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The Changing Face of Music Consumption

I’m at a time in my life where the likes of Spotify and Apple Music are no longer a phenomenon, whilst being old enough to remember going into a Woolworths in Wales and buying Eminem – Ass Like That on CD.

What exactly does this mean? The moment I became old enough to make my own purchase decisions they went to questionable avenues, yes. But outside of that – the manners in how we consume music has changed dramatically in such a short space of time. Setting up this piece, for example. Without even thinking about it, I bounced the same song from laptop, to phone, to an Alexa yoke, all within the tune’s four minute lifespan. What does this mean? I’m a privileged wanker of course, to have the ability to stream music from these devices, but also the capabilities in our hands is truly amazing, whilst being incomprehensible thoughts in the not too distant past.

The earliest memories I have of music consumption came around the time where the semi-awkward handover of tape cassettes to CD’s was underway. Both decent options – the CD clearly the future, but the tape still had its wins in the form of illegally recording the tunes from the radio. This was completely fine I should note, as the ‘you wouldn’t steal a car’ advertisement was yet to inform us of how to feel about this.

Depending on the car you were in, it was the Richie Kavanagh Collection on cassette, or Robbie Williams’ Greatest Hits on CD. Richie Kavanagh had the ‘tape in your granny’s car’ game by the bollocks. I have vague memories of rooting through boxes of cassette tapes to listen to in the Grandmother’s car on the way to the shops. The tune that consistently came up trumps was the brilliant Sean Brennan - ‘Come on You Lilywhites – It’s Our Year Of Glory’. Indeed it wasn’t.

As someone who reached the adolescent years in the early-to-mid 00’s, the most significant music-related memories of my childhood consisted of singles and albums to choose from in a black leather case, or stacked in a CD rack in the corner of the room. These singles and albums were collected through various avenues, from retailers like Golden Discs to independent stores and newspaper freebies. I’ll never forget the first one I purchased myself. The aforenoted Eminem song won the race to the first single I’d ever purchased, but it was 50 Cent’s ‘The Massacre’ which had the honour of being my first album purchase. Confirmation money opened up a world of possibilities, evidently.

Music on the go – a laughable selling point in 2021, but state of the art in the recent past. There was a time in my life where music on the go meant in the car. Your other options were a room in your gaf, or if the weather was nice - a radio hanging out the window directing toward the back garden. Thankfully, one Christmas saw the CD Walkman arrive – chest out, promising you a world of music on the go, and also, 3rd degree burns through overheating. “Make sure to keep that Walkman flat or you’ll break it”. Oh the temptation, man. IMAGINE if I could stick it in the backpack vertical, everything would be better. This song from The Fray would absolutely slap. But no. I had to hold this one like I was delivering a pizza - and my god the convenience of this. At. The. Time.

Calling this the birth of digital is an almighty stretch, but I feel the window for the thirty second Sony Ericsson recordings you got off MTV for whatever was in the charts that week shouldn’t go unmentioned. They were good times. On the bus on the way to a GAA match smashing two phones together to send a recording on Infrared, as if you were stuck in the clap stage of clapping two dusters. The tune you were sending didn’t necessarily have to be a genre you liked - just whatever was No. 1 that week was good enough. Evanescence new tune? Lamp it onto the blower and sort my ringtone for the week. Of course the sound quality meant ‘Bring Me To Life’ might as well have been ‘Don’t Bother I’m Fucked’.

We all know what happened next. For me, someone came into school one day with what LOOKED like an iPod – I now know it wasn’t – but with the same principles. To our amazement, we stood around and listened to this fella explain that he plugged this contraption into his computer and UPLOADED songs onto it. To me this felt like we – in the yard – had actually created fire. Uploaded - what the fuck does that mean? The principal just seemed 100 years into the future. But low and behold, here was bossman standing in front of me talking about LimeWire, whilst I had the Walkman carefully placed at the top of the bag at a 180 degree angle. It was clear what needed to happen. I needed one of these iPods.

Unlucky for my family and, in a lot of ways, me, the LimeWire extravaganza landed around the beginning of my teens. That famous stage where you’re desperately grasping for what type of music you’re supposed to define yourself by. From my experience, it was two teams. Rock music or dance music. The decision was made, and DJ Rankin and DJ Cammy had manifested their way onto my brand new iPod Shuffle by means of illegal download. [I’m of course joking, Guard/Taylor Swift]. There were a few losers in this exchange: 1) Me. Of course, listening to DJ Rankin like it was an Olympic sport. 2) My family. Succumbed to this without even the bliss of ignorance. And 3) My Computer – which anyone who has used these file-sharing websites will know that my computer nearly grew legs and walked itself to the hospital.

From this point, it was game over for the physical CD, vinyl or cassette tape as the prominent mode of music consumption. LimeWire disappeared into what I hope are the fiery depths of hell, and music streaming platforms kicked ahead with the idea of giving in order to keep up with this incredible ease of access. When I say giving, I of course don’t mean the bands or artists they steal from, but rather allowing the consumer to have whatever they want for a small fee at the click of a button. I remember downloading Jake Bugg’s first album onto an iPhone 4 and expecting the guards to burst through the door. It was too easy, and that’s what made it great.

The next few years are hazy from this point. Like anything, the convenience of the iPod grew normal, the Walkman was dust and we thought less and less of the capabilities of these handheld music devices. The wonder of how and what you could do with the technology became less of a big deal, and things like seamlessly switching a tune from laptop to phone received a grunt and a “that’s cool”, instead of a phone call to notify the first person in your recents of the wizardry you’d just performed. I don’t know whether that’s a growing older thing or we collectively just began to expect these advancements.

I grew up physically rewinding the film in the tape cassette backward, to searching 30 minutes for the correct disc in the correct case. But it takes moments like these to stop and think and truly allow yourself to appreciate the capabilities we have. The manner in which we now consume music is truly amazing, but as someone who puts such strong sentiment to these ‘firsts’, I feel the romance is lost in a way. The race for what’s next is prioritised over the appreciation for what’s come. You still can buy these physical copies of course, but once music consumption became the click of a button – the search or the journey was finished. There’s no finding this ‘first’ in the back of the wardrobe years later. A trade off was born between convenience and sentiment.

What’s next? Sean Brennan – C'mon You Lilywhites on YouTube, of course.

Music consumption capabilities? I couldn’t tell ye.

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