Vinyl Dreams in the Age of the iPod

ipod-vinylFor Christmas, I bought my daughter an iPod.

My wife seemed mildly surprised that I would buy an iPod for a seven-year-old (eight in April), but I didn’t see where I had much choice. My daughter has already outlasted her first portable CD player, a SpongeBob SquarePants model, and I saw no reason to invest once more in a “hard copy” disc-based technology that will surely have all but disappeared from store shelves by this time next year.

It’s a bright pink iPod nano, and she seems very happy with it. I also purchased an elegant little iPod-compatible boombox radio, for her room. I loaded up the iPod with a “starter set” of about 75 or 80 songs, and we all managed to be content with ourselves until April, when my daughter started asking for a cellphone.

Still, though, I experienced a small pang of regret, even as I was wrapping the iPod and boombox in Christmas paper. See, I own an iPod myself. I’ve already encountered first hand how an iPod changes the way you relate to music. So I knew that my daughter will never experience music the way I did when I was in my teens and 20s and 30s.

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Some people have dreams about falling. Or having their teeth fall out. Or that dream
where you’re back at your old high school, dreading an exam on a subject you know nothing about, and you realize you’re naked.

I have dreams about record stores.

In my record-store dreams, I walk into a store and I feel that old sense of optimism and suspense. What’s new? What will I find today? Often, there’s something odd about the store. It’s a weird hybrid of a dry cleaners and a record store. Or a Motor Vehicle Department slash record store. Or it’s in an unusual place, like behind an old girlfriend’s parents’ house.

The records and CDs are catalogued and shelved in a peculiar manner. Not quite randomly, but rather according to an arcane system that I can’t quite grasp. I snatch up a recording I’ve been seeking for years. I can’t believe I finally found this! And over there, what’s that? Are you kidding me? “Live at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go?” That band never once toured America, never mind doing bar-band gigs in LA. And over here? Outtakes on the ROIR imprint? No way! Everyone knows those master tapes were lost in a fire in Belgium.

And on and on. These dreams are happy dreams. Sleepy-time wish fulfillment of the sort that we are rarely afforded by our subconscious minds.

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There’s a lot to be said for the iTunes shopping experience. Or Lala. Or some of the lower-profile music download sites. You can hear a 30-second snippet of every song. You can read album reviews from major publications, and testimonials from people who’ve bought the song before you. The sites themselves will apply their impenetrable marketing algorithms to your purchases and page views, and suggest other albums you might like.

As a result, I rarely buy a recording I absolutely hate anymore. This can be (and sometimes is) a good thing. But the sense of mystery, of suspense, of splendid endeavor contained in old-style record-store-shopping has gone missing. A noted music reviewer (Robert Christgau) once described the offhand brilliance of indie-rock stalwarts the Replacements. Their music, he said, is like “crashing into a snowbank and coming out the other side with a six-pack.”

That’s what record shopping was like. Even if, nine times out of ten, you emerged with nothing for your efforts but whiplash and shoes full of snow, that tenth time made it all worthwhile. You beat the odds. In fact, given the odds, you most likely had something that no one else had. You could lend it to a friend. Pop the best of its songs onto a mixtape for your girlfriend. Bring it to a party. Scout the music press and see when that band would be playing live in your area, usually at the bottom of a triple bill.

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I have much less patience with music than I once had. Part of this, clearly, is a consequence of age. I have a lot more on my mind, these days, than whether or not such-and-such band is completely “selling out” by letting so-and-so hip-hop producer remix their new single.

Music itself has changed. I was a freshman in college in 1980. I’m old enough to remember when musicians were aloof gods (Jimmy Page, David Bowie, Jerry Garcia), protected and isolated by music publishing empires, whose seeming contempt for the marketplace was the cornerstone of their allure. I can remember the last, tail-end years of an era in which musicians (John Lydon, Lou Reed, Arthur Lee) really were outlaws, of a sort.

