and using the cloud does little to increase your risk. So with that little diatribe aside, I can also tell you that the cloud is an amazing tool for music listeners, and not just for musicheads like me, but for everyone.
Smartphones are dominating the consumer marketplace right now, led by the iPhone, and a vast array of Android phones. All of these devices use apps, including music apps. Premium services from Spotify, Rdio, Google Music, and Beats (to name a few major players) offer offline listening, which basically means you can store the music from these services on your phone, and you don’t need the internet to listen to it. In essence, you are borrowing a library that can easily masquerade as your own music. I have used Rdio for almost all of it’s four year existence, building a library larger than my own CD collection through the service. I’ve recently experimented with Google Music All Access, which takes the library building one step further by integrating your personal collection with your online collection (all available offline).
I feel that these services have brought us full circle to the way I collected and listened to music in the cassette era. I have a large library of music that I can listen to on the go with a piece of hardware (smartphone/iPod). This is both good and bad. If 15 year old me could see how things are today, he would do backflips about having all that music at his fingertips. When the music discovery tools baked into these same apps were revealed, he’d probably have a stroke. All of these apps offer similar “radio stations” like Pandora to figure out new bands to listen to. But there was a problem with my hundreds of CDs, which I continue to have with my thousands of online CDs. It’s just too much music! And so despite having access to more tunes than I could ever have imagined, I tend to listen to the same ten albums (or playlists), which makes me feel like I’m still stuck with those ten CD’s that fit in the sun visor of my old Pontiac.
I’m a musichead! I should be listening to way more music! I could put myself in the hands of Pandora and tell them a band I like, but I’ve found limited results there. That’s when I discovered Songza. A more detailed review of this app will follow, but I’ll just say that through this internet radio app, I’m now listening to a wider variety of music and discovering new things. And for the first time in a long time, I find myself listening for the pure joy of listening. I’m not building a collection of music that I’ll end up so overwhelmed with I revert back to my top ten list again. I’m simply experiencing music of a wide variety of genres, and loving every minute of it.
The Evolution of Music Listening
We have come a long way from the day of DJ dominance and mix tapes. I’m sure people my age and older remember the days of listening to the radio with that blank tape queued up with the record button pressed, along with pause, ready to snag that awesome new tune (for free!) And while the ways we get our music and the actual devices we use to listen to our music have changed dramatically over the past 25 years, the goal has always been the same. To have the music you want to listen to, when and where you want to listen to it. To have new ways to discover new music, and bottom line, to enjoy the experience the music provides.
Songza has a variety of categories to determine what you might want to listen to, and one is “moods” (Spotify has something similar). If you’re Happy or Gloomy, Trashy or Trippy, they got ya covered. Feeling “campy” like I was yesterday afternoon? A couple clicks and you are drowning in Survior, INXS, Deff Depard, and other awesome 80’s bands. And that’s the pure joy of being a musichead. To be in a place, and have the soundtrack that brings it all together.
Happy listening to all you musicheads, and all you music listeners too. With all the options technology now provides, you have little excuse but to start listening. And soon you’ll be a musichead too.