My father had a reel-to-reel tape player when I was a kid that I have seen in pictures and I vaguely remember 8-track tapes. I listened to albums until around 1988, by which time I had also amassed a sizable cassette tape collection, but traded the whole thing for a handful of CDs in 1992 when I switched to that format. My CD collection grew to about 300 discs, the majority of which I bought in Tokyo at full retail price ($15 or more). They went back and forth with me between Japan and the U.S., crossing the Pacific Ocean at least five times between 1995 and 2005.
I also owned a Sony Mini Disc player for a few years between 1999-2001. In case you were lucky enough to have missed the MD altogether, it had all the limitations of a CD, the functionality of a cassette tape and looked like a floppy disc. The first generation iPod was released in 2001, so this format never had a chance.
Although iTunes was released in 2001, I didn’t start using it until 2003, the same year the iTunes store was launched. I bought my first mp3 player (an iRiver H340) in 2005 and started listening to mp3 files almost exclusively from around that same time. I finally got rid of all my CDs and went totally digital in 2010. Now, all my music is in mp3 format. My iTunes library contains over 19,000 songs and is still growing.
Over the years, I have spent thousands of dollars on music, not to mention the equipment required to listen to it. I have paid for the same recording multiple times—every time I switch to the latest format, I have to pay to replace at least a few items in my collection. In the digital age, where ubiquitous “content” can be delivered instantly to the device of our choice, it would appear we’ve never had it so good: for a small fee, we can get anything we want, right now. This concept now extends to subscription-based services where you pay to listen to—but not own—the music of your choice. But what are we really paying for?
With the exception of mp3 files, all these formats share one special quality: they are tangible objects. It’s too bad that kids today can’t pour over an album cover as they listen to music. There are no liner notes, no dust jacket surprise bonuses. Cassette tapes and CD cases were too small to faithfully recreate the album cover, but at least they were things you could actually hold in your hands. You don’t get anything with mp3 purchases. iTunes can’t even find the artwork for more than half the albums in my library, much less provide me with information about the music I am listening to.
It gets worse: the fact is, I no more own the music in my iTunes library than I do the movies I stream via Netflix. The same goes for the books on my e-reader. Rather than owning these things, I have simply paid to use them, but not how ever I want, as I can with any of my other possessions. I can’t, for example, copy them, like I might make extra copies of a photo of myself to give to (admittedly unlucky) friends. Most of this content is available only through “closed” platforms like iTunes, Kindle and Steam—they control the content, not you. Content cannot be accessed without these platforms.
Why does this matter? Because it is tantamount to paying for nothing. We “buy” apps, games, media content of all kinds and storage in the “cloud,” none of which is real. At least not in the sense that a book or album or chessboard is real. When you purchase digitally delivered content, you are paying a license fee for the limited use of that content. Although you own nothing and possess nothing, you can nevertheless be prosecuted to the full extent of the law just for using content the “wrong” way.
After nearly 35 years of collecting music and thousands of dollars in music purchases, I literally have nothing to show for it.