Let’s Get Physical (Music and Medium in the Modern Age)

Joel Cuthbert bio




I don’t quite remember my first cassette player. The brand or model or features pretty much escape me. All I remember is I hated it. I hated it because I was seven. I hated it because my sister was nine and she had gotten a camera for her Christmas gift and that particular black box seemed somehow more magical.  Little did I know, in all the passion of my jealousy, and all the melodrama of my adolescence, that this little portable cassette player would be the beginning of it all. I remember long family drives to see my grandparents (the 45 minute trip to Hamilton made for the perfect full length of an album) sitting in the back seat singing along with the sounds escaping into my ears from that little incredible device. Even on short trips around town I knew I could squeeze in a few songs coming and going. Soon my tape collection of 25-30 tapes, plus a few homemade mixes (some carefully captured from the radio, some selected and collected from borrowed tapes from the library) would soon give way to CDs. I was born in the prime of our passing times to catch that shift midswing. Soon in my teens I was buying up CDs like mad. Those early days of minimal responsibilities and maximal spending. I remember late highschool I’d take my parents car and pick up my best friend in a near by town, and we’d make our weekly pilgrimage around the tri-cities worth of music shops, hitting one or two per city and then ending up at home, sorting through the days harvest, like miner’s at the end of a log day’s haul. All that tearing of plastic, all that compare and contrast.

Well time continued to change, and soon I was painstakingly ripping a solid 400+ CD collection to a computer for back-up and to finally use to load up the newest device. Gone were the days of lugging around an enourmous 375 CD carry case (which I once left on the roof of my car, drove off… ! Caught by a stranger and returned safely, my entire adolesent wonder and rage intact) but instead I was now sporting a fancy little all-in-one device. 30GBs was my starting point (I was a serious music consumer, so some precious 4 or 8 gig device was for joggers, or.. or … KIDS! This was serious stuff!) I would take my evening walks, now seemingly loaded with a large chunk of my collection with me at all times, I felt a shift. No longer was I bound by whatever album I’d left the house with. Suddenly my moods could shift and I could… dare I say it?… SHUFFLE! Why not take this fullly diversified personal expression of self through painstaken collection and see how fate would wind it’s way through genre and mood and more.

Sometime around this point I began my job which I have kept in varying degrees of weekly hours at a local used music store. From this front row seat I have waged the tides of conversation from Music’s death to rebirth to death again. From the looming challenge of the digital area to it’s recent found footing in the remergence of Vinyl and and even Cassette Tape consumption. I myself, though I’ve made use of the modern trends in streaming services and rely heavily on the ever-ready digital selections on my cellular phone (still staying safe with that 32GBs I might add) still find myself buying up my music in object form. I wanted to explore a bit my impressions of this return to an interest in the physicality of things. The great battle that rages in music consumption is the adaptability of the medium to our needs (ahem, our apparent needs) for ease of use and accessibility. I will perhaps add to those two criteria a yet defined notion that we will perhaps call “X” factor. No. Not the game show, nor just the algebraic concept of x, though perhaps that is close, because like a good formula, this mysterious X will evade definition, and perhaps change it’s definition with it’s contextual use.

Why is it, I must ask, that I go out and buy a $30 Vinyl Record of an album I can currently legally stream for free on a device that I generally have on my person at all times? The minds abuzz in the technological world are working to find easier and quicker ways to break down the distance between You, the listener, and the music. In this line of thought it seems that the resurgence of physical medium (though often thought marginally niche in it’s appeal) cannot be fully ignored. Surely something beyond sheer nostalgia for baby boomer’s missing the dusty den’s of their youth, surrounded by stacks of classic rock gems, but instead something of real value beyond just a mode of consuming recorded music. I have no interest in this particular writing to wrestle with the arguments of sound qualities, I assure you it is a conversation I have heard boastfully (and seemingly with great finality) argued from either side.

Instead I want to instead point to my personal experience with physical medium. Though I must confess, it is perhaps a craze with more buzz about it than it can make good on. There is something in the limitations of physical medium that transforms the attitude of the listener. Firstly there is the stubborn linear nature of the media consumed. No longer am I crafting my own personal mix, cutting out the songs I decided didn’t fit the mood. Now I am forced (perhaps stubbornly at first) to listen (endure) the album as it was crafted, flowing as it was intended. Maybe then, exercising my easily atrophied muscle known as patience, I begin to see certain isolated tracks as part of a larger whole, they begin to grow a little shine to them. Secondly, there is the regained delight of more enjoyably consuming the visual side of an album. Who isn’t a bit taken by a beautifully designed album cover? The object must be opened, there are layers of liner notes, creative packaging, lyric books and more. Thirdly, and this is for me where the power really is, is the act of listening. Chances are, if I’m putting on a record, I am at home. I am clearly not in a rush, I am intentionally listening. Whether that be a full attended listening, or at least choosing the appropriate soundtrack for whatever activity I am involved in, while staying within listening range of the music being played. Suddenly I am in the posture of listening more fully. I am present to the music and enjoy the way it enriches my reading, my chores, my living.

And maybe I’m pushing a bunch of emotion on something so I can feel a little better about spending my meagre just above minimum-wage paycheck on a $30 jazz record. But maybe there is a little something magical in it, at least for me. Anways, I’ve been writing long enough, I’ve got that weird Eno & Harmonia 76′ lined up for a spin. Let’s coax it’s strange cover out of it’s plastic sleeve, let’s place it up on my turntable (the same one I used to play my parents few records on as a child), listen to the clicks and whirs of the mechanics trace their motions, watch the arm swing, and know these rituals like the steps in a magic trick.  Listen for the pop, and dissapear.

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