From Side B to Premium: How Technology Made Music More Accessible

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Music soothes the soul and relaxes the mind. Music can reflect emotions depending on the mood and genre that one listens to. It can evoke feelings of sadness, cheerfulness, adventure, inspiration, being productive, being in love, and in extreme cases even fear, rage, or sexual arousal. People would feel gleeful listening to love songs when they are in love while relating to sad songs when brokenhearted. One might also feel the desire to go out and do something different when listening to cheerful and adventurous songs or find it fitting to out with friends while listening to party music. Sometimes, there is just a need to play upbeat and inspirational songs while doing household chores, performing tasks, working out, driving, etc. We also play music as part of presentations and live performances with varying purposes. In 2018, Statista estimated that the recorded music industry alone is worth $18.9 billion. This excludes sales from concerts, guesting, endorsements, and merchandise that is associated with the industry.

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Music is part of society, which goes way back to hundreds, or probably thousands of years. Composer and academician Dr. Justin Wildridge states, “To pinpoint a precise time when man could have made his first musical sound is impossible.” He also claims that old and simple musical instruments dating more than 10,000 years show humanity’s first attempt at producing music. Some cave paintings also suggest that the earliest forms consist of claps, voices, and hums. After thousands of years of simple methods, the recording industry has revolutionized music as we know it. From manually producing music, all it takes now is a press of a button, and our favorite song would start to play. It is even safe to say that recorded music is being taken for granted because of these advancements and development due to its availability.

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The earliest method of recording and playing recorded music is through the phonograph. Invented and popularized in the mid-19th century, the sound is recorded through a spinning cylindrical device attached to a hollow horn-like instrument that captures the audio. Sound is imprinted in the cylinder through scratches that the player can then interpret. In the early 20th century, the cylinders were replaced by large black discs, initially made of shellac, then later vinyl. These discs record audio by impressing grooves through their smooth black surface. These vinyl records are mounted on gramophones, spinning them while a needle scratched through the grooves to interpret the recorded music. Though vinyl records were marvels in their time, their size can make storage and maintenance a challenge. It is also temperature and humidity sensitive and can easily be damaged during playback. It is also impossible to skip or rewind music through the vinyl. Vinyl has limited storage capacity. One side can hold up to a 20-minute worth of track. Other songs can be played by reversing the disc — a portion known as Side B.

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In the decades after World War II, cassette tapes boomed in popularity. It is compact and looks trendy for the current generation. It plays music via a thin magnetic tape reeled to spools in its core. The age of the cassette tape was also the age of music-related merch, as t-shirts, posters, and apparel related to music artists took the market by storm. Cassettes have fast-forward and rewind features that enable consumers to listen only to songs or parts they like. The cassette also grants an opportunity to experiment since the consumer can re-record on them. In the late 70s, electronic titan Sony released the portable cassette player Walkman. For the first time, people can play their favorite songs from their pockets. Like vinyl, though, the thin tape that carries the audio input in the cassette is temperature- and humidity-sensitive, and audio quality perishes over time. Not to mention that the thin tape is prone to entanglement; being entangled can cause the tape to sustain damage, further ruining the sound quality. Cassettes also have limited storage like vinyl and make use of the side-b system.

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Not too long later, music CDs or compact discs grew in popularity, developed by Sony, in collaboration with Dutch conglomerate Philips. With its namesake and appearance, one can assume that CDs are smaller and more portable versions of the vinyl discs, except CDs have inputs digitally imprinted instead of vinyl that rely on grooves. Due to its digital nature, music is compressed into data form of up to 700 MB. All tracks are played on one surface, and the concept of side B is made obsolete. Perhaps the compact disc’s best feature is its skip-and-replay-feature — which unlike the cassette’s rewind and fast forward feature — can be done with one press. Plus, the CD’s thin nature makes them viable to fit into disc sleeves for easier navigation of multiple discs. The digital age, wherein the CDs’ boom enabled tech-savvy consumers to write their track where they can handpick only the songs they like. This process is called CD burning or CD writing. The biggest drawback to CDs is their scratch-sensitive surface which can affect quality. Compact discs are also made of plastic, which easily break if mishandled.

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In the 21st century, CDs were threatened, not by another storage hardware, but a new digital format that enables music to be played on computers — the MP3. Stands for MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) Layer-3. MP3 takes the idea of digital music to another level by freeing data from the mandatory storage device. Music can now be played solely on personal computers, tablets, cellphones, and compact MP3 players. They can be transferred via the internet or via USB. However, MP3 came with legal issues and allegations of copyright infringement and intellectual property theft. To address this, tech giants like Apple stepped up to license music and free users of the threat of any lawsuit. In 2003, Apple launched the iTunes Music store, wherein subscribers can purchase songs from any artist registered in their library. Songs can be purchased for up to $1.29, while entire albums can be around $10. iTunes even grants access to hard-to-find copies and independent albums. For the first time, consumers can avail themselves of MP3 format songs without worrying about legal implications.

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With the stronger internet connection and the wider sales of smartphones in the 2010s, streaming became the zeitgeist. Unlike in iTunes, users do not buy songs from streaming services. iTunes’ “for a fee” business model grants access to a massive library with tens of millions of songs from millions of artists worldwide. All it takes is an internet connection, and users can go trigger-happy as they are even given the freedom of creating various playlists for different moods. Among all the music streaming services available, the most popular has always been Spotify. Spotify has a free service; however, the free version gives users a limited number of skips, no option to replay, cannot choose which songs will play on a playlist, plus it is full of interrupting advertisements. These problems can be eliminated by going premium for only $9.99 per month. Spotify also offers a student fee that splits the premium’s cost to only $4.99 per month. And just like iTunes before it, Spotify has access to hard-to-find copies and independent albums.

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Aside from these two, other streaming services include SiriusXM, Tidal, Amazon Music, Apple Music, LiveXLive, Deezer, Google Play Music, Pandora, and iHeartRadio. Nowadays, almost everyone gets their music from streaming services. Get unlimited access to songs, plus the liberty of choosing which songs to play — only for a small monthly fee.

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