The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

25 July 2004

Me, myself and iPod

Andrea Harris quite reasonably sneers at this Toronto Star piece about 25 years of the Sony Walkman® and how it has made us isolated and withdrawn, members of — but never participants in — the Global Village posited by Marshall McLuhan. It's yet another complaint by socialists, she says, about how the proletariat refuses to follow the current Five-Year Plan:

Behind the studied concern you can hear the faint cries of "If only people would all listen to the same music, think the same thoughts… Our thoughts…"

I am, as regular readers know, a devotee of old Top 40 radio, the format constructed upon the very communal listening experience the Walkman is alleged to have destroyed, and which itself is pretty much dead these days. But Top 40 was stomped to death by two pair of shoes: corporate wingtips did most of the damage, but the sandals of the counterculture managed the occasional kick. Sony's little portable music machine? Wasn't even a player.

When I was growing up in Charleston, South Carolina in the Sixties, there were eight radio stations — well, nine, technically, but WTMA broadcast the same programming on AM and FM. In the early Seventies, the FCC, having been seized by the notion of increasing programming diversity, outlawed simulcasts in all but the smallest markets. Station owners, under the gun to fill up that space, took the path of least resistance: the growing number of automated formats vended by program syndicators.

Meanwhile, independent record labels had ceased to be a factor at the top of the charts, a trend begun about 1967 when psychedelia became a musical force to be reckoned with and major labels spent big bucks trying to get in on it. Meanwhile, some of the little guys, notably Motown, had become fairly huge themselves. The last indie label to make big chart noise on a regular basis was Miami's T.K. label, home of K. C. and the Sunshine Band, which petered out even faster than the rest of disco.

Actual Top 40 stations had begun shying away from the term, even cutting their playlists back to thirty or fewer. New York's WABC in the Seventies pitched itself, not as a Top 40 or "contemporary" station, but as "programmed for mass appeal."

And more and more radio stations went on the air, filling in blank spots on the dial where there was room, and sliding into the cracks where there wasn't. FM radio, once the red-headed stepchild, was becoming dominant over its grungy mono parental unit.

All these things happened before the introduction of the Walkman; the arrival of the Compact Disc and the music industry's de-emphasis of singles finally finished the job.

Today, Charleston has thirty radio stations. Simulcasts are no longer banned. The Big Four record companies are in Adapt-Or-Die mode. Radio has lost its primacy as a source for new music. Hundreds of small-town stations have gone to satellite delivery of canned "live" programming or have relocated to larger markets. And AM radio, where it all began, is no longer a factor in the music market; it's now 24/7 talk.

None of these things should surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the last twenty-five years. The Star quotes a Canadian musicologist:

Because music resides in the cognitive faculties of the individual, it provides the means to construct a customized soundscape that can inspire the listener, trigger all kinds of sensations at will in an environment that shuts out the world. In fact, the world is at odds with the user.

I can assure you, this was every bit as true forty years ago as it is today, and I have the vinyl to prove it. And Edward Bellamy, in Looking Backward, anticipated it a century ago: "an arrangement for providing everyone with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will."

Bellamy, of course, never imagined Top 40, let alone hip-hop or emo. But he knew that the future of music was in the home, not in the concert hall. The Walkman merely extended the definition of home. For the "crusty old socialists" of the Star, for whom "home" is the place you go only after you've performed your services to the community, this is anathema. No wonder they're upset.

Posted at 11:32 AM to Tongue and Groove

So the Walkman has made us "isolated" from each other, and "withdrawn" as well, has it? Isn't this the same argument we heard about the automobile, and from the same types of people?

Houses are bad, too, and so is reading: by living in a house and reading a book or a blog, we are isolated and withdrawn from our brethren, with whom we could be sharing a cave, listening to hunting stories around a nice, communal fire. Sheesh.

Good points about AM radio: I miss it too. I recall the magic of FM in the early Seventies (the clarity, the "underground" music), but AM had its magic also: variety. In a normal listening day I could hear Johnny Cash and June Carter singing about going to Jackson, the Tijuana Brass blowing their horns, "If I Were a Carpenter" and the Carpenters themselves, and the Beatles.

Posted by: Craig Ceely at 2:00 PM on 25 July 2004

"The last indie label to make big chart noise on a regular basis was Miami's T.K. label, home of K. C. and the Sunshine Band, which petered out even faster than the rest of disco."

Charles, you might take a look at what Stiff Records ( did: Elvis Costello, Ian Dury (rest in peace) and the Blockheads, Madness, Nick Lowe, Lena Lovich, The Damned, and the Plasmatics were all there. It's true that punk never became a major musical force in America, and neither did its spawn, New Wave--but it was notable, and we still recall those names, as well as bigger names in the genre/movement, such as The Clash. And Stiff Records was certainly indie.

Posted by: Craig Ceely at 12:21 AM on 26 July 2004

I'll give you Stiff, but here's the catch: it didn't make any headway here until it got distribution by a major. Costello, Lowe and Lovich actually appeared on CBS labels stateside; Rachel Sweet, for another, showed up on Stiff/Columbia. Later Stiffs (e.g. Tracey Ullman) showed up on Stiff/MCA.

Posted by: CGHill at 6:31 AM on 26 July 2004

I don't know how many iPod users have dumped Top 40 music on it, but I sure have, since I converted over 2000 LP and 45 tracks to MP3s for my internet station. If you look at the top sales for the iTunes store, it is all current and past (within ten years) stuff mostly, with a classic track from the 70s thrown in for good measure.

The first CD I bought, with the first CD player (the built-like-a-tank Sony portable) I bought was Joe Jackson, "Night and Day." I never bought another LP after that, even though they were still available; but cassettes had overtaken the record stores by that time too.

Posted by: Larry at 8:33 AM on 27 July 2004