This week I decided to reflect on the many ways we can listen to music in this digital age. We’ve come a long way since the first recording etched on to a wax cylinder in 1860. In just 50 years, the mainstream way of listening to music has moved from vinyl LPs to cassettes to CDs and now to online streaming. It’s been quite an evolution.
This FOMM was inspired by a frustrating search for an album by Californian bluegrass singer AJ Lee and her band, Blue Summit. I was introduced to AJ at U3A Warwick’s Music Show, where presenters curate a list of YouTube clips and provide background on the tracks. This particular song was performed by the Brothers Comatose and AJ Lee, a splendid interpretation of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon.
On Monday I started packing for a week away in the caravan, part of it at the best music festival in Queensland, Neurum Creek Festival. This one has been running for 16 years at the Neurum Creek Bush Retreat, which is about 12 kms from Woodford. In preparing and packing, I decided to see if I could load new music on my Ipod, which is no longer supported by Apple. The problem is that as I now longer use ITunes, the music player I use can’t ‘talk’ to the Ipod. Mr Shiraz sent me a link to a piece of software that will mimic ITunes so you can ‘sync’ your music collection with an Ipod, a portable music player invented by Apple in 2001. Since Apple stopped supporting Ipods, many users have opted to put them in a drawer and move on. One alternative is to buy a cheap mobile phone, add a large storage card and use it as a personal music player.
I could tell how far CDs had dropped in popularity when looking to buy AJ Lee’s 2021 album, I’ll Come Back. I decided not to download it on Spotify, as the artists are paid a trifling amount when we listen to their music on that platform.
Subsequent searches found the album on streaming services, which was not what I wanted. I went direct to AJ Lee’s website and the only option was to purchase a physical CD and wait however many weeks or months it takes to arrive from the US. Then I tried Bandcamp (where you will find our music). Success, the album was there. I duly downloaded the album and now can listen to it on my computer, my phone and, once I get around to it, burn a CD for my ‘new’ 5-CD changer.
The CD player failed some months ago and I eventually established that the model was obsolete and a replacement laser could not be found. I opted for a refurbished model from a seller on Ebay. It’s a quality Sony deck and, so far, is working perfectly.
Before I went into hospital for a procedure in late August, I spent a day (dusting) and alphabetising our CD collection (450-plus). I told She Who Loves Order in her Life I had done this ‘so if I cark it, at least you’ll know the CDs are in A-Z and not filed according to ‘mood’.
As audiophiles will tell you, CD music is superior to cassette but inferior to vinyl, because the digital sound is compressed.
Vinyl music played on top line analogue systems always sounds better than both CDs and the alternative (playing or streaming MP3 quality tracks). The cassette, with its annoying hiss and tendency to become snarled in the player, is a long last.
Audio cassettes were invented by a Dutch company (Philips) and adopted by mainstream America in the mid-60s. My memory of cassettes is that people would borrow someone else’s tape and dub a cassette to play in the car. This practice was and still is illegal, even if retailers happily sold boxes of blank cassettes and high-end twin cassette decks on which one could dub to a blank tape. (The last piece of music technology I actually understood. Ed.)
Most of us have a couple of shoeboxes in the cupboard full of cassettes – legitimate ones bought in music stores, or bootleg copies. The difficulty now is that, for most people, their means of playing cassettes has evaporated. My tape deck worked for about 20 years. One deck stopped working and then the sound quality became so poor we decided to switch to another medium.
I did a straw poll among people of my vintage to establish how they listen to music (if they listen to music at all). Most said they no longer had a CD player (it either died or they found the business of swapping them over tedious). Most late model cars no longer come with a CD player, so that accelerated the decline in popularity.
Some people opt for a WIFI speaker through which they can stream music from YouTube or Spotify. How this works is you turn the gadget on and say in a loud, clear voice: “OK Google, play The Goodwills.” There is a pause, a whirring sound and a disembodied voice says: “OK, playing DJ Goodwill.”
Others turn on their smart TV and then search for music videos on YouTube. Depending on your cinema surround sound system (if you have one), the sound quality is OK. The database of video clips is apparently bottomless, but the quality is uneven.
According to Gizmodo’s history of the compact disc, the first commercial CDs were available in Australia in late 1982 (about 150 titles). This was a few years before we moved to Brisbane and bought a Technics stereo system for around $1,500 (it was on sale). We started a CD collection then and even today, I prefer a CD to any other format.
What is hard to stomach is knowing I paid $25 to $30 each and sometimes more for an imported disc. Today you can go to a charity shop and buy CDs for coins. It’s not about money, though. Our CD collection is special in that at least 100 CDs were given to us either as a gift or as a swap (one of ours for one of theirs) by musicians we know.
The Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) said streaming accounted for 86% of $565.8 million music sales in Australia in 2021. Over the same period, physical music sales dropped from $100.5 million to $56.1 million. Vinyl albums led the way at $29.7 million, compared with $24.9 million for CD albums.
A Roy Morgan research report in 2020 said 12.7 million Australians were using a streaming service. Spotify is the clear market leader with 8m customers, almost double what it was in 2017. YouTube Music is next with 4.4m users in Australia.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) concurs, saying 61% of Australians used a streaming service in June 2020, up from 48% in 2019. As you’d expect, 88% of the 18-34 age group used music streaming services. Surprisingly (well, I’m surprised), the biggest growth in online music streaming was the 55-64 cohort (from 47% to 59%), 65-75 (30% to 44%) and the over-70s (17% to 26%).
I confess I’m part of that trend, although this weekend it’s all about live music, coffee and a CD shop – the way it should be.