Apologies, youngsters. This is going to be one of those irritating essays where someone tells you tales of how things used to be and how much easier you have it now. Don’t fret; this one won’t take too long.
I started buying and listening to music in earnest in about 1980 or so. I had a paper route and no real expenses, so I could spend about $10-$20 a month on music. Buying music meant investing in 7-inch vinyl singles or, more uncommonly, 12-inch vinyl albums. I could listen to them in two places — the cheap but able stereo in my room or the nicer stereo my dad had downstairs. Dad had a cassette recorder, but I don’t think he or mom had cassette players in their cars yet, I couldn’t afford a Walkman, which at that point were still new and rather expensive. I didn’t really start doing portable audio until my junior or senior year of high school, when Walkman knockoffs were affordable enough so that I could buy a cheap one, which was, as I recall it now, probably about the same size and weight as a Buick. I know it had a shoulder strap. Think about that for a minute.
My first really workable portable was a Sony WM-30, which I somehow scrimped up $99 for before my freshman year at Michigan. The device thoroughly defined the year for me. Every spare dollar I had went towards buying prerecorded cassettes (gack, what a horrible format) to keep the thing fueled. Its big advance was that, as opposed to the monstrosity I owned earlier, it was only slightly larger than the cassette it contained. It was my constant companion as I walked across campus from class to class.
I had a really nice backpack, a roomy one made of pigskin that served me for almost ten years. It had a compartment on the back that could hold 4-8 cassettes (depending how tightly I packed them). Before setting off from the dorm in the morning, I’d pick a handful of tapes for the day and load them into the backpack. This wasn’t ideal, of course — cassettes were fragile, susceptible to heat, cold, spilled liquids, being stepped on, etc. Of course, I also had textbooks, notebooks, floppy disks, and whatever other class materials in the backpack, which meant I might end up looking like an infantryman slogging up hills on days when I had a lot of walking to do. During my sophomore year, I got a Sony Discman, which had a rechargable battery, was also the size of a Buick, and cost me, as I recall, $200 in 1986 dollars.
CDs were even more inconvenient as a portable format — antiskip technology was in its infancy, and the player would only run about 3 hours on a charge. So I’d leave with 3 CDs in the morning, they’d skip constantly while I was moving, and I’d really only get through 2 and a half of them before the player died. Three CDs meant three artists — CD recorders weren’t even in laboratories yet.
Flash-forward 20 years and I have a $150 device that holds about 20 albums worth of material, weighs ¾ of an ounce, runs 15-18 hours on a charge, doesn’t skip while hanging either around my neck or from my rearview mirror, no matter the terrain, and can, with a little planning, display an almost uncanny knack for picking the right song for any given moment.
I would have murdered for this thing in 1985.
… This striving for excellence extends into people’s personal
lives as well. When ‘80s people buy something, they buy the best one, as
determined by (1) price and (2) lack of availability. Eighties people buy
imported dental floss. They buy gourmet baking soda. If an ‘80s couple
goes to a restaurant where they have made a reservation three weeks in
advance, and they are informed that their table is available, they stalk
out immediately, because they know it is not an excellent restaurant. If
it were, it would have an enormous crowd of excellence-oriented people
like themselves waiting, their beepers going off like crickets in the
night. An excellent restaurant wouldn’t have a table ready immediately
for anybody below the rank of Liza Minnelli.
— Dave Barry, “In Search of Excellence”