This story started out as two separate pieces, both of which I was thinking of trashing until I read a post from someone on Facebook echoing pretty much exactly what I was thinking. So… I figured that, well, if I can condense this into one cohesive piece, perhaps at least one person will appreciate it.
My tale begins when I was a little kid, less than ten and probably not much more than five. I was immediately quite in love with the little hand-me-down record player I’d been given but that was almost superseded by my love affair with a tiny magic transistor radio that I was given. This was a sweet palm-sized plastic cube (made by the Lloyds brand) that I could carry around with me anywhere. With my little earphone plug, I could tune in to hear music almost literally all over the country.
It was magic to me. This was especially true late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping and I was able to catch some of the distant signals bouncing off of the upper atmosphere. I remember hearing some weird ‘n wilder music stations as far as Chicago beaming music I never heard around my hometown in New Jersey, a bedroom community to Manhattan.
As I grew older and my tastes more sophisticated, my patience with commercial radio eventually dwindled to the point where by the late 1980s I was barely listening to it. I preferred being able to play what I wanted to hear when I wanted and thus dove in deep in building my personal music collection.
Heavily controlled corporate playlists and the demise of the independent DJ made radio increasingly boring. By 1978, Elvis Costello’s song “Radio Radio” was already resonating deeply:
“I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver
When the switch broke ’cause it’s old
They’re saying things that I can hardly believe
They really think we’re getting out of control”
Fast forward past ’80s boomboxes and the groovy portability of the Sony Walkman to the era of mobile phones, for a while I started getting back into the joy of musical portability, enjoying once again the notion taking “my music” wherever I wanted to go.
When I got my first adult “new car” after college, having a cassette deck in it was a godsend and later the car CD player gave me even more musical independence. Music on my eventual Smart Phone seemed like a good idea for a while until it became a hassle…
So I began to lose interest conceptually, preferring to play albums from my CD collection or a CD-R “burn” of a download. I never had an iPod (I do have an iPad however). I still find syncing things a hassle (and don’t get me started about maintaining a digital music collection… oh wait…oops… too late).
Lately I’ve been experimenting with loading up a flash drive but even that has compatibility issues in my Subaru (it mostly seems to like lesser sounding MP3s than clearer CD quality WAV and AIFF files which many times won’t play) so it becomes… a hassle… I just want to hear the music at that point in the manner in which I curated them. Easier said than done.
Jump ahead again some years and the notion of streaming started to win my favor for a fleeting moment for mobile listening. Then the notion of having to be reliant on some sort of Internet connection — aka a cellular connection — became problematic. And this is coming from someone who worked on the launch of a noted “Internet Radio” technology in the early 00s (which is basically what “Streaming” is today, a rebranding of a sort).
Streaming music became problematic for me because of the need to be tethered to some sort of cellular signal necessary to receive my “my music” while mobile. Sure, when I’m connected to WiFi its handy. But in the car and walking around, the hassle factor seems to have crept back in and the cost factor. For a newbie, Spotify and Tidal is a curious gift, an extension of the web essentially that you can hear a lot of music in quality that varies wildly. But it’s not free. You’ll either have to pay a subscription to get the good stuff or be exposed to ads. It’s a business model, I get it.
Stepping back, purely as a consumer, it sure seems to me that we’ve traded one evil for another. The commerciality that was problematic on so-called “terrestrial” radio is essentially at the root of streaming. Yeah, MQA sounds better than my little magic transistor radio cube, no doubt. But at the end of the day, I’d rather not have to worry about whether the service will work where I happen to be.
I understand that some cellular providers are providing unlimited streaming of music which is cool but… well… it seems dubious that they would do this for the long haul. Nothing is free, folks. I have this sneaky feeling that will change at some point in some manner. My inner cynic is sitting on my shoulder whispering in my ear: ‘they’re gonna pay for this somehow, someway…’
Pre-downloading songs you want to “stream offline” sounds again like a bit of a hassle to me; I mean… I might as well just “download” the albums on my own and play it in whatever mobile device I have. So much for having everything on-demand at your fingertips.
There are times when I kind of wish I still had my little magic transistor radio and I could just tune in to Cousin Brucie on WABC-AM or catch one of those late night radio broadcasts at a Chicago.
The original concept of all this was that by going on the Internet we would avoid the commerciality and we would get more control over what we want to hear when we want to hear it. Etc. Blah blah blah blah…
That’s all fine and good on paper except I wonder if it will ultimately be economically infeasible for the consumer. For the streaming companies its a potential goldmine… From a consumer vantage point, this is all beginning to feel more and more like old terrestrial radio…
“So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio