Monday, August 17, 2015

The Evolution of Music

Most of us who grew up in the 1990s fondly remember building our CD collections with mail order services that promised a windfall of music for pennies - and delivered. Columbia House was no doubt the most popular, however rival BMG kept them on their toes. This last week, Columbia House filed for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing unattainable competition from streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.


I remember back in 1993 or 1994, a friend turned me on to BMG. I had heard about Columbia House, but didn't really know the terms and didn't want to get over my head with an unreasonable commitment. He referred me, which meant he got another FREE 10 CDs.

I've always been a music hound. I remember when I got my first boom box for my birthday in fifth grade. It only had one speaker and played tapes and AM/FM. I also got Michael Jackson's Thriller, and another tape from Laura Branigan. I played those tapes non-stop. I got my first CD boom box my junior year in high school, with a CD from Bell Biv Devoe, and the soundtrack from Young Guns 2. That's when I REALLY started loving music. There was just something about CDs. I never got into records, and tapes were so easily ruined; leave one in the hot car in summer, and you could totally change the sound of the songs. Not to mention that, I don't know about everybody else, but I could always hear the tape playing, and I could always hear a little bit of white noise in the background, especially at the end of the tape. That really affected the overall quality of the music.

CDs were the thing for me. The sound quality was amazing! No static, no warping. And I know, some of you die hard record fans will contest the quality issue, and that's fine, I'll concede that argument, but you can't take a record in the car with you. You can't go to the gym with a record attached to your waist. It wasn't just the sound quality that hooked me. It was the technology too. For some reason I was always captivated by how a CD was created by a laser, how it had a prismatic reflection, and how an entire album could be written onto a piece of plastic that probably cost a penny and weighed about as much as a quarter.

It's amazing, the evolution of things. I remember having less than 20 CDs until after I graduated high school, because they were, by economic comparison, extremely expensive. If I remember correctly, I think a CD was somewhere between $12 and $15 at a music store, like Tower Records for example. But if you went to one of the big malls in the Portland area, you'd fork over upwards of $18 for just one CD. I just could never bring myself to do that. $18 in high school was a date:  a movie for two with candy and popcorn.

Then I disc-overed the mail-order music services. I first joined BMG. I remember going through the catalog, which was torn out of a magazine I think, provided by my friend. What did we ever do without the internet? I remember taking a while to pick my first 10. 10 CDs for a penny, or was it a buck? Whatever, who cares right? I remember it took like three weeks to get the first shipment. It was like Christmas! I opened that thing up, I couldn't even figure out which one I wanted to play first! And there were many more shipments to come. Once I figured out that the advantage was grossly slanted in my favor (or at least that's what I thought) I started Columbia House too. It was basically the same exact deal, almost too good to be true. And in addition to the boxes of CDs for a buck, they had specials:  BOGOs and other savings. I took advantage of the BOGOs that Columbia House had once in a while, but it was the Buy One Get TWO free deals that I really looked for from BMG. And once my initial agreement was fulfilled, I cancelled. A few months later, I re-upped. BAM! Another box of CDs!

Getting your favorite artists/ albums was great, but the real fun was the disc-overy part. I bought every album Nirvana ever recorded, and tons of other grunge; I discovered artists like The Chemical Brothers, Dave Matthews, Jars of Clay, Nine Inch Nails, Belly, Four Non-Blondes, Sade, and a metric ton more! I don't know what the per unit cost worked out to, I'm sure I did at some point, but it was probably less than $5 a disc - very manageable on a college budget.

I saw in my Facebook feed the other day that Columbia House had filed for bankruptcy. I was surprised - not that they had filed for bankruptcy, but because they filed in 2015. No one has heard from them since the early 2000s. BMG was sold to Sony in 2008. I still remember how Napster was all the rage at the end of the 90s. I remember that one of my factors for buying a computer was so that I could get into Napster. It was illegal "but everyone was doing it," - famous last words. When it shut down, millions of users were forced to look for other means to get their music. 

Then in 2005, I got my first MP3 player. Up until then, I just downloaded the music and burned it to CDs. It was a piece of garbage. And for what I had to play for the player, the memory disc, batteries and all, it really wasn't worth it. (Oh, and before that I had a Sony Walkman that played CDs and MP3s burned onto discs. But it proved to be too bulky at the gym, or anywhere for that matter) So I took the MP3 player back and got my first iPod. A little more expensive, but way more reliable and versatile. About that time I discovered iTunes. It was great; you could buy just a song or two or a whole album. And over the years it just got better. For years I bought exclusively from iTunes as the iPods progressed from model to model. Then in 2012, a friend introduced my to Spotify. It was like crack! I was hooked from day one. In fact, I haven't bought ANY new music since at least 2012.


Of all the various types of media I've seen in my lifetime, I'd have to say that online streaming has had the greatest impact. It totally changes the game., Before, we had to buy our media, manage it, store it, etc. Now, most of it is free, or can be accessed for a small membership. I still like the tactile feel of a CD in my hand, but there's nothing like taking my whole music collection with me everywhere I go, and having access to millions of more songs on the go as well. I try to imagine what is next. Maybe a cloud with every note of every song ever recorded that automatically connects to any device? Maybe it's no longer a choice and comes bundled with other services. Music, all music that is, becomes ubiquitous. You just tune in.