The tunes they are a-changin'

A look at how the music experience has changed since Bob Dylan wrote his classic song

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJune 27, 2013 

Bob Dylan wrote "The Times They Are A-Changin' " in 1963. Music has changed a lot since then.

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE

As the civil rights movement began to crest, Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” his bellwether magnum opus, in 1963.

Not only did the tune heed a call for social change, it also marked an evolving role for music, sparking a generation of protest songs.

Fifty years after Dylan penned the song, music is still a-changin’ — but more so in the ways we experience it. Here are 10 different ways — some good, some bad — in which music consumption has evolved in the last half-century.

RECORDING

If you wanted to record like Dylan did in 1963, you basically had two options: Convince a record company to sign you or shell out some money and rent a studio. Otherwise, it was you and a cheap Panasonic tape recorder.

By the late ’70s, musicians could record on their own 4-track reel-to-reel tape machines, which eventually gave way to 8-track machines that used standard chrome cassettes, which in turn gave way to software that allowed you to record on your computer.

Today, you can even download apps that allow you to record four tracks on your iPhone.

What we’ve lost: The advice of recording pros.

What we’ve gained: The ability to embarrass ourselves in the privacy of our own homes.

RECORD CLUBS

It was easy: You taped a penny to a post-paid insert card, sent that puppy to Terre Haute, Ind., and before you could say “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” you had 12 new albums at your doorstep.

Beginning in 1955, Columbia House altered the music industry with its record club, which had shipped more than a billion records by 1994. Their ubiquitous inserts, featured in mass mailings or the back of Parade Magazine, offered the promise of free music with just one caveat: They would send more later.

And that penny fee would no longer apply.

What we gained: Lionel Richie, The Go-Go’s, Michael Jackson, The Doors, Duran Duran, Janis Joplin, Billy Ocean, Twisted Sister, Cyndi Lauper, Foreigner, Culture Club, Wham!

What we lost: Money and dignity when Columbia House forced us to buy its Selection of the Month, Kenny G.

VINYL

If you purchased the album “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” in 1963, you had yourself a new vinyl record. You know, those floppy things with the little grooves?

There were five songs on Side 1 and five on Side 2, and presumably Dylan had a specific order in which he wanted you to listen to the songs, because the album starts out with the title track, which sets the album’s tone, then ends with “Restless Farewell.”

If “The Times” happens to play on your shuffling iPhone while you’re at the gym, chances are you’ll hear it sometime between Dylan’s “North County Blues” and Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

What we lost: The intended order of things.

What we gained: Dylan followed by Sir-Mix-A-Lot.

ALBUM PACKAGING

If you bought Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” album in 1972, you discovered that the sleeve was designed to look like a school desk, and the record itself was wrapped in women’s panties. Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” included a 24-page lyric booklet, and The Eagles’ “Hotel California” included a poster of the band.

The only extra you get after purchasing an album on iTunes is a confirmation of your purchase.

What we lost: The ability to peel the Andy Warhol-designed banana on the cover of “The Velvet Underground & Nico.”

What we gained: The ability to store 400 albums on a small hand-held device.

RADIO

Remember when you didn’t have to spend so much time creating playlists on your iPod, setting up accounts on Spotify and researching the Internet to see which of this month’s 800 new artists are worth hearing? Back in the day, you could merely tune into your favorite radio station, and a trusted DJ would take care of you, playing the best of old and new music.

These days, robot radio often overplays the tired old classics or beats you over the head with the worst of today’s new music.

Good: We no longer have to hear DJs blathering over song intros.

Bad: To a cop, changing songs on your mp3 player while driving looks a lot like texting.

MUSIC STORES

In the old days, if you wanted a new guitar, you’d visit a music store, where you’d be surrounded by hundreds of shiny new instruments that decorated the walls like art pieces. There you’d enjoy plucking away at several different 6-strings until you fell in love with The One.

Today, you can go on Craigslist and buy an acoustic guitar from a guy in San Luis Obispo for 15 bucks. While you’re at it, pick up a trombone in Paso Robles, a sitar in Goleta and a floor effect processor in Nipomo.

Good: Avoiding Def Leppard wannabes working behind the music store counter.

Bad: The Craigslist Killer.

MUSIC INSTRUCTION

Remember when a music store bulletin board would feature fliers from people offering music lessons? Today, we don’t bother going to music stores (see above), and we sure don’t bother with music lessons. After all, we can find the chords to thousands of songs online, and if we need a little extra help, we just fire up YouTube, where musicians from around the world are more than willing to share their skills.

Search for “How to play Free Bird” and you’ll find dozens of people offering to show you how to jam like Skynyrd. While you’re at it, go ahead and watch a 12-year-old boy, a guy dressed as Santa and a man with no arms jamming to the rock classic.

Good: “Lessons” any time of the day.

Bad: “Lessons.”

INFORMATION

When Rolling Stone declared R.E.M. “America’s best rock ’n’ roll band” in a 1987 cover story, you took notice because you respected the writers. Back then you got the bulk of your music knowledge from a few trusted music mags (and, OK, Casey Kasem’s TV and radio shows). But today music info has proliferated with online-only publications such as Pitchfork, The All Music Guide, Song Facts and a gazillion blogs from people who could never hold a pen to Lester Bangs.

Good: No monthly subscription fees.

Bad: Nobody spends hours cutting out cool Pitchfork photos.

MUSIC VIDEOS

During the halcyon days of MTV, artists and labels dedicated considerable time, effort and money to making entertaining music videos. But as the music channel began to focus more on “Real World”-like reality shows, the video took a backseat. Today you’ll have a hard time finding Tears for Fears videos on TV, but you can call up “Shout” any time on video sharing websites like YouTube and Vimeo.

Bad: MTV can’t tell us what’s hip.

Good: We can watch music videos at work — and we don’t have to suffer through “We Built This City” to get what we want.

RECORD STORES

You’ll notice there aren’t as many record stores around. And those that survived had to offer an inventory of non-record items, like clothes, bobbleheads and tote bags. Because, by and large, people don’t buy CDs any more. They buy “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” on iTunes, stream it on Spotify or hear another guy named Bob play an accordion version on YouTube.

Good: With gas at $4 a gallon, it saves us a costly trip.

Bad: One less weekend option.

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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