In 1981 a long-playing record cost nearly £5.00. That’s about £20 in today’s money.
Why does this matter? Bear with me. I’m imagining how I’d describe the world in 2017 to my teenage self. Back then buying music was simple. Save up every month for one record. Listen at leisure. Start thinking about the next purchase in about four weeks’ time.
So, I imagine asking the question. “If £5.00 buys you 10 songs in 1981, how many songs can you get for £5 (£20 in today’s money) in 2017?” One track, maybe two? £50 for an LP maybe?
The answer, of course, is that you can pretty much get any song ever recorded for £10 per month courtesy of Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer and others.
The sheer volume of music that’s available would delight my 80s geek-self. But I don’t think he would have been all that astonished. Let’s not forget that at the start of the decade there were early modems sending data to the home. Minitel (remember that) was bring rolled out in France with nine million terminals in use at its peak.
The Boss, bits and bytes
Digital recording was also in the ascendancy. Classical radio stations were beginning to broadcast in bits and bytes. Bruce Springsteen got slammed for using digital technology to record The River, one of the first albums produced this way. Not quite that Bob Dylan ‘Judas’ moment but near enough.
Put all the pieces together and you could easily make the case for music being piped digitally to the home. In fact, the first track available to download dropped in 1993. Take a bow, Aerosmith, who released a bonus track from their Get a Grip sessions. At 3 minutes and 14 seconds it took more than an hour to download. But 10,000 CompuServe users did just that in the first week alone.
No, what’s genuinely amazing about Spotify and its ilk is the price. An all you can eat audio buffet for about 30p per day, 15p if you’re a student. After that? I reckon convenience and choice come a close second and third. Why flick through a stack of old CDs when you can just ask Alexa to play Where Is My Mind without leaving the comfort of your sofa.
The downside of audio abundance
So, what’s the downside? Audiophiles and musicians complain about the impact of digital compression on sound quality. Neil Young famously tried to launch a new music player, Pono, that aimed to replicate studio quality sound. Albums were expected to cost $9.00 – $24.00 until the project went on hold about a year ago. Vinyl die-hards can even part with $45.00 for the joy of owning a 2-LP, 45 rpm version of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (180 grams of course).
The pursuit of audio perfection was even the subject of an installation at a recent Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition where thousands of pounds worth of hi-fi equipment played a non-stop loop of Colourbox in an attempt to emulate the professional studio experience.
As for me, I once owned about 250 records (if you include all those dodgy 1990s dance 12 inches). But these days just a few dozen have survived several vinyl culls down the years as I relocated from digs, to flats, to a small house in south London.
It’s not over yet, mind. In a few weeks’ time we’re on the move again, this time to Berlin. The romantic inside me says no record gets left behind. The pragmatist looks at the remains of my analogue archive and urges me to de-clutter. It’s going to be a struggle, physical and emotional, either way.