Tag Archives: Listening to music

How Mobile Music Became the Norm

With the advent of smart(er) phones and tiny mp3 players, there is ample opportunity to listen to music when you are away from home, wherever you are. In fact, we are quickly approaching a time when everyone will have access to “music on the move” whether they choose to listen or not. If you get a new phone these days, unless you make a concerted effort, it will more than likely come with a media player. You can then add tunes from your PC (so-called side loading), download mp3’s you can purchase or stream music to the device. And the chances are that you didn’t even get the phone with music in mind.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this – I remember a time when deciding to take your music “on the road” with you was a bit of a chore and made you stand out as a bit “different”.

I got my first Walkman (great branding that – it wasn’t a Sony Walkman of course, they were far too expensive for me, it was a clone) when I was about 13. For younger readers, it may seem a bit weird now, but these were essentially portable tape players. They became pretty small in to the early 1990’s, but fundamentally couldn’t get any smaller than the media you played on them, i.e. cassette tapes. Still, they were small enough to put in a coat pocket. They came with headphones. Yes, “head” phones. In-ear? not invented. These headphones consisted of two rather large foam-covered speakers held together with a piece of aluminium that, erm, went over your head. This made you stand out a bit. Another limitation was that you had to carry around the tapes you wanted to play. Not your 40,000 songs on your iPod – an album per tape was the norm, unless you made up a compilation (which, to add a bit of variety, almost everyone did). Then the device had to be powered. Charged via the mains? Nope – with batteries that didn’t last more than a couple of weeks of pretty light playing.

So, you see, there were obstacles to mobile music back then – but to us it still seemed revolutionary. It didn’t matter that the music was bathed in “hiss” (if you had Dolby B or C “noise reduction” or chrome or metal tapes (I’m not making this up!) the hiss was reduced a bit.) Or that the tape could get eaten up and mangled by the player at any time. Or that you couldn’t skip tracks (that hadn’t been invented either). Or that if you left the tape in the sun, or in a car, or actually anywhere where it could get hot, you ruined the music. Or that if you actually walked with a “Walkman” the music used to “judder” due to the unit being moved. Or that the headphones usually stopped working after about three months of use. Oh no, this was amazing stuff. If you were lucky or rich, your Walkman (clone) would have mysterious switches – Dolby B and C as mentioned above and one to choose the type of tape you were playing – metal, chrome or “normal” (imagine a marketing exec ALLOWING a version of a product to be labelled “normal” these days). Some, even had graphic equalisers, which were sort of a nerd’s revenge – fundamentally sliders that altered the bass and treble of the music that were labelled with unbelievably complex “frequency information” that no one understood.

The Walkman evolved, of course – it was superseded by the Discman – the same concept, but with Compact Discs. This was a little like taking the wheel and making it 50p shaped. carrying tapes around was annoying. Carrying CDs? Well, I didn’t see many with Discmans….

I would love to know how many people listen to music on the go now and how many had Walkmans back in the day. I assume that the benefits of the iPod and like have enticed millions that never would have put up with all the kerfuffle of owning a Walkman. And, as mentioned at the start of this post, smartphones have made music on the go just another add-on.

Still, the  enjoyment of listening to some crap 80’s music on a Walkman did give you a sense of achievement – even if you did stand out.

Your five seconds are up

Staring at my shelves of CDs and vinyl (recently culled – It was vicious and I do feel a bit reborn, thanks for asking) I was wondering if the shiny new world of always available, always on, always there and almost always free music that has been unleashed in recent times via illegal (file sharing) and legal (Spotify) means has fundamentally changed they way we get “into” music. I was looking at certain CDs and picked out a couple that I hadn’t heard in a while (probably a number of years) and got an urge to give them a spin (the albums, incidentally, were REM’s Reveal and New Order’s Technique).

Nothing strange in this, but it set of a chain of thought that reminded me of a term that I haven’t heard of for a while – “it’s a grower”. This term was given to albums that might take a bit of time to get under your skin and become an essential part of your collection. I think this new landscape has changed this concept forever.

I guess it is all down to a couple of things – what we invest in music (i.e. our money) and the mindset to repeat play something. The former has certainly reduced for the vast majority of people as access to new music has exploded – no longer do you need to wait for a track that your mate has raved about to advantageously appear on the radio or (naughty) be given to you on a cassette or by other means. You can pretty much find anything on the web for free now – Spotify and MySpace has made this the way ahead. But this mass availability may have eroded the latter of my points. In the old days, if you spent the equivalent of around £20 on an album/CD, you probably gave it a while to impress you. This is where tracks/albums/artists that were “growers” had a chance. If the album/CD in question really didn’t do it for you, it was off to Record and Tape Exchange to try to get some cash back for it.

