A few years ago, I dumped a bunch of old cassette tapes in a box, carried them to the Goodwill thrift store and said, “Take what you want and throw the rest away.” The box contained a jumble of commercial cassettes and homemade mixtapes. I spent hours making some of those mixes from LP records and CDs, so I could listen to them on the road or give them away to other music lovers. Others were given to me by a friend. They just weren’t important anymore and I needed the closet space.
Now I kinda wish I had hung onto some of those mixtapes, even though I only have one beat up little jam box to play them on. They were a link to the past. A past that not everyone shared.
I realized that yesterday when I saw a question in the forums on RateYourMusic, a site that’s been my home on the web since 2002: How did music lovers find and treasure those obscure gems before the Golden Age of the Internet? The question surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. A lot of young music lovers are coming of age who have never known a time without personal computers and the Internet.
Now, so much great music is at your fingertips if you can just figure out where to look. It’s more of a case of looking for a needle in a haystack. When I was in my teens and 20s, seeking out obscure musical gems was more like an old-fashioned treasure hunt.
First a bit of context. I was born in Texas in 1965 and grew up in a small town where most easily accessible music was Top 40 pop, country music and Spanish-language conjunto (I avoided the last two categories until relatively recently). I really came of age as a music lover in the late ’70s. Disco and mellow pop dominated the AM band in my neck of the woods and hard rock was a tasty forbidden fruit you wanted but mostly couldn’t have. We heard a bit of new wave, but punk was completely unknown. I wasn’t satisfied and was constantly on the hunt for great new music.
Here’s how I went about it:
Just like today, radio was a frustrating medium. Playlists were determined by money, not art – or even coolness. It just got worse and worse as time went on, especially when the automated playlist arrived, sometime in the ’80s. But it wasn’t useless. Late at night, I would lie in bed, with my ear glued to the radio, constantly tuning and searching. Sometimes, if the ionosphere was in a giving mood, I could listen to 99.5 KISS, a pioneering hard rock station from San Antonio that broke a lot of bands that later became big names – like Rush and Triumph. I heard AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (I thought it was “Dirty Deeds and the Thunder Chief”) on that station before it was officially released in the U.S. There were also a couple of great hard rock stations that fought one another for a little slice of the airwaves – KNCN “C-101” at 101.3 FM from Sinton-Taft (near Corpus Christi) and KLOL 101.1 FM out of Houston. I first heard “Whip It” by Devo from one of those stations. Not sure which.
Other people’s record collections
I have a relative who really lived it up in the ’70s. His official class motto was “Learn as if you’ll live forever,” but he claimed the real motto was “Live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” He has since turned into a civilized family man, but over that period of unbridled fun, he put together one whopper of a record collection. It featured lots of great music from the hippie era that evolved into what became known as hard rock and later on, metal. As a teenager I loved to dig through it. Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Wet Willie, Rare Earth, Vanilla Fudge, The Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad… I never knew what I might find, but I always knew it would kick ass and it never let me down. I went through a similar stage of music discovery with my dad’s extensive collection of classical music.
There were no music stores in my town of 2,000. Medium-sized Victoria had Musicland and Hastings, which were mediocre and overpriced. I still pored through what they had. Any time I had a chance to shop for music in any real city like San Antonio, I took advantage of it. I used to buy 8-track tapes on band trips using the money Mom had given me for food. Later on in the CD era, the music stores still sucked, but began to have displays full of cut-outs, something you never see anymore. They would drill holes or cut little grooves in the cases of CDs they couldn’t get rid of and sell them at big discounts. I bought those at random and sometimes discovered great music. When I moved into the Austin area and got access to Waterloo Records and Cheapo Disks, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Friends & classmates
Back in the olden days, we used to have flesh-and-blood friends. No texting or e-mailing or instant messaging. No place to upload or download anything. You shared music in person. It was a social experience, and a great way to discover new music. When you heard something awesome coming out of someone’s speakers, you found out what it was. When you found something awesome, you invited your friends to come over and listen. You might loan an album or tape out and let them play it for a while and tape it. Or, to make sure they didn’t lose it or damage it, you’d tape it for them.
On special occasions, we might get to take music to school and play it. When I was a freshman in high school, some kid got permission to play Boston’s debut album over the PA. That totally blew me away. I first heard Van Halen from a portable 8-track player during a Boy Scout campout, AC/DC’s Back in Black and Cheap Trick’s Dream Police I discovered on the band bus and I discovered the Cars’ first album while hanging round in the band hall.
For a few years in the ’90s, I got stuck in a little backwater about a half an hour from Waco. Waco was a medium-sized city with bad radio and not much of a record store (Hastings, yippee). I got tired of driving into Waco looking for tunes and coming back empty-handed, so I started ordering from a catalog. There were little descriptions and if you liked something, you put a check in an envelope and sent it off. I really looked forward to those packages in the mail. I ordered some good reggae that way and got a wonderful compilation of hits from blues singer Big Maybelle Smith.
The mixtape is a lost art. Music lovers spent a lot of time making them for years, from the vinyl LP era right into the CD era. I made them for myself, so I could play favorite songs on the road or in the Walkman, while walking or mowing the lawn. Or I made them specifically with others in mind. I could go with a theme and title it — for example, “Long Hard ’70s” featuring songs over 6 minutes long from groups like Zeppelin or Trapeze; or I could just be as random as possible. I liked to make mixes where every song was a surprise – reggae followed by grunge, followed by classical music, followed by blues, etc. It was a personal thing. The person I gave it to knew that I was either trying to give them just what I thought they would like, or give them a little slice of my own taste in music, or a bit of both.
We fretted over which brand to buy – Maxell, Memorex, TDK. You had to get something that held at least 90 minutes, so you could get two full albums onto it (maybe). If you cheaped out too much, you could really tell — you’d get a lot of hiss. The 100-minute cassette seemed like a huge innovation at the time. You could get one album on each side without worrying about cutting a song off if it ran a bit longer than the standard.
I hit the jackpot in the ’90s when a friend who had worked at a college radio station gave me a bunch of his old mix tapes. He turned me onto postupink, which was a whole new branch of rock ‘n’ roll for me at the time. That’s how I found The Chameleons, Ultravox, Shriekback, Tones on Tail, Killing Joke, Inspiral Carpets, House of Love, Levitation and lots of others. He usually wrote the name of the song, not the group, so I still had a lot of hunting and discovering to do, trying to track everything down on CD.
We don’t really get to do that anymore. Now that you can burn a jillion songs on a CD-R, DVD or load them onto a portable player, there’s not much room for personalization. No thought about what song should follow another, no room for a theme.
The Internet was a godsend for people like me. There are now so many ways to discover and share music, so many ways to avoid commercial radio and find the good stuff. I wouldn’t want to go back to the way it was. But there’s also a downside. When you don’t have to try as hard to get new music, it doesn’t mean as much to you. It’s more disposable, easier to take for granted. Every song, even one you like, is just one file among thousands on your hard drive. If you lost it, you could probably download it again within minutes.
I’d like to get some comments on this from other music lovers old enough to remember a time before the Internet. Also, if you get a chance, pay a visit to the thread in RateYourMusic that inspired this post: “I have a question to music lovers who have been treasuring music before the Golden Age of Internet!” It’s already got some interesting posts.