In the summer of 2010, my dad and I took a road trip from my hometown of Petaluma, California to Bend, Oregon. I was fresh off of a harrowing 8th-grade breakup, and was at the peak of my addiction to the acquisition of music. I simply had to have a constant inflow of new music or I started to crave a fix. A few weeks before our trip, my parents had confiscated my 160GB iPod Classic after they caught me downloading music illegally, which explained the rash of viruses the family computer had been experiencing. Sans iPod on this trip (a living nightmare for me at this developmental stage), I sat in the shotgun seat of the car with a duffel bag under my legs stuffed to bursting with the family CD collection. We had the highlights of my dad’s and my shared favorites — R.E.M., Van Morrison, Los Lobos — but I still had the itch to acquire. As a side note, this led to one of the cruelest trolls I’ve ever experienced: passing through the one-street town of La Pine, OR (population 1,653 in 2010) my dad exclaimed, “La Pine — famous for its enormous music store!” and my young, lithe neck swiveled expectantly in all four directions before I realized I’d been had.
When we finally got to Bend, we stopped at a Best Buy and I headed for the CD section the way an ice-cream-and-pickles junkie heads for the pickle-flavored ice cream. I remember exactly what I bought: the Black Keys’s Brothers, Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Kings of Leon’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, and Wilco’s Being There. We played these for the rest of the trip.
I don’t care much for some of those selections today, but all of those albums — particularly the Wilco, which only got better as I grew up — are inextricably connected in my mind with that trip, that time with my dad, with who I was at the time and who I wanted to be. I’d guess this has a lot to do with the fact that I bought them to alleviate the loss of my iPod. Instead of having the thousands of songs I normally had on hand, I had these four new albums, and because of the relatively small selection size I valued the music on them all the more. If I’d had my iPod on the trip, I probably wouldn’t remember today a single thing that we listened to during the fourteen hours we drove there and back.
In this comparison, CD-ownership represents a more personal, physical relationship with music, while mp3-ownership represents an impersonal, immaterial relationship. It says something about how quickly music-service technology evolves that today, six years later, I see an mp3 collection as the personal-collection alternative to the impersonal experience of streaming. Even though my Spotify premium account makes my mp3 collection basically superfluous, I still want to feel like I have a collection, not just a history of songs I chose to stream. Since that 2010 road trip, an mp3 collection has actually become the old-school approach, for people who want the real, “physical” experience of actually owning music rather than the quick, easy and comparatively cheap option.
It’s incredible that at twenty years old I’m already a generation ahead of today’s teenagers, in terms of how I grew up on music. I doubt almost anyone in junior high buys music anymore, when everything is available on Spotify and YouTube for free. Even the full-album nerds, like I was and still am, can get a Spotify Premium subscription and have access to almost every album ever recorded for $10 a month. As convenient as these services are for music aficionados, I feel that a certain relationship with the music you listen to is being sacrificed. I fear that music is becoming something we sample rather than something we experience. This is undoubtedly similar to what people said when tapes usurped vinyl, and then when CDs ousted tapes, and certainly when mp3s replaced physical copies of albums entirely. Concertgoers might even have sneered when vinyl records first began being pressed and sold.
I guess what I’m saying boils down to: sometimes less really is more. Sometimes music becomes special and memorable because it’s just what you had, not because it’s the perfect selection out of a nearly infinite realm of possible choices. Sometimes, it turns out that your parents did you a favor when they took away that iPod Classic. Still doesn’t make that La Pine joke funny, though.
Jack Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column Despite All the Amputations runs alternate Thursdays this semester.