The introduction of iTunes in 2001 created a huge shift in how people bought, organized, and played their music. There’s no way to overstate how profound these changes were for the music-buying public. Before iTunes, music consumers had to buy an entire album, either on vinyl, or later, on compact disc. With this new technology, people could purchase individual songs from the comfort of their living room, and organize those songs into unique playlists.
I have purchased many songs and albums from iTunes over the past ten years and I love its ease of use. I created playlists of my favorite dance music, romantic music, and study music. It was fun and, at times, exhilarating, to play dj and create playlists which I could share with friends or simply enjoy in my car and living room.
One of the functions of iTunes and other similar media players is ‘shuffle,’ or what I like to call ‘random play.’ I have never used this particular function and I never plan to. In fact, I despise random play and I include it in my list of the worst inventions of the past century.
In the days when we used to purchase albums, it was understood by the general listening public that some thought and effort went into the arrangement of the songs . The band members, along with the producer, sat down and decided the order of songs. Furthermore, they needed to figure out which songs would go on side ‘A’ and which on side ‘B.’ If they did their job well, the album would form a cohesive whole, a unity. While the individual songs could, and did, stand on their own merit, the whole was even greater than the sum of the parts.
In this sense, radio was the enemy of the artist, as it had no need for albums. It wanted only songs and specifically, hit songs. Hence, radio became something of a double-edge sword for musicians and bands. On the one hand, it gave them necessary exposure which translated into more sales and thus more money. On the other hand, radio chose only the songs it deemed worthy of air-play, using its own skewed commercial criteria. The one or two songs extracted from most albums for heavy airplay were probably not the best songs on many albums, and most likely were not the favorites of the musicians either. In the best case scenario, listeners who enjoyed the songs being played on the radio went out to buy the album. Once they owned it, they could play it at leisure and experience the entire album, as it was meant to be experienced.
Although iTunes is wonderful in many ways, it also has a dark side, as does every technology. By enabling us to pick and choose songs to buy, divorced from the album and the context of that album, we are missing out on something important. To take the songs in our music library and then to play them in a random order, chosen by a computer, well…that’s going too far.
I remember well the first time I realized that I had a problem with random play. I was in the car of a new friend who was in her 20s. She was driving and her music was playing on the stereo; she had a USB plugged in. I asked her a few questions about the artists, the songs, and the albums. She couldn’t answer any of my questions. She just giggled stupidly and said, “I just turn on random play. I don’t know anything about the albums or anything.”
Nowadays, when I go out to a coffee shop or restaurant, I can always tell when the owner has his ‘random’ setting on. The sequence of songs makes little to no sense.
Yesterday I ate breakfast at a cute little cafe that I like to visit. I should say that I like to go there for the food, not for the atmosphere. The owner is a French hipster who imagines himself to have great taste in music. He instructs his staff to play his computer playlist, on random play, of course. So, I was treated to a hip-hop song, followed by some French pop, followed by American pop, followed by an 80s pop song, followed by some rap music…..and on and on. While the owner imagines that he’s serenading his customers with his exquisite taste in music, in reality we are being subjected to a jarring and discordant mess. This is standard at many of the places which I visit and otherwise like.
The dictionary defines random thusly: ‘proceeding, made, or occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern. ‘ Why would anyone want to have their sequence of songs occurring without any reason or pattern? Why would anyone want to have a computer program choose what song is played next? These are questions I will probably never have answered satisfactorily. In the meantime, all I can do is ask the manager to turn the music off.