On music consumption

This morning I was thinking about how my music listening has changed over the years. The very first album I bought was Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction, which I bought on a cassette tape with my pocket money for something ridiculous like $15 in 1987.


I didn’t spend too much money over the years on cassettes cos back then we all used to dub them – pretty much everyone had a stereo with 2 tape decks – one for playing and the other for recording.


A few years later CDs came out and wow, music got even more expensive. But the quality was worth it – no more tape hiss. However, I still didn’t spend a whole lot on music – I was still at high school, so the tape dubbing continued – except now the source was a digital quality CD instead of a tape :-) I remember getting Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion 1 AND 2 off my mate’s older brother (hi Ed!) this way.

Come 1997 (woah, 20 years ago) and I was studying computer science at university, and a friend showed me mp3s (hi Flip!). At first I didn’t get it – because HDD space was expensive, so I was like “nah, I don’t really wanna fill my hard drive with music”. But once I realised how easy it was to share music (no more tape dubbing!) I was sold. So I got me a 2Gb Bigfoot hard drive and I was like – wow, loads of space, bring it on.

Bigfoot hard drive

This was the start of a period of CD borrowing and ripping – where you’d “rip” a CD on your computer to convert it into mp3s. Back then on our 2x speed CDROM drives and Pentium 1 processors it would take about half an hour to rip the CD and then I think most of the night(!?) to compress the ripped CD to an mp3 album. Playing an mp3 on your computer (using Winamp) was very CPU intensive, it would take pretty much 100% of your CPU to play an mp3 so you couldn’t use it for anything else while playing.

I fleshed out my music collection by borrowing friends’ CDs and ripping them – then you’d meet up with another fellow ripper (hi Trent!) and share mp3s with them, by unplugging the hard drive from your computer, taking it over to their house, and plugging it into their computer. Even though the mp3s were a digital copy so in theory perfect copies, every now and then you’d come across a track with pops and clicks in it – from when someone with a crappy CDROM drive would rip something.

1999 and Napster came along. Peer to peer sharing of music over the Internet! Almost any album you wanted, available to download, for free! Although we only had 56k modems to connect to the Internet, it still meant you could download an entire album in about 2 hours – much quicker and easier than ripping! And then we started running the Linux version of Napster on the University’s computers, so we could pull down an album in about ten or 20 minutes.

A few years later I was working my first post-Uni job so now I had money to spend. I did have a guilty conscience over all that music I’d ripped off so I started buying CDs – which would get converted to mp3s straight away, then the CD would never get played again. I’d moved to Auckland and I started going to concerts – my loose rule was – if I have an album by a band, and they come to Auckland, then I should go see them live. That was my way of supporting an artist.

Anyway, back to the mp3s, in the early 2000s. I was never a straight-up music hoarder. I didn’t want to have any old shite in my collection – it had to be good, memorable music, that I would still like in a few years. I became extremely pedantic with my organising and naming of the mp3s. Every mp3 had to be named correctly, with full metadata (ID3v1 and V2 tags), the correct genre, album art. I used JRiver Media Center software to manage it all. That program could do everything – I even used my newfound VB skills to write a plugin for it.

JRiver Media Center

Every time I’d get an album (usually from Napster, or from copying friends music over our corporate network (hi Deano!)), I’d spend ages scrutinizing it – do I like it? Will I still like it a few years from now? If this album came on randomly, would I listen to it? If it came on publicly, would I be embarrased by it? If it met those criteria then it was worthy enough to be added to my library. I’d almost always have to rename it correctly and populate all the metadata. All of which took time and effort.

All this time I was still constrained to listening to these mp3s through a PC – which was OK. I had a PC hooked up to a stereo in my bedroom, and then at work I’d be working on a PC wearing headphones all day. But mp3s on the go wasn’t yet possible for me. Early portable mp3 players were clunky, prone to crashing, had crap interfaces, or just didn’t have the capacity to store my entire collection.

The first game changer that came out was Apple’s iPod in 2001. I remember when it came out – it took the mp3 world by storm, mainly because it was pretty and easy to use. It solved the problem navigating through 1000 songs thanks to its scrollwheel interface. The downside of it was you had to run a Mac computer to use it – and absolutely no one had one of those. Back then Apple was dead. No one had a Mac PC or laptop. The only place I’d seen them was in the Uni’s computer labs.


If only I’d bought Apple shares back then! I knew the iPod was a hit, but I didn’t think to invest in the company. It turned out to be the beginning of Apple’s turnaround. Back then their shares were around $1.50, now they’re $117.

The first iPod wasn’t big enough for me though – it was 5Gb and I probably had around 20Gb of music by then. But Moore’s law caught up to my music collection, and the 4th generation iPod with 60Gb capacity (and Windows compatibility) was the first one I bought, in 2004. At last, my music everywhere.

In 2010 I moved to the UK and first heard about Spotify, which some of my friends were using. I ignored it for a few years, because I was pretty happy with my mp3 collection, and because I thought they might get shutdown by the music industry (or just go broke), as so many other online music services had.

2014 and I started using Spotify at work, just to try it out. I realised that their playlists solve the problem of what to listen to – when you’ve got hundreds of albums to choose from picking one can be tough. Spotify then became my main source – I installed it on my iPad and that was our main source of music in the house.

So, alas, my carefully curated music collection became obsolete. Here it is, on my laptop right now, still frozen in 2014. The _2014 folder is for new music for curation.


So, I’m a happy Spotify user. Until last week. My girlfriend bought me an Amazon Echo for Christmas, and the voice interface has me sold. I say “Alexa, play music”. And it replies “OK, here’s a station you might like: Adele”. And I’m usually fine with what it (she?) chooses. Alexa has further removed the choice – I don’t even need to think about which playlist to play. I just say “play music” and that’s it. I’ve gone from an avid music collector before to not really caring what I listen to now. Life’s too short to be tagging mp3s.

Anyway, I didn’t intend for this post to be so long – I was just going to write how Alexa has killed my mp3 collection and ended up going on a trip down memory lane. I’ve added a new “Musing” category to this blog as I have a few more topics in mind.


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