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.