Music from the Air

Sunday, February 24, 2002

by Robert M. Young

As far back as I can remember I have been thrilled by and grateful for music which came to me out of the air and free. When I was a boy I listened to The Hit Parade and to low-power radio stations playing blues and country. There was also a station just across the border in Mexico which beamed music all over America – XERF. They played all sorts of popular music and advertised amazing products – used razor blades from The Blade Man (WWII was on), lanolin, ’a personally autographed picture of Jesus Christ’, a bust of the Virgin Mary which glowed in the dark. I got better and better radios, beginning with a crystal set, then a tiny Truetone radio, then a Bendix with several bands and finally a Hallicrafters S-40A short wave receiver with which I could listen to ham operators, the BBC World Service, Radio Moscow and the Voice of America, all of which I did avidly in my teens.
But things really took off when I’d saved enough to buy a Webster Chicago Wire Recorder. I could record my favourite songs from all those radio stations and listen to them at my leisure. I did not build up much of a record collection until I was at university, and my roommate and I bought a pretty good (though not stereo) record player. We were not well off, so we did not have very many records. When we graduated he took the player, and I took the records. I was poor for the next few years and bought no records. In fact, I had to sell the player when we had a baby in order to help pay for a washing machine.
When I got a scholarship to study at Cambridge and moved to England I became a member of a rich college, King’s, and they had a very large and carefully chosen record library. I bought a modest second hand record player and listened to many things, especially educating myself about classical music. A few years later I was made a Fellow of the college, and a record shop which rented its premises from the college allowed me to borrow new records overnight. It this point that I embarked on my glorious career as a taper of music, taking up where my use of the wire recorder left off. It was the sixties, and I had a wonderful time taping and listening to all sorts of new and old music – rock, folk, chamber, jazz, blues. I bought better and better recorders, amplifiers and speakers and wired up my house with speakers in several rooms. We had amazing dancing parties and a few sessions when I talked about history and recent developments in popular music. These became well-enough regarded so that I was invited to do a series on the BBC Third Programme and to write the programme for the first Shepton Malet Rock Festival. I ended up with over ten thousand LPs on reel to reel tape. Thanks to the new Dolby noise reduction technology I next moved to Compact Casette and recorded many thousands more.
I never completely stopped taping, but I became less fanatical about it. I continued, however, to avail myself of ever more remarkable technologies for carrying music around with me. In the sixties I took portable reel-to-reel tape recorders with me practically everywhere and provided music for all sorts of parties in Cambridge. I leapt at the portable cassette players – which soon included Dolby B and then Dolby C noise reduction – and would take a walkman everywhere, especially on my motorcycle. For a time the hi-fi equipment in my car was worth more than the car itself (an old Saab 900 Turbo).
For the last decade I have been more interested in computers – especially Apple Macs. I have been very involved in putting writings on-line and in creating forums for discussion (see, which gets up to 7000 visits per day). Recently, this technology has merged with my attraction to recording music. First came radio on the internet. There are over 2500 stations you can reach via the web using software called RealPlayer or Windows Media Player. Every taste is catered for, and one can reach stations all over the world. I love listening to country stations in my native Texas and to jazz an classical music from New York.
Then came the deliciously anarchist Napster, which allowed one to download music free. I was not involved with Napster while it was flourishing. It was successfully sued, and downloading free music from it was outlawed. They could be prosecuted, because they had archives. The next generation of software – mostly free - did not store music. It only put people in touch with one another, and they could share files relatively untraceably. I use Mactella, the Mac version of Gnutella. You open the software, fill in the name of an artist or a song or other composition, and hey presto! a long list of titles comes into the window. You click Download, and (if you’re lucky), that music is downloaded into your computer in a matter of a couple of minutes. There are other softwares that do this, some only for PCs, e.g., Kazaa and Morpheus.
A couple of days ago I discovered Drumbeat ($29.95), which has a Mac version. This afternoon I put Dido (who has just won a prize for the best album of the year) into the Search slot. Within seconds I was offered 4469 files, i.e., many sources for every song she has recorded. At the moment there are 264,878 people using Drumbeat with access to 100.7 million files, taking up a total of 3.07 Petabytes of memory (a Petabyte is 1,125,899,906,842,624 bytes = 1024 terabytes or roughly 10^15 bytes. One minute of a song uses up 1 megabyte of memory). I am connected to 57 servers. It took me a couple of hours (while I was intermittently doing other things on my Mac) to find and download her album and some other tracks by her and a few by other artists. After a session like this, one has the songs on file and can make up playlists which can then be burnt onto blank CDs which cost as little as 25 pence apiece (if you buy 100).
Or you can download them into an MP3 player (MP3 is the format in which music is stored in a computer; it’s sound quality is nearly, but not quite as good as a commercial CD). I have one specially designed to interface with a new Mac. It’s called an iPod, and it’s the damndest thing you ever saw. It is the size of a cigarette packet (actually a bit slimmer and taller). You plug it into the Mac with a special wire that comes with it, and (this has to be seen to be believed) it downloads all the songs in the library in your Mac in nothing flat. It has a 5 Gb memory (that’s 125 times as much as came with my first Mac a decade ago) and holds about 1000 songs. Actually, mine currently has 1154 songs in it and room for more.
This is probably because I have recently been listening to early blues, especially the work of the founder of the Delta Blues, Charlie Fuller. I read an article about his work some weeks ago. More recently I saw an article in the New Yorker about a man who is going around Mississippi and thereabouts seeking out people who play the blues. He has his own record label, Fat Possum. After I read the article I looked up the label on Amazon and ordered a couple of samplers. Then I opened a search engine, entered Fat Possum and got the web site of the company, which offered lots of tracks as free downloads. At the end of the list is a link to more, so I took it and was led to a company, eMusic, which offers hundreds of thousands of tracks, but you have to pay. What you have to pay is $9 a month, for which you get access to a treasure trove of all kinds of music – classical, blues, folk, country, folk, reggae and I don’t know what all. These are licensed, and eMusic pay the copyright owners an agreed fee. At first I had plain sailing, and then for some reason the downloads went to RealPlayer, and it said I needed some new software, and then I was told it wasn’t available, so I was scuppered. Emusic told me how to get around this, but I couldn’t make their solution work. However, after a couple of days I found on a wonderful web site called a little piece of software which converts music from other formats into that for iTunes, so I am back in business with downloads from eMusic. You just drag the file across the icon of iTuner (free), and your song is ready to go into iTunes. You have to download one track at a time (though you can set up several at once) on the Mac, but on a PC you can press a button, and it will download the whole album using RealJukeBox (no Mac version yet).
There are other brands of hardware and software f downloading music, playing it, putting it onto MP3 players, of which there are also many brands. I saw one the other day (larger than a cigarette packet but not by much) which has 20 Gb of memory and will presumably hold over 4000 songs. That’s about 200 CDs. I’m sure that soon they will have even larger and/or removable memories, so you can carry unlimited music around with you.
I recently saw a list of books which are freely available on the web - hundreds of thousands of them with more coming all along. You can also download videos and DVDs from, the web, although the industries are trying to put a stop to this as they did with Napster, but other softwares will get round them, as my exposition has shown.
I am also a collector of cartoons, mostly from the New Yorker, to which I have subscribed most of the time since I was a teenager. I saw a cartoon a few years ago. It showed a man holding an object. The caption read: ‘All the world’s music, films and literature in an object the size of a brick’. I found it very funny then because so delightfully far-fetched. Now I suppose it’s just a matter of time before we’ll have it available to us.

Copyright: The Author
Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ
writings at