All that is gone today. Records, like books, are no longer money-makers in themselves. They’re entertainment content, and their true value lies in their application to other media, in other venues. They generate revenue based on being inserted into movies, commercials, sports broadcasts, ring tones. So, in a sense, we have more music in our lives than ever before. And much less music of real consequence.

Finally, too, I use music differently. I listen to music at work. Somewhat quietly. I listen to music when I drive. Quietly, if I’ve got the wife and kids in the car; less quietly if I’m alone. And I listen to music when I run or hit the weights in my gym. Often loud enough to cause people to look at me in mild amusement or consternation.

I’m never sitting, perched on the edge of my couch, devoting my full attention to a CD as it winds its way through 11 or 12 four-minute tracks. Not surprising, given my circumstances. But the weird thing is, I’m not alone in this. Kids aren’t listening to recordings this way, either. And I know why.

It’s the iPod.

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Music doesn’t stay on my iPod very long. It has a short shelf life. I’ve owned two iPod minis, both of the 2GB, 1,000-song variety. I’ve never filled either mini, and I usually have considerable room to spare on the hard drive. I rarely listen to a whole album all the way through. And if I do, chances are, I’ll cherry-pick a track or two, convert them to mpgs, and move on. The old days, of having an album gradually grow on you, and reveal nuances over multiple listenings, seem like very long ago.

This isn’t because I don’t like music, or don’t own much of it, or don’t know much about it. There’s a room in my house that’s filled floor-to-ceiling with CDs on two walls. Even after dumping thousands of CDs (not to mention thousands more LPs) in used record stores and on eBay, I still own several thousand recordings, and many, many more in mpg format on my computers.

Even the tracks that make it onto my iPod don’t last long. I dump music off my iPod. Constantly. After a play or two or three, I find myself skipping a song, and then I dump it. Why is this? Because, I think, songs are ubiquitous. They’re anywhere and everywhere, whenever you want them. So, except in some rare cases, you don’t want them. It’s a variation on the old saw that your favorite song is always best when it’s heard on the radio.

Why? Because it’s there and it’s gone. It’s a finite, limited experience. It has exclusivity.

A surfeit of choice engenders, paradoxically, a reduction in desire.

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I can remember going to the record store in the spring of 1980. Cheap Thrills in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was a Friday and I had, maybe, sixty dollars burning a hole in my pocket. At that time, twenty hours times the $3.35-an-hour minimum wage, minus taxes, left you with about $60.

After much pained deliberation, I walked out with two records. The first, I can’t quite remember, though it may have been some Jethro Tull piece of crap. The second was London Calling, by the Clash. I knew nothing about the Clash, but I’d been taken by the dynamic guitar-smashing cover and bold graphics (which I’d learn, much later, were lifted verbatim from an iconic Elvis Presley record), and by the price. $7.95 for a two-record set.

Over the next year, that record became part of the soundtrack of my life. I wore my college roommate’s turntable needle to a nub with it. I angered people at parties with it. I’d come home after morning classes, wrap my roommate’s big bulky headphones around my head and listen to all 18 songs (19 with the mysterious uncredited track, “Train in Vain”) in order. London Calling became part of my identity. Clearly, I was not one of those heavy metal head bangers (this was the year of AC/DC, after all). And I certainly wasn’t a southern-rock redneck or (much worse!) a hippie.

I wore the two records themselves out in this order: Side 3 (Elevator …. Goin’ up!), Side 1 (The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in!), Side 4 (Everybody smash up your seats, and rock to this brand new beat!), and, finally, Side 2, (I’ve got my giant hit discotecque album, I empty a bottle and I feel a bit free!).

Sometimes, even today, on one of the first nice spring days in April, I’ll put that Clash London Calling CD in the car player and go for a drive.

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I’m not one of those anti-technology Luddites who fear and distrust every new innovation. The advantages of the iPod, I’m sure, outnumber the other, less desirable effects. I can still remember trying to run in the park with the first of the 80s-era cassette Walkman units, the sound wobbling and warping in my ears with every step, despite Sony’s vaunted “shockproof” technology.