But what of the new Warholesque world? Will time-poor people with almost immediate access to millions of songs give something a chance? I’m not so sure. I think that they will probably move on to the next thing. Maybe it fits with the modern world – I, for one, love the new landscape – I was never really an albums person and used to make loads of mix tapes. Today the best way of getting “in someone’s head” is more than likely to be included in an advertising campaign, be on MTV/radio loads and even aligned to a brand. Maybe it is a good thing; I personally have loads of albums that have maybe two or three good tracks and seven fillers – people going forward are just not going to put up with this. Will it push quality up? maybe, maybe not.

But the cream will always rise – it just might not grow in future.

Will this Apple change its Spot(s)ify?

So Spotify has unveiled its iPhone app. And as you probably know, unveiling an iPhone app is a big deal for any company – because the iPhone is the most important “platform” since the IBM PC came ambling along in 1981. The “phone” bit of iPhone is almost unimportant now. What Apple did was use the phone bit cunningly so we’d all go and by cool handheld computers – all a bit Tomorrow’s World (for those that remember). Maybe Apple will finally get us all whizzing around on jetpacs by pretending they are phones as well.

Anyway, this Spotify app is a big deal as it allows you take the Spotify experience on the road. It’ll also cost you – it is only going to be available to those that sign-up to the Spotify premium service at £9.99 a month. The real killer bit is the fact that you can use it when you are out of WiFi or 3G range as it caches content. And I think that alone might just do the trick. See, Spotify was never going to survive on ad revenue in the current market with its current growth rate – it had to get people to pay. I know ads are a pain, but how many of you were paying £9.99 to do without them? Hands up? No one?

There is all sorts of speculation on the web whether Apple will clear it for the apps store as it is too much of a rival for iTunes and any streaming service that Apple may have been planning. This is interesting. If you subscribe to my view that the iPhone has become “the” platform as the IBM PC became “the” platform that launched the PC as we know it, Apple have to let it through. In fact, if they don’t, I reckon Spotify have provided a masterstroke by announcing it now and putting a demo video on its blog. This is the first app that iPhone users will almost DEMAND.

So here’s my guess. Apple will buy Spotify. Surely that’s a no-brainer?

Is confusion sidelining music lovers?

Before the advent of digital technology, playing music was pretty straightforward.

Vinyl played on every record deck – any vinyl made by any label on any record deck made by any company.

Cassettes would play on any cassette deck – same rules as above.

Even when CD first emerged, same rules again. Any CD in any CD player.

So non-technically minded people could easily work out what to do – buy a record deck to play records etc.

Things have changed now. In the early days of CDs, apparently consumers were getting confused that a 5″ CD could contain a whole album or a 5″ CD could contain a single of 3-4 tracks. Before CD, singles were smaller than LPs and/or ran at different speeds, so again, pretty easy to work out. So a way around this was to make 3″ CDs that were “singles” and 5″ CDs that were “albums”. They didn’t last though. You had to use a funny adapter in some players and couldn’t use them on front-loading CD players. The first bit of confusion had emerged…

Since then, things have got a lot more complicated. Different formats have appeared on 5″ shiny discs – CD-Video (which never actually told you what sort of player you needed to use – mainly because they hadn’t come to market – interesting marketing, that)  and CDi back in the late 80’s, DVD, blu-ray DVD, HD-DVD…. which is great for those that understand these things, but how can we expect less-technical people to understand that a certain disc would only work on a certain player? We’ve since had super-audio CD, DVD-Audio and formats such as DualDisc CD added to the mix (DualDisc even had a hilarious disclaimer on the cover – along the lines of “won’t play on all CD players”! – super format FAIL!).

So physical digital formats have taken away the comfort of a familiar looking format working on all players.

But that’s not all – non-physical formats come in an amazing array of types. Although MP3 is the best know, there are a plethora of digital formats – WMA, AAC, AAC+, WAV, Ogg Vorbis…. some are protected with digital rights management, some not, then there is the bit-rate that they are encoded in…. amazingly complicated.

So, is innovation confusing people? In pre-digital days a new format came along about every 20-30 years. Now new formats seem to pop up everyday. As well as sidelining big sections of the population, people are becoming suspicious of buying a format that may be old hat in a couple of years. The big shift from vinyl to CD took much coaxing and people genuinely believed that they were upgrading their music for life.

