Looking back, it seems like I spent unnecessary time in my teens hunched over my tape recorder, two fingers on the “Play” and “Record” buttons, waiting for my latest musical obsession to hit the airwaves.
For young readers, who would rightly wonder what it all means: Back to the dark, carefree pre-MP3 days and long before the streaming revolution – years before people were outraged because a new album of a multi-million-selling band appeared for free on their portable device – there were only two ways to listen to your favorite tunes until you were nauseous.
One was to go to a designated retailer and buy said song, either on a collection known as an LP (conveniently available at the top of the industry on your choice of record, cassette or compact disc), or on its own , as a single (or ‘cassingle’, if it was in reel format).
The other was to record it on a blank tape from the radio (or, somewhat illegally, on someone else’s record, tape, or compact disc).
The waiting game
So if you had a music itch that required scratching, but you didn’t want to part with your hard-earned cash (from your parents), it could be a tough ordeal to make sure your favorite music ends up in your possession.
This process would start with a landline call to the request line of the radio station of your choice, to make an offer for the track in question.
Then you would play the waiting game…
The waiting game, unfortunately, was not as simple as it seemed.
See, there was a certain “falling tree in the woods” element to the prospect that your song request would be heard while you were out doing whatever life had to offer.
So the deal was that you had to keep the radio on all day, with (as described above) two fingers balanced on the “Play” and “Record” buttons of your tape recorder.
If another song came up, you could duck into the bathroom or whatever – but you had to make sure you were back at the place before the end, waiting for that magical moment when the song your choice was announced.
If so, you waited until the last possible second to bridge the awkward transition between “DJ waffle” and “awesome intro” – at which point those two buttons were pressed.
And if it wasn’t, you were.
As I got older and technology adapted, finding your favorite song became less and less of a hassle.
Once upon a time, if you heard a good tune on the radio (or spied it Rage too late to catch the title and artist) the only way to know what it was would be to hum it endlessly to everyone you knew until someone figured it out, internet age ushered in a new era of convenience.
I remember the liberating exhilaration of realizing that all I had to do was decipher a line or two of lyrics from any half-decent track, and Google (or Dogpile, as was the style of the time) would determine what it was.
This revelation was a great relief for me. Not to mention all the bartenders on my premises, who were probably fed up with me asking them for the title and artist of everything that came through the sound system every time I thought it sounded good after half a dozen pints.
After finding out the identity of the song you chose, all you had to do was
download it illegally using a P2P file sharing site purchase it from an authorized music retailer.
And then, of course, listen to it.
That, after all, was the final and glorious endgame of those generations of toil – the spoils of the hunt.
And even that was an art in itself.
I remember a mate at the time telling me he calculated the exact number of seconds he needed to rewind G’n’R’s rocket queen so he can replay it over and over again from where he gets good in the middle, without having to listen to the average first half.
The art of the mixtape
Then, of course, there was the art of curating the ultimate “mixtape” (in simple terms, a playlist – but created with much more love and care).
As the protagonist of High fidelity once said: “Making a good compilation tape is a very subtle art…you use someone else’s poetry to express how you feel – it’s a tricky thing. “
Additionally, you must ensure that each song transitions seamlessly to the next, while respecting the limitations of the medium (i.e., if your tape is 90 minutes long, each side’s runtime must be exactly 45 minutes, lest you end up with an unsightly dead air finale or, worse – having the final track cut off halfway through).
Then, of course, the true aficionado would spend valuable time listing the tracks on the cassette’s hardback cover, crafting an appropriate title (ideally more inventive than, say, “Mixtape #15”), and even, if you’re really committed to the cause, painstakingly recreating the logos of the bands contained therein.
But then those mixtapes would see more airtime than most albums whose content had been stolen.
Even now, I often randomly hear a track I once had on a favorite compilation, and it sounds out of place when it’s not followed by the song I had carefully chosen to follow it.
But then a few years ago when streaming services started popping up with apps like Shazam and SoundHound, I felt like the gateway to musical nirvana had been opened and I was introduced .
After countless hours of searching for elusive earworms and constructing the perfect 90-minute expressions of my eclectic musical tastes at one point, here was a platform that would tell me, immediately, what I was listening to while I used to listen to it, then just add it to my music collection for eternity.
In the years since, I’ve added countless tracks – almost everything that sounded good to me – to my virtual collection.
And the thing is, I barely listened to it.
Not to sound too ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ about it all – ‘at the time we were happy because we were deprived’ and all that – but having the musical world at my fingertips didn’t increase my enjoyment of the music.
In fact, the reverse is happening.
This made them a fleeting commodity, something easily obtained and even more easily forgotten.
Those days of hunched over a ready-to-pounce tape recorder seem a bit silly now, but there was joy in the struggle and satisfaction in the victory.
And, of course, the music was better too.
This article first appeared in InDaily. Read the original here.