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The Decade In Music: The Way We Listen Now
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The Decade In Music: The Way We Listen Now

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Finally this hour: Music in the digital decade. Way back when, the move from 78s to vinyl records let people listen longer, and the cassette tape made music portable. Over the past decade, the MP3 has yanked music free from any physical format entirely. As 2009 comes to a close, we'll be reporting on changes in music and the music business in the last 10 years.

Today, Jacob Ganz has been talking with people about the evolution in music listening.

JACOB GANZ: Let's start out with one unassailable fact about the way people listen to music in 2009.

Mr. JUSTIN OUELLETTE (Creator, Muxtape): Technology has spoken. The people have spoken. There's kind of no putting the genie back in the bottle.

GANZ: That's Justin Ouellette, the creator of the music Web site Muxtape. Suddenly, everything about the way we listen to music is different. Well, maybe not so suddenly. In this era of immediate gratification, it's easy to forget the history behind the effortless download.

So, here goes. In the middle of the 1990s, programmers came up with a method of shrinking the size of digital audio files. They called it MPEG-1 audio layer 3. At the very end of that decade, college student Shawn Fanning started a Web-based program, called Napster, that enabled users to share MP3 files. Feverish bootlegging followed.

The recording industry battled back with lawsuits. Apple dominated the market for MP3 players with its iPod, released in late 2001. Online retailers began offering legal downloading alternatives. Apple dominated this market with iTunes. MP3 blogs, aggregators and BitTorrent programs offered new ways to own music without actually paying for it. Record sales collapsed.

But here's the thing: It's possible that music lovers today have more access, and listen to more music, than ever before.

Mr. SASHA FRERE-JONES (Pop Music Critic, The New Yorker): There's just a staggering amount of music to listen to. There are days when I really don't know what to do.

GANZ: That's Sasha Frere-Jones, the pop-music critic for the New Yorker. He's not alone. Here's music journalist Maura Johnston.

Ms. MAURA JOHNSTON (Music Journalist): When I was commuting, I used to bring this like, huge wallet of CDs with me, so I had 24 CDs, which was like a big deal. But, I mean, now you can just bring thousands of songs with you on the train. Like, you don't have to make those choices where you're thinking about, OK, well, I don't have the space to bring this. So, what should I bring instead? I think that now, it's shifted from a question of space to a question of time.

GANZ: So what do we do when we're crunched for time? We multitask.

Mr. ALEJANDRO CERCAS: I listen to music when I do everything, basically. I never go out without my headphones on: walking, subway, doing homework, airplane rides. I always have it on, basically.

GANZ: That's Alejandro Cercas, an 18-year-old student in New York. He's standing in Union Square across the street from the empty shell of what was New York's last Virgin megastore - in fact, the city's last major chain music store, period. The crumbling of brick and mortar is a tough reality for Josh Madell, who, gulp, owns a record store in Manhattan called Other Music.

Mr. JOSH MADELL (Owner, Other Music): I think people know a lot more about music; they listen to a lot more music. But they're not necessarily owning it. Maybe they have a file of it that they listen to for a while and then it gets lost, or they delete it. Or maybe they just stream it. Maybe they just listen to it on the bands' MySpace pages, you know, whatever it is, you know, hear it in passing.

GANZ: For Madell, that's the core flaw of the new listening experience.

Mr. MADELL: I think that people's connection to these artists are maybe not as deep.

Mr. CERCAS: Time does kind of slip away when I'm listening to music. It's, like, whoa, what was I just listening to two seconds ago? But, I mean, you get kind of used to it.

GANZ: Alejandro Cercas isn't the only music consumer in Union Square.

Mr. CHATHAN: It's Chathan.

GANZ: Just Chathan.

Mr. CHATHAN: I don't go by last name. I'm an artist.

GANZ: Chathan is 23 years old. He's listening to Lady Gaga on his headphones.

(Soundbite of song, "Paparazzi")

LADY GAGA (Performer): (Singing) We are the crowd, we're�

Mr. CHATHAN: I usually don't purchase a full album unless I like the artist. I'll buy songs here and there. I buy about - like, 10 songs a month.

GANZ: Do you ever buy records in stores?

Mr. CHATHAN: I do.

GANZ: What type of stores do you go to?

Mr. CHATHAN: I used to go to Virgin, that's right behind us, but it's closed. So I haven't bought an album since they closed.

GANZ: There are still people who buy records at stores like Other Music, but Josh Madell says they're almost never as young as Chathan. On the other hand, Madell knows that the Internet feeds the open-mindedness of the customers who do still come into his store.

Mr. MADELL: There is so much interesting, diverse music from around the world that is able to find an audience now.

GANZ: Which is, indisputably, a good thing for everybody. And Sasha Frere-Jones says MP3s make it quick and easy.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: MP3s are kind of the best and the worst thing in the world. We've never been able to trade music so quickly. I will talk to somebody on IM, and they will give me a song while we're talking. But I don't really like how MP3s sound.

(Soundbite of song, "Paparazzi")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) We're plastic but we still have fun.

GANZ: We used to hear big sound coming out of big speakers. Our friends would come over and listen to a brand-new album we just took out of the shrink wrap. Now, we download songs from MP3 blogs, post a link on Sendspace and send a note to friends, or stream the song from our Tumblr.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: Because of MP3s, everyone can get their hands on it right away. I always think of that as a conversation. That's the word I have in my head.

GANZ: Instead of the conversation happening between a few friends, you can now listen to music with anyone, anywhere, any way you want.

Take the Web site muxtape.com. It launched in March 2007. The project of Web designer Justin Ouellette, it served one simple purpose: It was an Internet-based, mix-tape site. No dating, no video games, no blogging, no user profiles, just 12 songs from your own music collection that you could upload to the site for others to stream.

The response was immediate. A huge community of music fans sharing their tastes, without actually trading files. Even so, Ouellette says record companies were quick to object. Ouellette got his first letter within a few days of the site going live.

Mr. OUELLETTE: They actually saw the potential in it.

GANZ: Then they shut it down. But even within the industry, there's been a recognition that an era has ended.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: I was talking to the head of a label. He's from the vinyl generation. And he said, now I even feel like it's a big deal to turn to the CD player and put a CD in. He's so used to clicking on links and having it be right there.

GANZ: The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones says telling people how they're supposed to listen to music is a losing game.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: To tell a kid, oh, that iPod, you know, forget that. I want you to go out and buy a turntable and an amplifier and two speakers, and then you've got to take the record out of the sleeve - you know, they'll be asleep before you finish your sentence.

GANZ: If technology today speaks in the voice of the consumer, what does a musician have to do to get into the conversation? That story tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Ganz.

(Soundbite of song, "Paparazzi")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) 'Cause you know that baby I, I'm your biggest fan. I'll follow you until you love me. Papa-paparazzi. Baby, there's no other superstar, you know that I'll be your papa-paparazzi.

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