I think that choice is good, but confusion will accelerate the mass-migration to streaming services such as Spotify – people will rent music and not have to worry about what it will play on and if it will become obsolete.

What do you think?

A band is for life, not just college

There has always been an oldies circuit to some extent or the other, but the image until recent times was of bands from the sixties playing bingo halls and end-of-pier shows around the coast of the UK. The demand for these shows reflected society – when they were around first time, teenagers bought their records, there was no mass media (let alone multimedia) and no real branding. Many of the bands were slaves to their record labels and didn’t really see the whole thing as a career. As pop music had only been around since the late fifties, no one really knew how long things were going to last let alone the life-span of individual bands. It wasn’t seen as a career. It followed that most bands split after a couple of years, went to get “normal” jobs and when they were offered a few quid to belt out their hits between bingo sessions many did – albeit few with all original members.

How things have changed. With fifty years of pop music history and more genres than anyone could have dreamed of back in the sixties, bands now realise that if they are really good, get really lucky and have the inclination, being in a band can really be a life-long career. Whereas hardly any bands had a chart career that covered the 60s/70s/80s, there are loads that have covered the 80s/90s and 00s. Think U2, REM, Depeche Mode, The Cure – there are others to add to this list.  There are even bands that never really hit it big with the mass market that have been around for what seems like ever. The Fall, Sonic Youth…. There are many reasons for this – bands may bring out an album every 3-4 years and tour it the rest of the time and ageism has disappeared to some extent (pop bands were young in the sixties, playing to fellow youngsters – both got married early and “grew up”). However, the main reason for this longevity is mainly that people are buying music into their 30s, 40, 50s and beyond. It is no longer just a youth market.

And the sort of fan that may be still be buying new music by U2 twenty years after buying their first record by the band still remember those shorter-lived bands that burned brightly in their youth. Whereas those bands that had a couple of hits and then faded away in the sixties waited for Margate to come knocking twenty years later so they could play their couple of hits to greying fifty-somethings, bands from the eighties onwards have found that there are different opportunities for them, mainly due to this change in the audience listening to music. As nostalgia has grown as an industry, more and more bands are resurfacing for an unexpected pay day. more and more 30/40 somethings have disposable income to pay for tickets to go and relive a part of their youth whilst leaving the kids with a baby-sitter. To have hope of seeing the band of your youth hopefully they didn’t make too much money back in the day – the more they made then, the less chance they can be arsed to get back on the road…

Comebacks fall into several categories:

Big in their time, big again –

This area covers off some big bands from the eighties and beyond. Duran Duran have enjoyed a relatively successful resurgence, Take That have been as big as ever and even Spandau Ballet are back. Duran never really split and all members must surely be fairly well off – maybe they genuinely missed it. Take That were huge and maybe feel that they have some unfinished business, but Spandau are probably in it for a big pay-day.  The members hated each other a few years ago, so go figure… Even Blur are reforming, which is probably a bit soon for maximum impact.

Punk/New Wavers

The Sex Pistols were first there – and not very convincingly tried to pretend that it was an extension of The Rock n Roll Swindle. Yeah. Right. Others have trodden the path. Blondie came back with a number one single, which was a bit of a surpise and probably a bit down to nostalgia. The Police reformed for a huge tour…. smaller bands such as The Only Ones, The Specials and The Buzzcocks have all got back together as well. And when reforming doesn’t bring enough money, there are always the adverts (Step forward Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop).

Bandwagon jumpers from older times –

Seeing these young whipper-snappers making plenty of dough has brought out some bands from the distant past. Cliff and the Shadows reformed for a big tour for a start. Maybe their fans are spending their pensions. Rumours abound that The Kinks are going to reform with the original line-up for an inevitably big pay day.

Niche in their time –

Some bands that would never sell out a big comeback tour are using a clever tactic;  give the fans exactly what they want – the big album. Mainly smaller indie bands, the idea is that they reform to play an album that amongst their loyal fans is seen as a classic. We’ve Seen The Lemonheads do “It’s a Shame About Ray”, The Mission do more than one album from their past and The Wonder Stuff are reforming to play “Eight Legged Groove Machine”.

Who can blame any of the bands that do this? They make a bit of money, their fans get to relive their youth for a few albums and everybody is happy. It’s interesting to see those that have refused to bow to pressure or temptation. Two members of The Jam would probably walk to each gig to reform, but one is still popular in his own right. ABBA would make gazillions, but they argue that they would ruin the memory – and probably have gazillions anyway.

