Think about how you listened to music at the turn of the century; how you learned about new music and acquired it, how you thought about it. Depending on how old you were in late 1999, and how plugged in to the Internet you were, you may have already had some MP3s on your hard drive (probably not many yet, unless you were an early adopter to Napster, which launched in the second half of that year). You probably owned a lot of CDs, and bought new ones regularly.
A Discman was the cutting edge of your portable listening experience. Your headphones were probably a flimsy headset with felt-covered earpieces—neither the compact ‘earbuds’ nor the big bulky Beats headphones that are popular today. And of course, the Discman was worthless outside the house unless you had a binder of CDs, removed from their jewel cases and tucked into plastic sleeves.
You were probably deciding what CDs or tapes or records to buy, with whatever cut of your allowance or your paycheck you cared to spend on such things, based on what you heard on FM radio. Or maybe what you read about in Spin, or The Source, or your local alt-weekly, or underground zines that somebody stapled together at Kinko’s (remember Kinko’s?). Maybe your friends turned you on to new music with handmade mixtapes, on gray blank Maxell cassettes. Maybe you’d begun exploring the world of newsgroups, message boards, and e-mail listservs.
In the 14 years since the new millennium arrived, your habits have almost definitely changed, a lot.
In the 14 years since the new millennium arrived, your habits have almost definitely changed, a lot. If you weren’t glued to the Internet every day back then, you definitely are now (or, at least, enough that you’re reading this instead of those zines). If you’re still clinging to physical media, you’re probably not relying entirely on brick-and-mortar record stores to buy them—the ability to search the ’net for the best price or the most obscure artifact has in and of itself helped rescue vinyl from the brink of extinction. But more than likely, you’re downloading everything—or you’re already so done with file storage, and are enthusiastically embracing streaming and cloud services. You amass thousands of plays on YouTube and follow your favorite artists' social media channels to stay up on their latest news. Instead of buying the best speakers for your CD player, you’re saving for Beats, because you do most of your listening on headphones, plugged into your iPod or directly into your laptop.
The 20th century was full of incredible advances in recorded sound, amplified sound, and electricity itself. The victrola, the electric guitar, the sampler, the MP3—new, paradigm-shifting inventions seemed to come along at an alarming clip, many of them rendered irrelevant by the next big thing within a generation, if not a decade. But by the end of the ’90s, things seemed to have plateaued, if not slowed down a bit. You could argue there were more technical advances during any given decade of the 20th century than were made in the last 10 years. Yet, it's important to look at how music's role in our daily lives and habits changes even more rapidly than new inventions are created.
You could argue there were more technical advances during any given decade of the 20th century than were made in the last 10 years.
Now, progress is a more slippery, nuanced process. A piece of technology becoming available to the public, or cheaper, or smaller, or faster, or sometimes all at once, is often the earth-shattering event. But obviously, no one object has changed more than the iPod. Taking MP3s out of the computer and into a portable device with headphones didn’t just put a nail in the CD’s coffin, it killed the Discman and the Walkman instantly. And the store Apple used to sell music for your iPod, iTunes, completely revolutionized the business, doing major damage to physical music stores in the process.
The secondary and tertiary effects of iTunes on the music business are almost too many too enumerate. The American music industry spent much of the ’80s and ’90s trying to phase out the physical single, to focus everything on event albums that could be sold on CD at higher and higher prices—so that an album with one really big hit song, by Chumbawamba or Vanilla Ice, could climb to absurd multi-platinum sales. Suddenly, iTunes unbundled albums and allowed you to purchase any song on an album for 99 cents. One-hit wonders, and artists who didn’t generate that certain mix of brand loyalty and cult of personality that true stardom engenders, would never have such an easy ride ever again.
When Billboard began counting iTunes sales towards its Hot 100 singles chart, it democratized an area of the chart that had long been ruled by the whims of the radio industry. Hit songs still functioned the same way, but an artist with a strong fan base could now more easily prevail over a lesser known artist’s breakout track, at least in the short run. Soon, certain buying habits of the iTunes demographic started to warp how popular music looked and sounded. When 2013 became the first year in Hot 100 history that no African-American artist topped the chart, the way iTunes single sales seemed to be disproportionately low for hip-hop and R&B artists was frequently pointed out as a possible cause.
