EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: Music Appreciation in Our Own Private Idaho
I was standing in a crowded subway car the other day, and by doing a quick scan I estimated that about 80% of my fellow riders had some sort of personal sound delivery system plugged into their ears. Inexpensive wired earphones are the majority of what most people tend to use, followed by those popular wireless short white sticks that seem to be growing out of ears, and then big, padded, sound-cancelling headphones.
Being a somewhat curious type who enjoys digging into data and statistics, I tried to gain access to Report Buyers‘ annual and exhaustive market survey on headphones, but they charge almost $4,000 to download it, and I assumed that even if I had a No Depression expense account, it probably would be denied anyway. So I searched for a brief summary from their latest report, from last year, which I found for free on PRNewswire. I learned that there are currently over 3,000 companies engaged in the earphone/headphone industry, with five companies capturing two-thirds of the market share value and 50% of unit sales. It’s a growth industry, with revenue predicted to exceed $20 billion by 2023.
Wired headphones are 59% of the market, the report says, with wireless obviously making up the balance. However, that is rapidly changing, with the trend now leaning toward noise-cancelling and smart devices that appeal to “highly social, tech-savvy, affluent and young consumers.” But anyway … enough numbers.
As a teenager and into my 20s, music consumption was often done in group settings. My friends would come together to partake in adult beverages and other mood enhancements while sharing with each other our latest music discoveries. It was a highly social setting that now seems rather lost in the wind. There were also endless hours of solo listening time alone in my room, with music pumped loudly through speakers that could be heard throughout the house. “Edward … turn that goddamn music down or else” was the nightly mantra from my parents.
In July 1979 we had a revolution. The Sony Walkman was introduced and marketed as the world’s first low-cost portable stereo, costing $150 in the US and branded as the Soundabout. They sold 50,000 units in two months, and while vinyl albums had the largest market share, utilizing magnetic cassette tape technology to create your own portable personal playlists was highly appealing. In thinking about modern popular music, I break it down chronologically like this: Sinatra in the ’40s, Elvis in the ’50s, The Beatles in the ’60s, arena rock in the ’70s, and Sony in the ’80s. It seems that popular culture was impacted in that decadent decade more by the delivery system than the actual music.
By 1984 the Walkman was replaced by the Discman, but Sony later changed the name to the CD Walkman. Whether it be tape or shiny discs, the portable personal music device became our preferred way of listening to music and was only further enhanced by digital technology and the introduction in 2001 of the first iPod. You could carry hundreds of albums in your pocket instead of just a handful of tapes or discs, and today, with streaming, you now have instant access to around 40,000,000 songs, give or take.
A quick aside: Spotify reported this week that 10,000,000 songs in its assortment have never been played, not even once.
What I wonder about most when I’m walking the streets of Manhattan or riding on a plane, train, or subway is what other people are listening to. Is it rap, rock, country, jazz, classical, blues, reggae, K-pop, J-pop, or hip-hop? A podcast, audio book, an album of choice, or a curated playlist? Sometimes I’m listening to something so amazing or special that I feel as if I want to scream out “Hey everybody, check this out!” and somehow magically broadcast it. Perhaps one day a digital streaming boombox will become the rage.
These days it doesn’t require much effort to find and read reviews or get recommendations from algorithms based on your music library. What’s missing is that personal connection we used to make when we could easily share enthusiastically with others. In using social media we do it with our meals, pets, clothes, vacations, politics, and yes, to some degree, music. But for a large part of the day, our hours awake are spent in our own plugged-in universe where we keep the stress and anxiety of a cacophonous world at bay. I don’t know if you have the same feeling as I do, but when it comes to music it just seems as if we’re each living in our own private Idaho.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.