Remembering and Forgetting Music

Tape trading, iTunes and whether we listen or hear

Ranjan here, and this week I’m writing about Grateful Dead tape trading and the impact of technology on listening to music.

A lot of great music came out in The Deleted Years. That we've forgotten much of it doesn't mean it was more disposable, it's just that the rapid changes in technology meant we disposed of it. And now it’s gone. - The Forgotten Years

I started playing guitar in 4th grade. My first band, in 6th grade, was called Kamikaze. Our first song started, "Kamikaze rocks as hard as we feel. We don't care if you don't like us." We were eleven years old. Grunge and metal ruled the day.

Then a couple of things happened in 1994. I entered my freshman year of high school. The World Wide Web was becoming much more of a thing. And I started getting into the Grateful Dead.

It all started with a tape. Boston Music Hall, April 7th, 1971. It was a bootleg recording of a Grateful Dead show and I listened to it endlessly on my Aiwa mini stereo. Thanks to the magic of the Mosaic Web Browser, I had a much easier, graphical way to navigate the existing communities interested in this. So I dove into Tape Trading.

Image result for maxell xlii grateful dead

It was wild. People spoke in terms like "Cornell 5/8/77" (venue and date of show). People posted their collections, and if you were a newbie to the scene, you could send blank tapes with prepaid shipping, and someone would spend the time to duplicate the shows and send them back to you.  

Once you had your collection going, it became more of a trading thing. You would coordinate with someone, and just on trust, buy some high-quality cassette tapes (Maxell XL2's were the US Dollar reserve currency equivalent), duplicate your show, and send the tapes. I never got burned and there was no blockchain needed. Being Deadheads, you'd often get some stickers, trinkets, or even thoughtful, handwritten letters included in the packages. I was a 14 year old kid, sitting in my bedroom and taking part in this musical community that combined trust, technology and a shared love. It was beautiful.

I remember getting to college and the days of MP3s, and Winamp taking over, and soon you could find every show within seconds. At first, it felt magical. The shows that I would spend days coordinating, and weeks waiting for a package in the mail, could all now be accessed in downloads that took minutes. But I slowly lost interest.


Our fellow Substacker, Why is this interesting, pointed me in the direction of this excellent Esquire essay about "The Forgotten Years" of music:

..if you ask me to name my favorite songs from 2007, I might need to use a lifeline. The music of the mid-aughts to early-teens is largely gone, lost down a new-millennium memory hole. There is a moment that whizzed right past us with no cassettes, discs, or Shazam queries through which to remember it. These are the Deleted Years, and we need to start honoring this period, right now, before we forget it forever.

The Deleted Years, by my count, ran from 2003 to 2012—give or take a year or two on either side—from the time the Apple Music Store opened to right around when we really started to use Spotify. In the early years of the new millennium, the music industry was crashing from its decadent late ‘90s peak, and record stores were beginning to drop like the early victims in Contagion

This really hit home. Maybe it was just that I became a strait-laced finance guy starting in 2002, but after an upbringing of being very purposeful about listening to music, my memory of music starting in the mid-2000s really starts to blur together.

After reading the Esquire piece, I realized that my musical memory for much of this time really does feel like a Girl Talk song (for reference: here's what I mean).

It's a weird feeling for someone who has been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember. My Dad was one of those 1960s immigrants who moved here enchanted by the American Dream and was really into country music. I can still remember every word to songs by George Strait, Dwight Yoakam and Merle Haggard that I haven't listened to in years. Like in any proper Indian father-son relationship, I never tell him this (and instead write this in a newsletter to strangers), but those songs still mean a lot. I remember every single word.

But the mid-to-late-2000s is a black hole. Nothing really stands out.

RIP iTunes

It's strange to me that this happened with the introduction of digital music, and not with the advent of streaming. iTunes should've been a direct digital corollary to the days of compact discs, and to be kind of VC Twitter-y, my mental music-processing workflows should've been the same.

But something changed. Even during my college days of collecting ill-begotten mp3s, everything still made sense. Maybe that's because, the music industry as a whole hadn't yet devolved into chaos. The Billboard Charts, radio stations, concerts, album releases, and even music journalism were not yet forced to change, as the blast radius only extended to college kids who had just gotten access to high-speed connections. The entire music machine could continue working as it always had, and things still felt normal.

But the industry fell into complete disarray thanks to the iPod and 99 cent downloads. Artists released albums in the traditional way, but everything just felt like it was running around like a headless chicken. The industry tried to operate like it always had, and it just didn’t quite work.

I would've thought the real comprehension problems would come from the infinite choice of streaming, like it has with news. That we’d be completely overwhelmed by an unmanageable supply of music and our heads would explode. But with music, by the time Spotify made streaming work, it feels like the music industry and listening populace had, collectively, started to figure things out. Albums were no longer necessary complete things, but that was fine. The radio and MTV had been fully phased out in driving discovery, but we were ready for it. Maybe there are one-minute songs built for Instagram, but whatever.

If anything, it gives me hope for our media consumption in the coming years. Maybe, the past few years have just been a tear in the fabric of the universe and we will once again start to figure out how to process online information.

A few years ago when trialing Apple Music was the first time I had opened iTunes in forever, and I looked at something that felt like a time capsule. The music that I bought from 2002-2007 was just sitting there, and, possibly contributing to the confusing sense of the time, I wasn't even sure what my "ownership" of it was. I certainly can't transfer it to Spotify, but I don't even think I need to.

Technology and how we remember

Possibly the most famous Dead bootleg was "Cornell 5-8-77". Its rendition of Scarlet Begonias ⇒ Fire on the Mountain was considered, at least on the message boards, the zenith of the genre.

This Bob Weir quote (guitarist from the Dead) about that specific show is possibly the most perfect way to end a piece on how technology changes how we remember and forget music:

For me it was just another tour. I remember feeling like we were hot back when were doing it. But, for instance, that Cornell show that that people talk about, I can’t remember that specifically. It didn’t stand out for me on that tour. The whole tour was like that for me. I think that show became notable because there was a particularly good audience tape made of it. And that got around. I think it was the quality of the recording was good and the guy’s location was excellent. And whoever it was that made that recording made every attempt to get it out there so that people could hear it.

As we’re getting 1990s nostalgic, here’s a White Men Can’t Jump (could you imagine if this movie came out today!) clip about listening to vs. hearing music.


It’s like a Taboola module, but just us referring to our old posts!

1) Writing this post made me go back and re-read Andrew’s guest post on The Climate Change of the Abandoned Internet. I kind of love that this nostalgic, old-man-on-the-lawn piece was written by someone in middle school in the 2000s.

2) Back in May, we wrote about TikTok and how it could one day find itself in the midst of the US-China trade conflict, and specifically have the Bytedance - acquisition put under CFIUS review. Well: