Rock ‘n Roll May Never Die – But The Way We Listen to It Continues to Change

Remember back in the day when your favorite artist would drop a new album and you’d hit up your local FYE or Best Buy that day to snag a CD? Or maybe you were just among the 17% of Best Buy walk-in customers drawn in by their giant blue and yellow sign. Either way, ripping open the plastic packaging on a brand new CD was a moment of sheer unadulterated bliss for so many 90s and early 2000s music-lovers. However, it’s pretty safe to say that those days are gone. The tech boom over the past few decades has completely changed the way we buy and listen to music. Let’s take a brief stroll down memory lane and revisit the evolution of music consumption from the 80s to now.

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The Walkman Let’s 80s Rockers and Teenyboppers Take Music On-the-Go

Compact cassette tapes have been around since the 70s, and at that time, most cars came equipped with a cassette player so drivers could rock out on the road. But it wasn’t until Sony released the Walkman in 1979 that music-lovers could take their tunes everywhere they went. The convenience of this device fundamentally changed how people listened to music — no longer were they weighed down by home record players or giant portable tape decks. In fact, cassettes outsold vinyl for the first time in 1983, largely due to the Walkman and similar portable music players.

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Music Enters the Digital Age with CDs

Before compact discs (CDs), magnetic tape data was read mechanically — a sensor translated a magnetic or physical pattern into an electrical signal. CDs, on the other hand, used a laser to read the encoded data. It’s true that digital recording had been around since the late 1960s, but the first commercial CDs did not appear until the 1980s when the format of the CD was standardized. The compact disc exploded in popularity in the late 80s, and many artists began converting their back catalogs to the new format. CDs could hold 60 minutes of music, and the quality was far superior to cassettes; to top it off, the reading laser’s resistance to interference by dust rendered the CD the primary way to listen to music for the next decade.

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MP3s Change the Game (For Better and Worse)

In 1986, advanced technology was able to separate sounds into layers, and engineers could use auditory masking to compress a recording’s file size. In 1995, the .mp3 file was born. Because MP3 file sizes were so small and took up very little memory, consumers were able to grow their personal music libraries to levels never seen before. But because the files were digital, they were easily copied and shared over the internet. The practice of P2P file-sharing became popular with the invention of Napster in 1999. The computer program cut into nearly half of the music industry’s sales in 2000, and Napster was slapped with lawsuits from artists and record labels. While authorities cracked down on pirated music, MP3s continued to grow in popularity, especially as more and more portable music players entered the market. No music playing device is as iconic as the iPod, of course. Apple released its first iPod in October 2001; the pocket-sized player boasted five gigabytes of storage and kept the music library organized, making it extremely convenient. You could literally carry thousands of songs in your pocket at all times.

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Rock 'n Roll May Never Die - But The Way We Listen to It Continues to Change

Music Gets “Smart” With Streaming Services

In 2000, the Music Genome Project was created with the intent to “capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level.” In short, the software analyzes music and categorizes it based on certain characteristics, and an algorithm uses that data to predict a listener’s preferences. This was the basis for Pandora’s music streaming service in 2005 and, specifically, its recommendation feature. This technology introduced millions of listeners to thousands of bands around the globe, opening up a world of previously unavailable musical experiences. Premium streaming apps like Spotify charge a monthly fee for unlimited access to their libraries, and within the past decade, online streaming has surpassed both digital and physical music sales. In 2020, unlimited music isn’t just in our pockets — it’s at our fingertips.

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So, where does the music industry go from here? We’ve seen great leaps since the advent of the phonograph in 1877, and even greater bounds from cassette tapes to online streaming over the past 30 years. The internet is only growing — there were 5.8 billion Google searches per day in 2019 — and technology is getting smarter.

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Emma C
Freelance Writer