Disposable heroes: How music on-demand has compromised our appreciation for it
I grew up in the 90s — my formative teenage years falling in the decade that gave us Nirvana, Shaquille O’Neal and American Pie.
Nowadays, you’d be forgiven for being promiscuous when it comes to your taste in music. Back then though, you belonged to a camp.
At my high school, if you had any sense of curiosity, you were either a hip-hop fan, a headbanger, a punk, an alternative-rock fan or a techno-head. Everybody else ate up whatever pop music Saturday morning’s Video Hits and mainstream radio served up — you know…the Spice Girls, Hanson and the Backstreet Boys.
Hip hop fans could be seen in memorial 2Pac t-shirts – flashing the westside hand gesture with reckless abandon, despite living a long way from California. Headbangers rocked Iron Maiden and Metallica t-shirts – antagonising unsuspecting teachers with the latter’s Metal Up Your Ass artwork, while grunge fans would rock a Kurt Cobain memorial tee or Nirvana’s famous Smiley.
As for me, I grew my hair down to my waist, wore mostly black t-shirts adorned with the logo of some band — usually with offensive imagery on the front or a lurid statement on the back — and ripped jeans. Yes, I was in the headbanger camp.
We were a tight little community of pimply faced, awkward and outcast teens who were introduced to the genre first through the more accessible musical stylings of bands like KISS, Guns n Roses and dare I say it, Bon Jovi, before progressing to the likes of Metallica, Iron Maiden and Pantera.
Anybody over the age of 35 will remember trading tapes — audio cassettes, preferably by the likes of TDK — with their friends at school.
Upon borrowing a tape, you’d use a double-cassette deck stereo or boombox to record its contents onto a blank tape by holding down the play and record buttons at the same button — what we called dubbing.
By the time you received a copy of an album from a friend, it had often been dubbed so many times before that the sound quality left a lot to be desired — little treble, lots of bass. But no matter how poor the sound quality, you were grateful because it was the best you could get, especially when you were just 14 years old.
Sometimes – if the radio played your favourite music – you’d sit by it and eagerly anticipate a particular song so you could record it onto cassette for safe-keeping, hoping all the while that the DJs didn’t speak over the top of the song for too long.
“It felt like a gift when the song I was waiting to hear was played”, said Lauren Jonik, one of the people I spoke to for this article.
We created mixtapes for our romantic interests, and as is the case with the sharing of Spotify playlists today, gifted mixtapes to people who were going through a rough patch. Jonik went on to say that “in the 90s, while dealing with serious health problems, friends made me mixtapes and it felt therapeutic to receive them.”
It would be remiss of me to mention audio cassettes and not bring up the fact sometimes, while listening to your favourite album, the cassette’s film would opt to excuse itself from its surroundings. The one and only solution to this? Winding it back up with a pencil. What you’d find the next time you listened to said album was a *clunk* or silence where the tape came unstuck… “Exit light, enter night…*#@^*%….neverland!”
Discovering New Music
Back then, if you wanted to discover and access new music, you were usually limited to what your friends were across, as well as what few albums you might have seen in a magazine (an actual physical, hold in your hand, roll it up and hit someone over the head with it magazine!) and could scrape together enough money to buy.
The thing about underground genres like heavy metal, punk or hardcore is that they received (and still receive) very little mainstream play, if any.
As such — in a time before the internet — discovering music required you to go out and actively look for it. Not only that, but as a rapidly evolving art-form during the 80s and 90s, heavy metal alone birthed numerous sub-genres such as thrash metal, death metal, power metal, folk metal and black metal, to name but a few, so there was an explosion of new bands that you wouldn’t hear DJ Funky K spin on your local FM dial.
If you wanted to keep up — you had to be in the loop.
So how did you get looped in to music that went beyond a small circle of friends, a meagre allowance or whatever money it was you made working at Target or McDonald’s for 10 hours a week?
You traded tapes…with people all over the world.
Cross-Continental Tape Trading
You would often discover music before it hit your local, underground record store.
Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian told Kerrang! Magazine, “We did have tape trading — so maybe I had heard about [the band] Slayer from friends in Europe, first. There was so much trading going on between people in the States and people in England, and Denmark, and Germany, but I remember buying [the album] Show No Mercy. Like, [seeing the album] in the store and going, ‘Oh yeah, these guys are supposed to be good.’”
Australian comedian and former metal drummer, Steve Hughes, says that he got into Iron Maiden in 1982, having seen them perform in Australia on the Number of the Beast tour, becoming obsessed with metal in the process. “I was always just looking for the heaviest thing I could find. I started trading tapes in the early 80s, and then Metallica’s Kill Em All came out, and I just went ‘that’s fucken it’.”
I caught the tail-end of the tape-trading scene, which in my case entailed trading tapes with people whose details I found in the classifieds section of the Australian magazine, Hot Metal and the American Metal Edge, as well as my then teenage cousin from the tiny Eastern European republic of Macedonia, on the other side of the world.
He introduced me to Brazilian death metallers, Sepultura, while I introduced him to the German melodic power metal outfit, Helloween. Neither of these bands were particularly new at the time, but with our youthful naivety and without the internet, they may as well have formed yesterday!
Speaking of Sepultura, the band’s former vocalist, Max Cavalera, had this to say about tape trading. “I get super excited to hear a new record I really dig. I want to tell all my friends about it…it really brings me back to my tape trading days in Brazil. Reminds me of discovering bands like Death, I was telling all my friends, “Death is killer, you gotta checkout this band.”
