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The changing quest for music

An idle fantasy of mine is to be able to go back into one’s own past carrying some wondrous product from today’s time and to confront one’s earlier self with the miracle just to see the reaction. Perhaps nothing would cause more astonishment than a smartphone, but (for the sake of logic consistency that is so vital to a fantasy) that would need an entire network service to function. Given that even today, these services don’t quite work, my next choice for the fantasy object would be the iPod.

It may seem an unusual choice, but no other gadget represents a quantum leap of functionality wrapped in as compressed an aesthetic form as does the ipod. Particularly for a generation that spent an inordinate time trying to discover and build a collection of music, song by precious song, the idea of being able to store an industrial quantity of music in a sliver of silvery metal, to navigate it effortlessly and to access it with a reasonably good quality of reproduction wherever one might be, would look like nothing short of magic.

As an adolescent in the late 70s and early 80s, the quest for music was an all consuming one, given very low levels of affordability and access. Our first stereo was the magnificent Bush 5W cassette stereo system. Since one could buy very few tapes (even when dubiously named Tony), and in the early days there very few pre-recorded tapes available, particularly when it came to Western music, acquiring music needed to balance vigilant scrounging (for anything recordable) with stringent parsimony (keeping limited taping capacity in mind).

The bottom of the music barrel was made up of songs recorded directly from the radio (an old GEC one with wheezing valves, that snorted temperamentally and had to be back-slapped into submission). This needed alertness and reflexes as songs often came on without too much warning, and tailed off abruptly. Then there were the hissing tapes that were duplicated from borrowed cassettes and finally there were those that were recorded from the very few commercial establishments that specialized in recording specific albums (or even songs) on demand on to a tape.

Things got easier with time, as cassette and then CDs got cheaper and more easily available but listening to music was always an earned pleasure, and never an automatic one. There was a story not only in every song or album in terms of the memories it evoked but also in how it came to be acquired.

The iPod changed all that. Music became data, and collecting music became an exercise in data transfer. Ones’ entire library, full of tapes, old, new, painfully repaired using cellophane tape and Araldite and CDs , fitted into less than half the space of one ipod and became ready for instant access. Acquiring new music became a wholesale rather than a retail pursuit, thanks to technology and piracy.

Music might always be music, but every change in format imparts a somewhat different shade of meaning to it. The LP fetishised music- it came in an awkwardly sized fragile disc that needed delicate handling. Every action was discrete, deliberate, unhurried, fastidious. The record extracted gently from its sleeve, wiped clean, placed on the turntable, the needle carefully placed on the appropriate groove, and the sound made by the making of the sound gradually filling up the room- music was wreathed in grace and precision, essential ingredients of any ceremony. There is a sequence in the film Chashme Baddoor, where Farooque Shaikh, having just earned his first salary goes into an HMV store and samples a record (Raga Piloo by Amjad Ali Khan, if memory serves), listening carefully while pulling meditatively at a cigarette and somehow it captures the ethos of an LP and the era in which it lived.

The cassette tape gave in convenience what it took away in ceremony. The cassette tape was no thing of beauty, and it progressively became less so. It could be slapped into a player which then could be stabbed into action, but it was an enormously convenient format that made music truly omnipresent. If the LP gave stately residence to music, the tape allowed it to circulate crowded narrow streets. The nature of music itself changed as the popular choice became the benchmark. Till the tape came along, music choices were determined by those that produced and broadcast it. With cassettes, people listened to the music they wanted and music production itself became more market led. Music became a commodity, and the streets were full of the latest songs, loud but often besura, testimony to cheap cassettes ,dodgy two-in-one players and tone deaf listeners. The CDs restored to music some notion of fidelity, and its digital nature changed the nature of navigation- one could listen only to the songs one wanted to, for every song was directly accessible.

The ipod accommodated everything but also made the act of playing music devoid of any particular significance. It made the act of listening to music more intensely personal, as abundance met intimacy and the world closed around the individual. Music plugged into a person and stayed there.

It is difficult to get nostalgic about something that is less than 15 years old, but things are changing again. The ipod seems to be on its last legs and streaming music is the way to go, provided of course we can make our mobile networks work. Everything is available and nothing is ours; satisfying desire is easy, the trick now lies in knowing what to desire. The idea of music residing not in an object that stores it and holds it down, but as a wisp of digital memory to be summoned at will, will in all probability change the nature of music and experiencing of listening to it yet again.

Santosh Desai
01 Oct 2015
Santosh Desai Before taking up this assignment, he was the President of McCann-Erickson, one of India's premier advertising agencies. A post-graduate from IIM Ahmedabad, Santosh spent 21 years in Advertising and was strategically involved in building key brands for a range of local and multinational clients. He has been a guest lecturer at various national & international universities and has addressed the global management boards of several multinationals including Microsoft, Philips, Hershey's, Unilever, Coke and Reckitt Benckiser. His principal area of interest lies in studying the relationship between culture and brands. An academic at heart, he writes regularly on contemporary Indian society and on subjects related to Marketing. Recently he published his book on India titled "Mother Pious Lady".

Santosh Desai
01 Oct 2015
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