I remember a day in the 80s when a friend proudly unveiled his new music system. We were still listening to cassettes but he had switched to the latest format. You had to buy new equipment to play those shiny disks, but prices came down and soon we were all listening to CDs.
I don’t remember stressing about this change to a new format. It was as easy as the previous move from records to tapes. Change wasn’t threatening back then. But it can be now. Especially when it involves older people and digital technology.
I resent the time I have to spend on my devices (a word of the digital era I especially dislike). There’s always another technical task to be done, something to install, upgrade or download on my laptop, phone or tablet. Then just when I’ve had a few months or years to get comfortable with a format or system, it’s on the way out and there’s a new version I have to learn.
There is a verb for changing formats: to migrate. You migrate from CDs to downloads. That’s pretty much how I feel when I enter digital terrain: like a timid immigrant. Everything is new, I don’t know the language, and I keep having to ask directions. Worse still, I’m not warmly welcomed by the digital natives. Who are mainly younger and, on the rare occasions when they look up from their devices, roll their eyes at my questions.
It’s no wonder that I have not yet immigrated to new musical territory. I am still in my homeland, where I’ve been since my last musical migration 30 years ago. Still listening to CDs. With no clear plan for digital migration.
Sure, I’ve ripped (another verb reinvented for the digital age) CDs to computer. I have a few digital devices loaded with hundreds of songs – but it wasn’t me who got that music onto those memory sticks. Children and friends did it for me. I’m like some poor country cousin who is occasionally sent a parcel from relatives in the city.
Decisions around musical migration are complicated because it’s not only about how best to buy music, but whether to buy it at all. In our day you could only get music by purchasing records from stores (barring shoplifting). Now you don’t need to leave home to listen to music and there are many ways not to pay for it. Hence the Billboard chart’s unhappy musical milestone reached last year: lowest album sales since tracking began in 1991.
The mass musical migration to digital formats has seen CD sales give way to music downloads. Some pay per tune on legal sites, others pirate music for free. Now music streaming has pioneered a new business model.
“The very concept of owning music is becoming a little passé.”
– Music mega-site iTunes response to latest survey of music consumption patterns
More and more people don’t mind not owning an album and are happy listening to it online. (Please note that in many countries outside North America and Europe a message pops up to inform you that these various streaming and internet radio services are “currently not available in your country”.)
“In South Africa, one of the many places Spotify is not currently available, we find ourselves resorting to YouTube for our daily dose of new music, and since our internet connection is as slow as my grandma after a back op, it’s not the most appropriate resource for discovering music. Here’s how to trick the f**kers into thinking you’re from another country so you can download and register for Spotify. Because the crafty schmucks are reading your computer’s IP address, they know where you are. You need to use a proxy service or VPN (Virtual Private Network) to trick them into thinking you live elsewhere. But don’t worry, it’s a tiny program with no registration.”
My New Old Self is fond of gazing at CD covers. I am considering adding another shelf to my CD rack. I don’t frequent music stores at malls but I often buy CDs after live performances. When I play the music at home it’s like reliving the concert, not only aurally but visually too.
I am also concerned about the artist who created the music and those who produced it and how they’ll ever get remunerated. Apparently the way to make money in the music industry in these troubled times is to forget album sales and concentrate instead on endless touring and hawking merchandise. Recording and distributing new music seems to have become a promotional exercise. I console myself that at least buying CDs provides a revenue stream to the musician.
I’m not saying I’ll never download or stream. It is annoying when CDs skip and I find myself washing them with soap in the sink. But I still like the experience that often comes with buying and enjoying a CD, so why should I stop?
I realise I’m part of a dying breed. The title of the recent study on music consumers is “Who’s Buying Music Anymore?” The answer was clear: those middle-aged and older.
“Sixty-one percent of people who buy CDs are 36 and older, according to MusicWatch’s estimate. Ten years ago, that figure was just 36%. Back in 2004, people over 50 made up just 19% of the CD-buying population, but today they’re more than a third. This could help explain the relatively high number of veteran artists who have notched their first career No. 1 albums in 2014, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Black Keys, Sia, and Weird Al Yankovic.”
It all comes back to that big fear as we age: of change.
“I stopped buying CDs for a while and subsequently stopped listening to new music. Then I went back to CDs. I’m old, and I should accept it. Change is bad.”
A final point: in addition to older CD consumers worldwide, there is one country often credited for supporting CD sales more than any other. Interestingly, it’s Japan – despite the country’s reputation for being tech leaders.
“Japanese people prefer things you can see or touch, something that exists in real life…We even have this word called Jake-gai (literally ‘buying jacket’). It means to buy products such as CD, vinyls and books, based on the quality of its cover art and design.”
Do you feel like Japan’s attachment to music in a physical form – especially a platform like the Compact Disc, which we see as pretty dated – contradicts its love of forward-thinking technology?
“I don’t think they contradict each other. People do love something handy and technologically advanced, but sometimes you grow attached to something that requires time and patience, don’t you think?”
This seems to support the idea of an open listening policy: keep enjoying music, whether on the latest digital format or our beloved, nearly-obsolete CDs – scoffed at by youth (except the Japanese). This seems to be all the more important in light of new research which proves that music is important for your brain, throughout your life and definitely as you age.
“Music – which can convey an array of nuanced emotions – helps us reconcile our own conflicted emotions when making choices. And the more diverse, differentiated emotions we possess, the more well-founded our decisions become. Whether it’s choosing to play with a toy or deciding to propose to a boyfriend or girlfriend, our research shows that music can enhance our cognitive abilities. Thus, because we constantly grapple with cognitive dissonances, we created music, in part, to help us tolerate – and overcome – them. This is the universal purpose of music.”