IT had to start quietly. That was crucial. First, you called up a radio station and asked the DJ to play a song you needed for a school production or a mix-tape. You asked him (it was usually him) to please not talk over the song’s opening notes. Then you waited, a blank cassette tape loaded in that player that was among your most prized possessions, and you pressed the record button right after the DJ announced your song.
That was how some of us in my generation acquired music as teenagers in the Eighties, when we didn’t have the money to buy a record or a cassette tape or didn’t want to buy an entire album when we knew we’d probably like only a few of the songs on it. Sometimes, you couldn’t buy a song because you didn’t hear the title right. A ninang who wanted to buy the 1981 disco tune “Designer Music” traipsed all over Colon St. in search of a cassette tape with “This Kind of Music.”
This trip down musical memory lane should help you see why one of this week’s biggest business stories used to be unimaginable to music lovers of a certain age. A few days ago, the commercial music streaming service Spotify went public on the New York Stock Exchange. By the end of its first day of trading, the Swedish company’s market value hovered at US$26.5 billion. “Spotify is a hit,” the New York Times announced. Of course, it is. It isn’t guaranteed financial success and longevity, but the idea that something like Spotify exists is fantastic, especially to a generation that knows why you had to keep a pencil handy if you collected your music in cassettes.
In the last 20 years, music as a physical product began to disappear. Yet music itself was everywhere, and much easier to acquire and enjoy. In the Eighties, we collected vinyl or tapes. You could spend hours browsing through the records in Music House, a store at the corner of D. Jakosalem and Manalili Sts. that sold used paperbacks, magazines, old typewriters and yes, music. Rummaging through its record collection caked your fingertips with dust, but you could always find a treasure if you were patient. A Sony Walkman was the thing most teenagers coveted, because it let you spend part of the day enclosed in a private bubble of the songs you liked best. Compact discs (and the Discman) followed in the late Eighties and remained popular for most of the Nineties, which meant you had to save up for the CD releases of the artists who saw you through your angst-ridden adolescence and whose music you weren’t ready to outgrow just yet.
Toward the end of that Nineties, however, technology made it possible to compress large music files and portable digital audio players became available in the market, much to the record industry’s chagrin. That’s when it became possible to transfer audio files (like MP3) from one’s computer to a device small and light enough to fit in one’s pocket.
What else happened that changed the way we listen to music? Smart phones with audio players got cheaper fast; internet connections grew less erratic; and cloud computing allowed us to access vast libraries of music files, as well as store our playlists and retrieve them whenever we wished. It was, Patrick Burkart and Tom McCourt wrote in 2006, like having a celestial jukebox. You could pluck your music from the cloud in mere moments.
I was late to the Spotify party and didn’t start using it regularly until last year. In those heady first few days, I spent hours searching for many of the bands I used to love, and was pleased to find that most of the songs carried a memory with them: a place, face or voice that meant something. Better yet, it allowed me to discover songwriters whose work I had never heard before. These times we live in can get cacophonous, but for those who love music, it’s a time of plenty and delight.