Buying Music  -  what an Evolution

March 23, 2017

I was on one of those interminable YouTube spirals the other day wherein I go from one video to the other.  Sometimes I end up exploring things on one level and other times I end up digging deep down to find old film work that has been converted for digital viewing.

This time I was caught up in watching the performance of an old, favourite piece of music called ‘Time’.  It was written by Eric Woolfsen and Alan Parsons, and recorded by the Alan Parsons Project in 1981.

In this video, Alan Parsons looks like a tough character.  I decided to look into his life away from the Alan Parsons Project group to find out what he was like as a person.  What I discovered was that Alan was not only a musician and singer, but also a well-respected sound engineer.  He did the mix for a couple of the Beatles’ Albums.  He seemed like a pleasant, intelligent, and confident guy, which surprised me, but shouldn’t have, given his credits in the world of music.

I watched a couple of his interviews that were about sound recording.  In one of them he traced the sound-recording methods from the early 60’s up to today.  His talk about the changes in recording methods started me thinking about the changes I’ve faced when listening and buying music since the late 50’s.

Initially, what came to mind was the first record I ever owned.  My mom and dad bought it for me and it was a 78 rpm record of ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’.  I played the record so many times that I wore out the groves.  I think my folk’s intent was to motivate me to keep up with my piano lessons and practice more.  It worked.  Evidently that recording was a classic, because you can find the music in its entirety on several YouTube sites.

The only way I had to discover music of the day during the 50’s was on the radio or when it was played on someone else’s record player.  You could buy music as singles on 78 rpm or 45 rpm records.  There were Long Playing (LP) record albums that played at 33⅓ rpm that we can still buy today.  All of these were available in a few shops around Calgary, but I usually ended up buying my records at The Bay or Eaton’s.

My interest in music records began when I was about fourteen, in 1958.  In those days, in Calgary, you found out the name of the music piece and went out to buy your own copy of the record.  Customers at the record store wanted to sell pristine vinyl disks, so no store would allow the records to be played before they were bought.  You just had to know the name of the music piece to be sure that you were getting what you wanted.

The significant change for me occurred when I moved to England in 1966.  In England, the better record stores had small booths with good quality earphones where you could listen to sample pieces from a record you might be interested in.  You picked out the record from the stack, took it to a person behind the counter who would direct you to a booth and then play the record.  If you liked it, they would wrap it up for you.  If you didn’t, they would put it back in the sleeve, seal it up, and put the record back on the rack.

Music buying in 60s

Buying records in England in the 60’s at HMV.  Note the listening booths in the background

Evidently, in the 50’s in Britain, there was a record player at each booth and you could play the record yourself.  By the time I arrived in 1966 that was no longer available.  I can understand why.  The record stores must have had many damaged records that they couldn’t sell.

The cassette tape (1962) and the Walkman (1979) were introduced to the music scene.  Then, any record store would play selected pieces for you with no risk to them of a record being damaged or worn.  The sound isolation booths disappeared at this time and people listened to the sampled music with high quality earphones provided by the music store.  This was the way it stayed on both sides of the Atlantic until the CD arrived.

One other thing that the cassette tape brought into common practice was the illegal copying of recorded music.  Everyone I knew back then supplemented their music library with cassette copies of records that friends owned.

The CD era started in 1982 and went on for some time, but started losing traction when music became available as digital files that could be distributed via the internet.

Today most companies or musicians wanting to sell music no longer use a physical entity for distribution and sales.  Now we can preview anything we want to buy, almost independently of where we are located.  The music can then be downloaded to computers or personal listening devices like iPods, MP3 players, smartphones, or tablets.

What a stark difference between this and the days of the 50’s and 60’s when you had to buy a record at a specific record store.  What’s more, you can spend whole evenings in the YouTube trap, watching performances of the original artists playing or singing the music you like.  To think, my grandchildren will know of nothing different and expect nothing less.