Some of us still have shelves of it, some download it, others stream it online. Simon O'Hagan spends a week with each of the main ways of consuming music in 2012...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2012
They are adjoining houses in a quiet street in west London. The occupants of both homes like their music, but the ways they consume it differ radically. In one house, the music has no physical dimension. The couple who live there own no records, no CDs, no cassettes. In every room they have built-in speakers and a Sonos box, which they switch on from their phones or their iPad. They subscribe to Spotify, the music-streaming service, and say that they now listen to ten times as much music as before. Their priority is a clutter-free home. Music that comes out of thin air—that drifts into their lives, that doesn’t have to be taken down from a shelf—is just fine. When they gave a party for their son’s second birthday in the local church hall, they had to borrow a CD player for Pass the Parcel.
Next door is the polar opposite. The house contains 150,000 LPs, kept in a specially designed basement. Their owner is a DJ who has made a career out of his enthusiasm. He uses the internet to find music too, but his devotion is to these records. And they aren’t relics. They live and breathe and get played—just as music used to be.
This tale of two households shows how drastically the music landscape has changed in 20 years or so. Although, in one sense, the thin-air couple have gone for the simpler option, in another their set-up embodies all that is bewildering about the process by which we now imbibe our sounds of choice. Their neighbour’s approach raises a different question: has the technological revolution brought losses as well as gains?
Most people are somewhere between the two extremes. If you came of musical age by, say, 1980, and possess an ounce of sentiment, you’ll still own some vinyl. And though they’re much harder to love, you probably still have some cassettes lying around too. CDs, which blew those two formats away in the 1990s, will form the bedrock of your physical collection. And then there will be all your digital music —what’s on your iPod, and the infinity waiting to be clicked on online.
There are now so many ways to experience music that it’s hard to get your head round them all. Aware that different technologies were providing different sensations, indeed changing our relationship with music, I put a series of them to the test, from vinyl and CDs to MP3 and music-streaming. And I’d try and find time for this rather good thing called the radio.
Are some methods better than others? What exactly do they all involve? How much do they cost? Where—practically, emotionally, financially—does the value lie?