Taking a musical ride through the annals of obsolete technology

Jul 21, 2011

Until about 120 years ago, if there was music, an actual person was playing it. There weren’t rock stars and music heroes, because there weren't machines to reproduce music and radios to broadcast it.

But technology has not only changed music, it's also changed our relationship to it ... not always for the better of the music.

Vinyl records and radio allowed for the development of a sub-culture known as “popular music." You know – Elvis, the Beatles, The Butthole Surfers.

Playing a vinyl record was more of an elaborate deal, requiring several steps along the way — selecting the album, removing it from cover and sleeve, placing it on the turntable, cleaning it and setting the needle down.

Listening to an LP was more of an event, something often done in groups. Changing records was more complicated, and we were more likely to listen to a full album side, 5 or 6 songs, than to change it after one song. A sizable portion of our furniture might be a stereo system and loudspeakers.

Cassettes came along next, with the added values of portability via Walkman, and the ability to make “mix tapes." It was easy to be your own dj. Now individual songs became more important than album sides. We started wearing headphones and blocking out the world. Conversely, it was also the era of “boom boxes” where cassette players blasted music at high volume to the world.

Compact Discs upped the audio quality, but also marked the height of corporate control of the music industry. CDs were expensive and you couldn’t make your own “bootleg” recordings.

Now we’re in the digital age where music actually sounds better than ever, but most listening is done on lo-fi laptops or ear buds. Music content is more accessible than it has ever been, and more people are actively engaged in making music than ever before.

Now everyone has the chance to be a rock star, if only for 15 of their friends. We kind of miss vinyl.