YouTube is the other major player. In 2013 Billboard started counting YouTube views towards chart rankings, meaning major pop artists with millions of views like Justin Timberlake and Macklemore beat out the rest. While Jay Z, Kanye West, J. Cole, Beyoncé and Ciara all dropped albums in 2013, it was Baauer's YouTube sensation "Harlem Shake," that dominated the charts for weeks. It begs the question of what popularity really means anymore. Is a song the most popular if we listen to it every other day for a year, or if we binge play it off YouTube 300 times in a month? These are questions that record labels and artists are already starting to ask, adjusting the way they release music to match. Rihanna dropped the music video for "Stay" during Billboard's tracking week for the single. It garnered 3.8 million views on YouTube, which propelled the song from from its ranking at 57 to 3. Major music videos can garner millions of views in a matter of days. While video killed the radio star back in the days of MTV, videos now have the power to erect a Billboard star in a number of days.
With music sales cratering and traditional avenues of income shrinking, there are fewer and fewer high-end studios with cutting-edge technology.
With the actual recording and production of music, as with everything else, the last 14 years have been less about completely new innovations as they’ve been about the existing technology become better, and more affordable. With music sales cratering and traditional avenues of income shrinking, there are fewer and fewer high-end studios with cutting-edge technology. But the ability to make something sound not just good, but polished and professional, from a home studio has become cheaper and easier with each passing year. Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver, can lock himself in a cabin in the woods and create his entire critically acclaimed 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago. Of course, you still can’t polish a turd—if a vocalist or musician lacks talent or creativity, if the room they’re recording in is acoustically dead, there’s no plug-in you can buy that fixes that. But more and more, there are ways around what would’ve been roadblocks to making a hit record, or a good record, in the past.
Pro Tools, and other ways of editing performances, correcting mistakes and compiling the best of multiple takes together have been around since well before the turn of the century. But as only the most old-fashioned and retro-minded producers hold onto the old ways of doing things, two-inch tape and Neve recording consoles become scarcer and more expensive. You almost have to be a rich, passionate rock star like Dave Grohl or Jack White to continue recording analog. Meanwhile, the appropriately named GarageBand has been part of the DIY revolution in home recording.
By the end of the ’90s, big budget pop music had begun to resemble futuristic sci-fi movies—it was all about showcasing the shiny, metallic perfection that could only be attained with the best machines money can buy. Major pop sensations like Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Enrique Iglesias and Usher dominated the charts and airwaves alike. But as synths, drum machines and samplers found their ways into the hands of younger and less experiences musicians, things changed. Home recorded hip-hop beats and dance records began to take on the intimate, idiosyncratic qualities once associated only with indie bands with 4-track recorders. Those indie bands all got their own synths and beat machines, and began reflecting the diverse tastes of the iTunes generation with greater freedom. Genres became blurrier and harder to distinguish from each other, while dozens of new subgenres sprang up overnight.
But as synths, drum machines and samplers found their ways into the hands of younger and less experiences musicians, things changed.
Even something like Auto-Tune, a pitch correction technology once used to make singers sound effortlessly tuneful, was eventually subverted, as if hackers got ahold of it and cracked its code so that it would never work the way it was supposed to again. Cher’s “Believe” had already shown how the exposed fissured of Auto-Tune could sound delightfully wrong, but it was T-Pain, and the army of rappers and R&B singers in his wake, who truly expanded the software’s horizons as an aesthetic choice.
In 2014, small sea changes continue to come about at a rapid clip. YouTube popularizing songs has given way to Vine memes creating hit songs. Smartphones used to only double as MP3 players, now they're equipt with always-available offline streaming services like Spotify. Meanwhile, Apple and other tech companies, often using these kinds of platforms as a loss leader to sell their products or drive up stock prices, have had debilitating effects on the ability of labels and especially artists to actually profit off of their music. But no matter how little money there is, the means of production will continue becoming cheaper. No matter what happens in society, in pop culture, in technology, music finds a way to not just survive but flourish.
Al Shipley is a writer living in Baltimore.