I missed the era of vinyl. Before I was really aware of music, the world had shrunk its music and moved it onto cassette tapes. I vaguely remember songs recorded from the radio, DJ announcements intruding on opening bars, mad dashes to the decks as realisation dawned that those opening bars were the ones you’d been after for weeks. I remember hand-scrawled notes on scraps of card shoved in plastic cases, birthday presents of entire albums across two sides of tape that passed through teeth, slowly getting mangled. In order to listen to music, you had to destroy music.
But these are snippets of memory. My real era was that of CDs. That of homemade mixtapes (the word outlasting the medium) with no indication of what was on them. When I find one today, and can find a player, it’s a pot luck dinner of nostalgia. I still remember the first album I bought, when I saved up pocket money and vouchers for weeks to buy Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory. I still have it, and if I went through my collection, would probably find that particular CD inhabiting the box of a completely different album. I used to look forward to coming home and choosing a particular album to listen to from start to finish, the soundtrack to my evening of me-time, long before that word became a thing. An album was a vibe that you absorbed. A CD was a beautiful shiny relic, and I was drawn to them like a magpie. Disused copies became works of art. Two floor-to-ceiling cupboards in my childhood bedroom are still covered with them, shiny side out, a musical mirror fallen silent. Accuse me of rose-tinted glasses if you wish, but we listened to music differently back then. You were always aware of music, because it took a certain effort for it to be playing. Even when listening on headphones, a Discman was a physical presence in your lap. You felt it. You cradled it still to prevent it skipping. You learned albums inside out as you navigated them based purely on track numbers, or you left it to finish playing in its natural order. When an album came to an end, there was silence: silence like the closing credits of a film, or the blank pages in the back of a novel. Space for the listener to reflect on what they had heard, turn the emotions over, regain composure, float back into the real world. I miss those times. There was something of a ritual to music, an effort on the part of the listener that urged them to stay and listen to the whole piece as the artist had created it.
But you can’t fight the times. I’m now a Spotify subscriber, an avid Soundcloud listener, a YouTube channel subscriber. Things just seem different now. There is no silence. One track by one artist fades into another by another, faceless algorithms pairing songs together based on the listening habits of millions. There’s no time for silence. Tinny earbuds spew the latest tracks into desensitised ears before becoming irrelevant again. There’s no time for time. Music is no longer owned, it’s leased from an overlord for the four minutes of its life, an overlord who can decide at the press of a button that the lease will no longer stretch to your geographic location. Music listening has changed: speed up, quality down. At least that’s how it feels. Yes, CDs got scratched, fitted maddeningly few songs, started to flake around the edges and drop bits of glitter all over your hands, but I look back on those times with pleasure.
I realise this may well be my first foray into "it was all so much better in the past", and so despite all my grievances I know I'll always listen to music. How can I not, when the alternative is silence? After all, silence is only beautiful when it follows a beautiful album.