We Value What We Work For
We valued the music… because we had to work to discover and access it.
As human beings, we place a higher value on things that are scarce—something sales professionals know all too well — whether that be people, material possessions, or as we saw during the initial days of the COVID19 outbreak, toilet paper.
There was also sense of social status that one derived from being the first in your circle to discover an up-and-coming band and spread the good word. This came with a strong sense of community and identity that was derived from being a part of a scene — something that most teenagers yearn for during these confusing formative years.
And of course, we did it for the undying love of the music.
According to a Spotify study, heavy metal commands the most loyal following of any genre of music by a significant margin, based on data on listeners returning to listen to ‘core bands’ including Metallica, Slayer, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Sepultura, Pantera, Cradle Of Filth and Anthrax.
Perhaps it was appropriate then that a metal retailer I used to frequent during the noughties in Melbourne had emblazoned above its shopfront door — “Metal isn’t a fashion statement, it’s a way of life”.
Tape Trading Goes Digital
Shortly after I started trading tapes, dial-up internet became a widespread thing, and with it, so did internet relay chat and applications like mIRC. Tape trading went digital.
You would join ‘channels’ such as #metalmp3 where you suddenly found yourself chatting with hundreds of people from across the globe, sharing and downloading new music to your heart’s — or your internet connection’s — content.
But using a 28k and later a 56k modem meant that downloading an entire album could take all day. So what we did was ‘queue up’ an entire album, head off to ride our bikes or kick a football around — things kids did before smartphones and tablets — and come back later that evening with our fingers crossed that the entire album had finally downloaded and not timed out after two tracks because your mom or sister picked up the house phone!
Sure, this was way easier and convenient than tape trading by mail, and the sound quality of mp3s was near perfect compared to several-times dubbed cassettes, but it still required some work. We still appreciated the music, but perhaps not as much as their physical equivalents.
But studies have found that we value physical goods more than their digital equivalent. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people paid more for, were willing to pay more for, and were more likely to purchase physical goods than equivalent digital goods.
Before long though, mIRC evolved into Napster, which evolved into iTunes, which evolved into Spotify.
Now you can basically access the entire history of recorded music, no matter how obscure, online with the click of a button — and if you didn’t mind listening to the occasional 30-second ad, entirely free!
If you want to discover new music, platforms like Spotify are happy to recommend obscure music you might enjoy, based on your listening history, in order to keep you engaged on the platform and monetise your ears.
In fact, it even curates a daily, personalised Discover playlist just for you.
A quick glance at my own Discover playlist reveals releases from bands such as Priestess, Allegaeon, Flotsam & Jetsam, and The Enemy — not exactly mainstream fare or artists you’ll see trending on Twitter, but there they are, and with one click I can find out just why Spotify has recommended them.
And if I’m not hooked at first listen? Then I’ll simply hit skip ahead to another artist without giving it a second thought.
I shudder whenever someone says, “I couldn’t tell you what I listen to, I just listen to Spotify playlists”.
The intimate bond between artist and listener has in many respects been severed, rendering the artists disposable heroes.
The Mundanity of Perfection and Convenience
11-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater has put some of winnings and endorsement money towards building an artificial surf pool in Lemoore, California – a good 200 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean – that pumps out perfect waves every several seconds. While this might sound like a surfer’s dream, and is no doubt a great way to work on one’s skills, the common consensus amongst surfers who have tried it is that perfection is… a little mundane.
The thrill of surfing often lies in the anticipation, the uncertainty, the search for a great wave, and the eventual rush that comes with finally catching one.
Parallels can be drawn between this and our enjoyment of music.
When you actually had to search for an artist or album, to go down all sorts of rabbit holes to discover some emerging upstart, and maybe pick up a copy of their album at an underground record store or through a tape trading network, you appreciated it that much more.
You would lock yourself up in your room and do nothing but listen to that album — free from the dopamine-inducing pull of social media notifications. You would listen to it, over and over, while admiring the cover art and reading all of the linear notes. You knew each word to each song, who played which instrument, who wrote which song and even who produced the album.
Sadly, much of this romance is lost today.
Sure, I might be able to discover and listen to orders of magnitude more music, but I tend to appreciate the music orders of magnitude less than when discoverability and accessibility was scarce.
From Appreciation to Expectation
Self-help guru Tony Robbins once told a story of being on a Qantas plane en route to Australia. The pilot announced that wi-fi was now finally available on board, to which he was greeted with cheers and applause from the cabin. 30 minutes later the pilot reappeared to announce that they were experiencing technical difficulties and the wi-fi was now down. People were visibly furious.
I find myself resembling the furious Qantas passengers when a song I’ve queued up like magic from an obscure Norwegian folk metal band won’t play on Spotify because of some kind of playback issue.
It doesn’t take us long to go from appreciation to expectation.
It’s fortunate then that the COVID-19 lockdown has acted as a forcing function of sorts, and given us the time and space to truly reconnect with music.
I’m listening to music now in a way that I haven’t since Steve Jobs stood on stage introducing the Apple iPod and triumphantly declaring it “1,000 songs in your pocket”.
It might have been 1,000 songs in your pocket, but in retrospect, more is not always better. When it comes to music appreciation — like books, depth is better than breadth.
This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.