When everyone seems to be listening to online music radio, it’s tough to remember what it was like to listen to music before “online” had to do with something besides city subways. Mobile internet is merging with on-demand music and personal playlists these days (for a great example, check out our new iPhone app!), and the distinctions between personal and publicly accessible music have been pretty blurry for a long time, but as the online music scene keeps moving forward, it only makes sense that the place to look for clues about where it’s headed is …backward.
The Dark Ages Before Online Music
Let’s start at what, for most of us, counts as the beginning: cassette tapes and stereo music players. Lately, even CD’s seem archaic, but from pre-phonograph recordings up through cassette tapes, music distribution was essentially the same: physical recordings that often had questionable value even when they included good tracks, just because they required the listener to shift around “blind” and muddle through plenty of (often terrible) music just to get to the songs they wanted. Compared to previous media, cassettes offered a little more flexibility via the option to create mix tapes, but in those cases the physical limitations of the medium meant that the whole process was far from fast or easy. Given the fact that repeated illegal re-copying of a cassette tended to degrade the sound quality dramatically, getting together a decent-quality personal playlist could also get prohibitively expensive. Clearly, we needed more versatility and more control.
Barring brief dead-ends with efforts like the A-track, we jumped straight from cassettes to CD’s. At first, these seemed like the indestructible and adaptable solution we all seemed to be looking for, but they turned out to be nothing beyond a slightly more high-tech and adaptable application of the same concept: great sound, generally mixed in with noticeably less-great sound, on a medium that could get destroyed or degraded — eliminating the value of the entire album.
The Digital Breakthrough: Shuffling
The arrival of better, multiple-CD systems and programmable playlists meant that this medium offered (and still offers) us faster and more flexible listening options by comparison to the old-school, linear approach, but in some ways fully-exposed CD’s were easier to damage than case-protected tapes, and even limited damage could mean the destruction of an entire collection of songs.
To give CD’s their due, they did give us the opportunity to develop immensely important technological tools something that became key to the development of great online music radio stations: shuffling.
MP3′s, M4A’s, and the other compressed music formats gave us a new step in the same direction, but by putting music in any kind of digital format, we gave shuffling new power and began to open up our music choices beyond the limited options of the proscribed, album format; the arduously assembled personal mix tape; or the time- and training-intensive “expert DJ” radio mix. Finally, we had managed to develop a portable format that gave us some semblance of ease and speed, and clarified what we may have been looking for the whole time: a perfect, individualized balance between controlling and defining our music choices precisely, and enjoying the freedom of tuning in or tuning out and relaxing while someone else made the tough decision, “which track next?”
What All of This Means for Online Music Radio
From MP3s to today’s high-functioning online radio we had a few more steps to take, but the bottom line priorities along the way are still worth noting: portability, personality, and the choice whether to set our own course or let go and let “someone else” decide in ways that really worked. In the cassette age, reliably portable music was the big problem, and getting out of that rut was a key step in the direction of the great options we have today — but there’s still room for improvement in that respect. 3G internet connections and the popularity of the new “on the go” functions for 977music prove that this is still a top priority for all of us — and a place where improvements are still happening. We’re close to reaching the “options anywhere” stage, but we’re not quite there yet.