My beginnings as a heavy music listener (pun-intended) were in cassette tapes. I’d save up pocket money to buy music that I would’ve heard in school, on the Walkmans of friends who’d sneak them in. We would trade tapes, record our favourite songs onto empty TDK cassettes and lend them around, and it left us feeling like we’d achieved something. There was always the eagerness to see how the sleeve artwork would be, reading along to lyrics was fun, and it also taught me some life-hacks, like using a plastic spoon to rewind a cassette in order to conserve battery life.
But I never really transitioned completely to CDs, save for a few here and there (including a 1989-pressing of Metallica’s ‘Ride the Lightning’). The reason being a radical new format at the turn of the millennium. One that could not be seen physically, but only appeared as a file on a computer screen. The age of the MP3 file had arrived. Now, I could connect my home telephone line to my computer to connect to the internet, look for the songs I want, and download them. So, instead of trading tapes, we traded burnt CDs. I was one of millions of young music listeners around the world who made this switch overnight.
The paradigm shift, while harmful for the bands I listened to, was a boon for me. It resulted in a torrent (another pun intended) of band discographies that I stored on my portable MP3 player and listened to so often, that they’re now part of my DNA.
Contingency for the contagion
It became an epidemic. Governments around the world started cracking down on underground sites that hosted discographies. But the nature of the internet enabled these sites to keep coming back in new forms (The Pirate Bay being the most resilient of them all). Record companies started shutting shop, as did record stores, and bands started calling it quits. Famously, Metallica sued file-sharing pioneers Napster for damages. No matter how emotional the ad campaigns got, musicians would have to resign to the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ adage.
Enter Daniel Ek, the Swede who declared the proverbial ‘ceasefire’ between musicians and illegally-downloading fans. Spotify was a streaming service launched in 2008, which had a vast database of entire discographies. The difference was that these discographies were sourced directly from record labels and independent artists. A subscription-based model brought in money which would be paid out to these labels and artists based on how many songs of their were streamed. It was perfectly legal, although the fairness of the payouts is still hotly debated. Among the disgruntled was Taylor Swift, who had her entire discography removed from the service.
And yet, this did nothing for the improvement of physical format sales. A highly unlikely saviour of sorts though, would be social media.
There may be a correlation between photos of music collections on social media and the sale of physical music formats seeing more blips on their ECGs. As a metal fan, I see them all the time (the photos, not the blips). Veterans listeners and new fans alike, post their purchase of a new release, an elaborately-loaded box set or just the CD or vinyl record that they’re kicking back to with a beer. This inspires others to build their own collection, because bragging is in our blood. That bragging though, soon leads to a fascination for the physical format, particularly vinyls. But, with music stores closing down, it is now upto independent distributors and fans directly contacting record labels or starting an online-order distro, to keep the flame burning.
In 2013, I was inspired enough to purchase my first CD since buying the OST of ‘The Phantom Menace’ (no matter how much you hated the Star Wars prequels, you can’t deny the epic nature of The Duel of the Fates). It was the album ‘Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού’ (Kata Ton Daimona Eautou/Do As Thou Wilt) by Greek metal band Rotting Christ. It was a box set, that came with a massive flag and an elaborately designed pendant. Soon after, it was Destruction’s Spiritual Genocide, which came with a pretty little miniature sniper bullet (one that had me stopped at quite a few airport security checks). I think it’s safe to say that the draw was the pendants, and other merchandise.
A spider in a digital well
When I attended a friend’s listening party in 2014, familiar songs felt like new ones when I heard them on vinyl. People began to realise that the sound quality of this format is the best available on the market. This surge in sales of vinyl gave hope anew to musicians and record labels. In 2015, Norwegian black metal band Emperor, who now only play live (2 performances of which I’ve attended myself) released their complete works as a gargantuan vinyl box set. 24 different releases as separate vinyl pieces would have been considered a fool’s errand in the mid-2000s. But in this decade, one edition has already sold out.
In my case, I’ve gone from being a downloading trouble-maker to a streaming non-agitator. I do find the idea of purchasing a physical album cumbersome and expensive, especially given the problem of high shipping rates from overseas. Having said that, I also feel drawn towards merchandise like the aforementioned pendants and indulge in a box set or two. Among music listening circles I’m part of, conversations have shifted from ‘Dude, I downloaded the entire discography’ to ‘Is that band on Apple Music?’. Does this mean that the CD and vinyl are in safe hands now (I’d like to say ‘pun intended’ again but that feels redundant at this point)? While an absolute rewind to the pre-digital ways seems unlikely, the inevitable death of the physical format may have been postponed somewhat. All we can do is play by ear.
Lead image: A 1989-pressing of Metallica’s sophomore release ‘Ride the Lightning’. (Credits: Ishaan Kumar)