Being a child of the mid to late 1980’s,the primary ways I would’ve heard music during this time would’ve been on vinyl 45 RPM vinyl records,radio and cassette tape. As a matter of fact if when I would walk into any record stores of my youth such as Musicland,Record Town or any of the number of brick and mortar record stores still very much in operation during that era they’d all have similar arrangements. There would be a few racks of vinyl LP’s,one relatively small rack for CD’s still displayed in the long box format and both walls of the store covered with racks and racks of cassettes. Along with that,especially early on,many bins of 45’s. By the end of the 80’s the 45’s were gone and in the same bins I would see what they now call the “cassingle”,single length cassette tapes. By 1990 vinyl LP’s had taken over as cassettes and CD’s had officially taken over as the main format music was sold in at stores. And it remained that way for the rest of the decade.
Also I noticed the categorization of music changing too. In my childhood,record stores (at least in my neck of the woods) would usually have four labeled sections: Pop,Jazz,Classical and Miscellaneous. That later category usually covered stereo testing,special effect and comedy records. It was in the pop category that you’d find everything from Elvis,Billy Ocean,John Lennon,George Clinton to Hall & Oates. As the 90’s emerged I began to notice a Soul music section. Even in my early teens I could see that the skin color of the artists in this Soul section tended to be scarily segregated. Due to still having an allowance during this period the primary medium of listening to music in my case would be the cassette tape. I had dozens of them by the middle of the decade,some pre-recorded,others mix-tapes made from different sources on my own. By the turn of the millennium,cassettes began to disappear very fast. And cassette player/recorders suddenly became very scarce. Eventually I had all these cassettes everywhere and it wasn’t so easy to play them anymore.
Of course when one is younger,they don’t always realize that as they mature their perception of art will drastically change. For example,before I entered adolescence I was completely bored trailing into art galleries with my parents when we were out of town. I was far more interested in toys and games during my first decade as many children are. Also I was more interested in doing my own art work that analyzing that of others. Music was a whole other matter. My interest in record stores tended to be rather educational and I came to enjoy music and the different ways it was presented as I grew. I noticed that,especially on the relatively lo-fi recordings of the 1950’s and 60’s the scratchy sound of vinyl was appealing. During the 1980’s the clarity and light hum of a cassette,which of course was far closer to the analog tape most music was recorded on at that time than vinyl was,suited the music very well. During the 90’s there was a culture of “vinyl junkies” as I called them,people who resisted and detested the relatively new format of CD’s in favor of vinyl,almost purely because of a reverse type of nostalgia and sentimentality.
How do I feel today about all of this? Well the sound of vinyl is still very appealing to me. And despite the prejudices of some of the more elitist vinyl junkies out there,I always enjoyed CD’s. I will put MP3’s in the same category in terms of sound. However I will still nine times in ten prefer music in some type of portable format I can carry and see,as opposed to digitally encoded bits on an MP3 player. So really is that not becoming the modern version of the vinyl junkies I once questioned? Personally I would say no as my interest in vinyl and CD’s is not a value judgement (as it tended to be with some vinyl purists), but rather an arbitrary preference. History has read cassettes rather differently for me,at least. In fact I often find myself puzzled that I could ever have had such a huge interest in a sometimes clunky and unwieldy format as the cassette,only a step or two removed from the 8-Track in terms of practicality. In fact I am known to chuckle warmly at the quaint notion of the still active “cassette culture”,which is often built around budget reality and availability,because in my heart I know that is really all about the most humanistic way of distributing music by people often without the means and funds for even a standard indie record deal.
Of course,one of the most exciting events in my continuing musical education as an adult has been how the format of music has influenced the content of the music itself. B.B King even mentioned this,referring to his generation of recording,that he had never thought in terms of albums when he began making music because the format didn’t exist. There was a definite art to cramming an entire wealth of musical ideas into a three-four minute single record. Hence a possible reason why so many early blues and jazz recording often sound so vibrant and full of life. During the advent of the album,whole new genres of music emerged that took advantage of the longer recording format. Rock n’ roll,and everything connected to it grew up during the heyday of the long playing album. And of course out of this grew psychedelic music,funk and later electronic music-all of which being so conceptually based took full advantage of the LP format. If you asked me in the last decade and a half how I personally perceive music,it will tend to be in the album format. Perhaps that’s because human beings,as with the technology on which music is recorded,naturally expand their perceptions of music as they continue to mature.