But the magic? I don’t know. I’m not sure that’s still there.

In my dreams of the record store, the supply is limited to a few shelves and racks; the cataloguing is frustrating and obscure. There isn’t even a wise old record store clerk on hand. But everything’s a treasure and every conquest is mine.

I can’t ask my daughter about any of this. She has nothing to compare her iPod experience to. And I wouldn’t want to come off like one of those old fogeys talking about how much better everything was when everybody had to haul their ice out of the river and wrap it in river weeds in the old ice house.

Later this weekend, I’m going to upload another set of 70-to-75 songs onto Abby’s iPod. Already, the songs currently on there are, I’ve been told, really old.

I know just what she means.

Still, though, she loves her iPod. Maybe some day, my daughter will write an article, similar to this one, about the Golden Age of the iPod, and how great everything was before everyone had music chips installed in their heads and Big Brother (or Big Music) beamed the entire catalogue of recorded music history into your ears.

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5 thoughts on “Vinyl Dreams in the Age of the iPod

  1. My two nephews, 14 and 21, both love vinyl. They hang out at the Boss’s favorite record store in Red Bank, and sometimes even see Bruce and Patty checking out the oldies racks. Yeah, these kids have ipods, but thanks to my sister, they also dig the Doors and Zeppelin and the Beatles on LPs. They sit and listen to Dark Side of the Moon on an old turntable in their candlelit bedrooms, just as we all did when we first grokked Floyd. So maybe the trick is to get the ipod for the kids, but share the vinyl, buy them the retro turntable, take them to old record stores and wait for the magic to happen.

    • Jack’s Music Shoppe. I’ve been there many times. Smallish but eclectic music selection, prices on the high end (as befits a store where you can also buy sheet music or a bass trombone), big jazz and easy listening sections. Abby just took up the clarinet this year, and really enjoys it. I should take her there. I do most of my music shopping at the much more budget-friendly Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ.

  2. I’m beginning to feel like the Kevin Kline character in the Big Chill . . . someone who doesn’t own any music made after 1967. I think having Spin Doctors on CD makes me hip (but not hop). Then again, I am intrigued by Lady Gaga, who is like the love child of Trent Reznor and Glinda the Good Witch. But back to your original essay . . . I think the ipod has destroyed the sanctity of the concept album. Sure, you can listen to individual songs, but it’s like only seeing the smile of the Mona Lisa and not the whole painting. Nice enough, but lacking context. I came of age during the height of the concept album . . . St. Peppers, the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Tommy, and Dark Side . . . and each one, after a dozen or three listenings, left me with the same soul satisfaction as reading a great novel or seeing an epic film. If kids are only experiencing a crazy quilt of different cuts on their MP3s and not listening to entire albums, then they’re not doing the artists–or themselves–justice.

    • The album is mostly dead now, concept or not. Only a handful of oldies acts with technologically challenged fanbases (like U2 or Springsteen) can expect album sales even in the very low six figures. Newer acts scarcely bother anymore; its all MP3s and ringtones now. Even mainstream retailers like Amazon offer all new releases as individual songs via MP3. I had to drive up to South Plainfield the other day and I was inspired to put Dark Side of the Moon on the car player. I have an old Peacock Records boot of Pink Floyd playing Dark Side in its entirety at Empire Pools in Wembley in the autumn of 1974. They played a 20-minute rendition of Echoes as an encore. Good stuff. David Gilmour really carried them, live, in those days. Oh … and I wouldn’t mention that Spin Doctors thing in public. It’s pretty quiet here at the Dispenser, but you wouldn’t want something like that to get around.

  3. So basically life is just one big mix tape to kids today? Funny, cause it’s not so different from the 50s, when hip teens only bought single 45s, and LPs were for your parents’ Mantovani and Soul of Spain albums. And if history repeats itself, then we’re in for a major music revolution in the next few years. Maybe another Beatles, another Eno, another Zappa? Or maybe kids will start creating their own “concept” albums from different sources–if they haven’t already started. I know I always want to clump related things together when I make CDs.

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