Music has always played a major role in my life. It was with me in middle school and high school as a school bus took me away from Los Angeles daily, I was robbed for my Walkman on Sunset boulevard, and I’ve caught live music all over Los Angeles from Staples Center to the Great Western Forum to small backyards. While most of the time I reach for 90’s rock and hip hop, I still love seeking out and finding new and exciting artists.
Today, all genres of music are at my reach. Everything is on my phone. With a few taps and swipes I can listen to playlists based on release dates, moods, and any other theme imaginable. I can pull up a genre or random music based on an artist I like, or just listen to their greatest hits. Then there’s my favorite way to listen: by album.
Listening to a full album has become a bit antiquated. Most people today favor playlists. In the end, at least for me, it always comes back to the album. A mixtape or playlist may help me find someone I like. But after I find that artist, I want to hear a full project as they intended.
Back in the (Analog) Day
Elementary school was mostly about learning English and adapting to American culture. I listened to music mostly on the radio. I do remember hanging out with a friend and flipping through a crate of his older brother’s records but not being able to play them. It was middle school when music began to play a major role. My parents decided to place me in the LAUSD bus program. Each morning, I would take the school bus out of Los Angeles to Woodland Hills starting in seventh grade. The long bus rides demanded a way to kill time. My choice was the Sony Walkman. I would stare out the window as the bus traveled up and down the 101 freeway with music playing directly into my ears every day.
The first tape I bought was Snoop Dogg’s debut album Doggystyle. I got a dollar here and there from my parents doing chores around the house until I had the money to get it. My mom thankfully never censored music but if Pops had known what I was buying then, he would’ve tried to prevent it. He actually tried to get me to return it, or at least stop listening to it, once when he heard what was coming from my room. He did not succeed.
I was a sophomore in high school selling Mexican spicy mango lollipops at a predominantly white school and having no trouble saving up money to feed my music habit. My tape collection by this time included Nirvana, Ice Cube, Bush, DJ Quik, among others. At some point that year, I got a small combination CD and cassette player as a gift. The first CD I purchased was the Friday soundtrack. Between Cube, DJ Quik, and “I Wanna Get Next to You” by Rose Royce, it was an instant classic soundtrack with songs I still listen to today. And with that one purchase, I moved from buying tapes to CD. Not that I got rid of the tapes I had at the time. I couldn’t see myself spending money on the same albums on CD when there were new albums to check out.
The Digital Age
I got my first real job as a junior and every paycheck meant a trip to a music store to buy CD’s. This continued for several years after high school. I got married, became a father, worked and attended college, and still made sure to buy CD’s each and every time I got paid. I didn’t even stop buying CD’s when Napster came onto the scene. I used it as a tool. I would download a sampling of a new artist’s songs and if I liked them, I would pick up their CD on my next trip.
Living right off Sunset Boulevard, Amoeba Music was a short drive away. It became the store of choice as Napster and LimeWire were all but shut down and iTunes began to secure the end of the CD. My excitement for new music faded right around this time. The new artists of the mid to late 2000’s simply didn’t do it for me. Instead of picking up new CD’s, I used those trips to find albums missing from my collection. That period added more 90s rock and hip-hop albums but also included blues, classical, 80’s pop, and other genres. For someone who was disillusioned with the state of new music, I was certainly able to expose myself to lots of new sounds.
As time passed and life responsibilities required more time, attention, and money, the trips to Amoeba became less frequent. My old iPod became the friend my Walkman was in high school. It held my entire CD library plus all the hard-to-find Napster tracks from years back and it went everywhere. Then in 2018, the replacement battery I had previously installed held shorter charges and the iPod became less responsive, less dependable. It was finally time to make the phone the center of my music collection.
Spotify’s free version provided all the music I needed but it lacked one thing: the ability to play an album, in order, uninterrupted. After years of denying music streaming as a reality, I buckled and upgraded to Spotify Premium. Suddenly, everything was there. If I wanted Nine Inch Nails, it was there. If I wanted Tupac, it was there. If I wanted Gary Clark Jr., The Cure, Vince Staples, or The Beatles, they were all there.
The Old is New Again
In early 2019, I took a trip to Shanghai. While there, I had the entire Beatles catalog downloaded on my phone so I didn’t have to worry about Internet service. That was when it hit me: what will I listen to if the internet goes down even for a week? Buying CD’s didn’t make sense anymore. They too are digital constructs. If my mind was set on buying physical music in case our networked comforts suddenly disappeared, it would have to be vinyl. Vinyl can be played on a manual crank record player if necessary.
And now you could say my musical evolution has come full circle. The album is still where it’s at for me. Playlists are great but the album listening experience grants you a unique connection with the artist. I will continue to stream on the road and have everything at my reach but it looks like as the COVID closures end, I will once again find myself at music stores looking for bargains. And before you know it, my kids will flip through my crates of vinyl the way I did all those years ago.