Expect to see others continue this trend. Leave most bands long enough and the momory dims and clamour for reunion rises – any predictions for who will be reforming to tour in 2020?

The history of recorded music part 2 – the start of buying machines to listen to ‘records’

So, the introduction of the fabulously named Phonautogram back in the 1850’s was the start of recorded sound – even if there was no way to play back the recordings. Fast forward to 1877 and Thomas Edison invented the phonograph cylinder, which was the first proper media for the mass-marketing of recorded sound. As the title suggests, recordings were etched on a hollow cylinder which was coated in wax (Tom had tried other materials, but soft wax was the best). As you could probably guess, these cylinders wore out after a couple of dozen plays. But what did the 1880’s consumer want? digital sound? (oh, they wouldn’t know of that of course…). The cylinders were played on equipment called Phonographs and they were the start of what became known as record players, that played flat discs that you and I know as ‘records’. Confusingly, until the ‘record’ as we know it pushed the phonograph cylinder into oblivion, these cylinders were also known as records. Well, they contained a ‘record’ of sound, right?

As in every format, standards for cylinders were eventually introduced when the record companies (which included Columbia, still around to this day in some form or another) realised it was better to have a uniform standard as then they would all sell more recordings. The cylinders were about 4 inches long, 2 1/4 inches in diameter and could hold around two minutes of sound. Amazingly, many phonographs included the ability to record as well as play-back – so that when the recording that came on the cylinder wore out, the owner could ‘shave’ the surface of the cylinder and start laying down some of their own grooves. Over time, improvements in the wax used and production techniques meant that recordings could last for over 100 plays (think of the amount of recordings you’ve honestly played over 100 times – that meant it was pretty much permanent). Eventually hard wax cylinders, which could not be recorded onto by the customer were produced from celluloid and are arguably the most hard-wearing and durable recordable media of the whole analogue era (lasting loger than tape or vinyl record). The recording time on these hard cylinders increased from two to four minutes as well. So why did the cylinder eventually lose out to the vinyl record? Well, simply, vinyl records were easier to mass produce and easier to store – you can stack a lot of flat discs one in front of the other in a rack in a shop or on a shelf. Cylinders don’t stack. Also, record players to play discs were cheaper to produce than those that played cylinders. So, due to the common themes of cost and convenience, the flat record won out and the cylinder finally disappeared around 1929. The flat record would be king for the next 60 years or so….

Two parties, two ways to soundtrack the night

Rather unusually I went to two parties this weekend.

The first, on Friday night, was for the fifth birthday of the company I work for, Beam Agency.

The second was the engagement of two of the nicest journalists around. The first was in a church hall in Exmouth Market, the second in a flat in Dulwich. Both were parties, both had music. But they did things a bit differently…

Friend of Beam, Nigel, DJ’d at the Beam party using just 7″ singles. Music at the engagement party was provided via a Mac Book (I think, I’m not an Apple-head, so this could well be wrong) that was plugged into a TV to display the playlists and available tunes, as well as artwork and other info about tracks. The two nights highlighted ‘the old and the new’. The first thing that struck me is that by using only 7″ singles, there must surely be the odd tune that is either very difficult to get hold of on 7″ or was never released on the format. Many singles over the last 10 years have been CD single/download only. But I guess the thing with using only 7″ singles is that it is almost nostalgic now – The ritual of bringing a flight case of pretty heavy vinyl, setting up a mixer between two decks, needing to physically place the needle on the record – it is almost comforting for those that can remember it. But I wonder if anyone under, say, 25 looked on and thought ‘why doesn’t he just bring a couple of iPods loaded up and save himself all that bother?’ I have a deck myself and a load of 7″‘s (and LP’s and 12″‘s – even some 10″‘s…) but I don’t actively hunt down 7″ singles as Nigel must to make sure he can keep the night moving along nicely. I can see the attraction of this way of DJ’ing and have done it myself in the past. But also, the benefit of the setup at the engagement party – the ability to set auto playlists by genre, put the thing in random mode, allow guests to browse what was available (no doubt a wider selection that Nigel could offer at Beam – he would have needed about 10 flight cases to cover off all the tunes. So I’m not really against digital-based music (I’ve had an MP3 player since before the iPod came to town) and the convenience is amazing. But as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I’m wary of this convenience somehow diluting the passion people have about music. And there was something nice about watching a bloke physically DJ’ing – it is a craft, after all.