Tom Ross: Maybe the medium really is the message
With rumors that CDs are on their way out, my memories of vinyl are spinning
September 7, 2003
Perhaps it was only coincidence, but my invitation to join AARP arrived in the same week that CNN.com announced that music CDs are dead. Both missives were potentially depressing.
The first affirmed my undeniable membership in the growing ranks of baby boomers who someday may have to admit that they are certified old farts. The second confirmed that it is increasingly difficult for geezers to keep up with the dizzying pace of changes in entertainment media.
“Study: CDs may soon go the way of vinyl,” the headline read. Vinyl was the way to record music when the late Marshall McLuhan pronounced “The medium is the message!”
McLuhan was somewhat focused to a degree on old-school media such as the telegraph, radio and television. So, it’s intriguing to speculate on what he would say today about compact discs giving way to digital downloads. What is the message behind the study by Forrester Research that predicts that “CDs, DVDs and any other forms of physical media will become obsolete”?
The first recorded music I ever purchased for myself was intended to be played at 45 revolutions per minute. My recollection isn’t 100 percent (after all, I’m eligible to join the AARP and claim a 10 percent discount on a meal of biscuits and gravy at thousands of chain restaurants nationwide), but I think I paid 69 cents for a copy of “Keep on Dancin'” by the Gentrys. I still have that little platter of vinyl.
I went on to invest heavily in larger pieces of vinyl meant to be played at 33 1/3 rpm. My collection grew until it was a significant burden when it came time to move into a new apartment. Ultimately, most of my record collection was damaged by a flood, and I drove it to a landfill where I treated those precious albums like disposable Frisbees.
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Imagine my chagrin when I learned that I could have sold that collection on e-Bay for enough money to finance a college education. Who would have ever imagined that my old Moby Grape LP would someday be sought after by retro vinyl collectors?
Similarly, how many of you let your collection of eight-track tapes go for prices ranging from 15 to 30 cents at garage sales?
I’m proud to say I skipped over the whole eight-track revolution of the late ’60s and ’70s. I like to think I was a visionary who knew a dead-end technology when he spotted it. And I know that if some of my readers are honest with themselves, they’ll admit they still have Three Dog Night on eight-track buried in a cardboard box somewhere in the basement.
The clunky old eight-track cartridges look like techno dinosaurs — they were about the size of a Norman Mailer novel. They played music in a continuous loop, meaning over-the-road truckers could listen to the same Merle Haggard tunes over and over all the way from Atlanta to Little Rock, without having to punch a button on the dash.
The eight-track system was developed by Bill Lear, the same guy who was the principal behind LearJet. In 1996 and 1967, Lear convinced Ford, GM and Chrysler to offer the option of factory installed.
Vinyl LPs and cassettes have come and gone. But today, if you type “eight-track tapes” into the Google search engine, you can locate Web sites where collectors are offering cartridges that typically range from $4 to $7. Some rare eight-tracks go much higher.
You can pick up the Grease Soundtrack featuring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in very good condition for a mere $4. The same goes for the Jonathan Livingston Seagull soundtrack with Neil Diamond. The best of Bill Cosby’s standup routine will cost you $5, as will Disco Dyn-o-mite — 20 Original Hits. However, if you are a connoisseur of avant-garde rock, and you just have to have the eight-track version of Frank Zappa’s “Apostrophe,” you’re going to have to part with $25.
The thing I can’t figure out is whether any of the collectors actually own eight-track tape players in working condition. Maybe they have one in their 1966 Mustang.
It was McLuhan who said, “Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village.” And that was before the proliferation of e-mail and the Internet.
As a C.O.F., I take heart from another of his catchphrases: “Tomorrow is our permanent address.”
For me, the “message in the medium” of old vinyl albums is a curious olfactory memory. I can still recall riding my bicycle to Victor Music to buy the first album by Crosby, Stills and Nash. When I got it home, my hands were almost trembling when I sliced the cellophane and opened the folding album cover.
The music, when I put it on the Hi-Fi, altered the direction of my life. But one of my clearest memories is the smell of that record album. It’s an odor I can still summon up out of my memory banks.
What did it smell like?
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