I was listening to a podcast and the incidental background music reminded me of Always Saturday by Guadalcanal Diary, an 80s band from Georgia. Because we now live in a world where everything is available, I paused the podcast, found the song online and started listening to it. The simple guitar riff from the podcast was indeed similar to this 30-year old college radio song.
I downloaded three of the four Guadalcanal Diary albums, again, because I could, and started listening to them. I’m feeling a lot of nostalgia in my life lately, but it hasn’t been for the 1980s. I was in college and grad school then, so it’s not the same as thinking of my childhood. But I was a college radio DJ, so I was immersed in the sounds of jangly guitars and mumbled vocals.
Listening to the music triggered memories. Every guitar riff, every growled lyric reminded me of another band, another song, another band I saw live. This could have started me down a rabbit hole and turned into an all-80s weekend, but I paused. And I didn’t.
It did make me think about the changes in the last 30 years. Back in the 1980s if you heard a familiar bit of music, how could you identify it? There was no Shazam app on your phone. You couldn’t go to YouTube, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora to find the suspected song and listen to it. You had to wait until you got home and listen to the album, cassette or CD. But if you didn’t own it, that made everything harder. A record store or a friend’s music collection were the only options.
We have traded ownership for convenience. Digital copies for physical copies. People are emptying their houses because objects don’t bring them joy. But all culture is available with a simple download on a device that lives in our pocket. This has created an ephemerality to our culture. Ownership created connection. And that connection is being severed. Unlimited choice severs that connection too.
When I got my first tape player, I got one Beatles tape. Three more cassettes followed. When I got my first CD player, I got Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Others soon followed, but not much music even existed on CD yet. These were all I could listen to. My CD player could at least shuffle tracks, which my Panasonic Take’n’Tape couldn’t. The scarcity of choice built strong connections to those early albums. And even now that we are in a track-based music environment, I downloaded the full Guadalcanal Diary albums. I still think that way.
I have gotten rid of most of my CDs, cassettes, books, and have replaced some with digital copies. Some songs are MP3s, but anything new only exists for as long as I pay Amazon a monthly fee. Occasionally songs disappear because of licensing changes. This happens constantly on Netflix too. In a world of unlimited choice sometimes you cannot find a specific thing that you want to read, watch or listen to. So you pick something else. And this starts to feel like a lack of control of our own cultural choices.
When you trade ownership for convenience, you no longer set the terms of that convenience. I better go listen to more 80s music before the licenses expire.