I didn’t listen to music in elementary school. The only other person in my neighborhood my age had an older sister. She gave him CDs, then Weird al Yankovich came into my life. I slowly started listening to music on the radio, and eventually became fascinated with the vinyl records sold at second hand stores. I lived in a rural area, so the number of radio stations were limited.
It wasn’t until middle school that I started to identify with the music I liked. Kazaa and the likes of file sharing became popular. My exposure was limited to the genres I knew about. Everything new was a discovery. I felt like an adventurer, going about into the world. Techno turned drum and base, turned house music, turned DJ mixes, turned electronic trip-hop. Everything was one file at a time.
I burned CDs and listened to them on my portable CD player. First I would burn traditional WAV file CDs, then I eventually got a MP3 reading CD player. This let me fit more songs and create better mixes, but limited where I could listen to them. The worst thing with CDs was not being sure if your burned CD was properly working and wasting tons of blank CDs in the process. There were blank CDs that said they were rewritable, but they never worked. This was also when I learned how to buy CDs in bulk, use online wholesalers, and gauge quality at retailers. (This was also when I was obsessed with energy drinks.)
Then came the discography days. Peer-to-peer downloading sites went from hosting 3–5 megabyte files to 6–7 gigabyte zip directories. I went from downloading individual songs to getting entire band discographies. I discovered Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana, and the Wu Tang Clan. I didn’t have the context to know which albums were the best or what I should listen to first. I had hit-or-miss experiences. Sometimes missing the well known songs from bands and falling in love with others that no one else knew.
I owned a Mini-Disk player, which was all the rage in Japan, and downloaded everything cool I could find. Mini-Disks were CDs that read MP3s. The fact that you could rewrite the contents of the Mini-Disks made it incomparably better choice when compared to CDs. The best part at the time was being able to create a Mini-Disk and then share it with other friends who had a Mini-Disk player. The worst part was not being able to take the files off the disks. The software for managing the Mini-Disks were all pretty bad Sony based tools.
Early through high-school, I remember finding the download packs of 100 top billboard songs. These packages were a new way to discover bands I didn’t know. I would get 100 songs from a genre I was interested in, and then look for the discography of the bands I liked. If I couldn’t find the discography, I often wouldn’t listen to the band. This odd behavior was the culmination of my previous habits and resulted in missing great bands.
I got my first MP3 player. It was a cheap plastic USB based device that could run for 4–6 hours. The entire device was no bigger than a pocket flashlight. The only ports on the device were a built in USB port and a 3.5 inch jack for headphones. The best part about these MP3 players were the ability to put music on and then take it off somewhere else. You didn’t need software to use the device, because it acted like a USB disk. The design was tacky, but in high school, I threaded all my cables through my jacket and under my shirt, so no one ever saw what it looked like.
Mid-way through high school, I started discovering smaller bands. My friends would find something through a friend of a friend and we would obsess over a small subset of no-name bands. I defined my identity on the odd bands I discovered and found instant rapport with people who shared the same interest.
My first flip phone had a 3.5 jack that let me listen to music directly off of it. The music was downloaded on to a mini-SD card that I would load from my computer. I could fit an entire Gb of songs on the phone. I could copy a CD onto my computer, convert WAV files into MP3s, and then pack eight or nine albums onto the SD card.
Nearing my end of my sophomore year, I fell in love with hyphy music and gangster rap. Mac-Dre, Andre Nickatina, Bay Area mix tapes, the Demolition Men. Reggae, ska, old-school hiphop. I went from listening to music on my headphones to blasting music from my car. I went back to burning traditional CDs so I could play them in my car stereo.
I got my first iPod when I was a junior. I went from burning CDs to using the iPod with the magical FM transmitter. The FM transmitter let you plug in the device into an iPod and stream music through a designated FM radio channel. This device was perfect if you were driving through a country road, but became problematic in crowded urban areas. The more popular the FM transmitter became, the more likely you were to pick up other people’s iPod signal. The harder it was to depend on the FM transmitter, the more likely I was to use an old burned CD. Listening to something sitting in my car or pick a radio station became my backup.
I continued fluctuating between mediums for listening to music as I got older.
Now that I look at music, its more unconscious than ever. Rather than using streaming services, like Spotify or iTunes, I depend largely on blog aggregators like Hype Machine. I trust more the social signals and use the corresponding filter as a means to determine what I do and don’t listen to. I’m more disconnected now from the source of my music. I only listen to a single artist when a song really stands out and I am drawn to find more.
There is a lesson to be taken about the changing modes of my accessing content.