15 Things We Miss About the Gen-X Music Experience
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“It’s just not like it used to be.” As Loudwire’s resident Gen-X curmudgeon, I often find myself sharing with the younger staffers here what it was like back in the day, so it finally seemed the time was right to reflect on the good ol’ days of growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s and what made music so exciting to myself and those of my age while also reflecting on how things have changed in how we consume and partake in our music experiences.
Technology has brought about many changes, mostly in the name of convenience, but at the same time, it has sapped some of the humanity out of our music experiences. There are certain things we have today that are natural advances from how we approached our music experiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s and you can see why the leap was made. But there are also other experiences our current generation of young music lovers may never know that are likely gone for good, making you wonder if it truly was all for the better.
So dust off your boombox, have a pencil handy in case your tape gets eaten and crank some jams as we revisit 15 Things We Miss About the Gen-X Music Experience.
The Record Store’s Midnight On-Sale
Yes, kids today have the equivalent of “the midnight wait” when Spotify or the streaming service of your choice posts new music as Thursday turns to Friday, but it’s a wholly individualistic experience. There used to be great joy in trekking down to your local record store when a big release came out, often with other fans waiting in anticipation to pick up a brand new album from your favorite artist.
But this was a different time, a time in which you didn’t have half the album out before its release, a time when your biggest gatekeepers to new music knowledge were music magazines, MTV and your local record store employees. Typically, you might have heard one song prior to the album’s release and read an interview somewhere digging a little deeper into the music, but the rest of the album remained a mystery until you were finally able to get your hands on it for the first time. There was pure joy in taking that album home, analyzing the artwork and lyrics, zoning in mentally on every note played and lyric sung, quickly picking out those standout moments and forming your opinion largely based on hearing that music without a wealth of previous clues.
There was mystique, there was anticipation and there was a shared buzz with fellow music customers at the store who were also just as hyped up to hear their favorite artists’ latest release without the information overload that we have today. You could actually listen to an album and for the most part be totally unaware of what you were about to experience, and having that shared anticipation with others only heightened how excited you were to get something new and be the first to share your opinions with others. Simply put, the anticipation of the midnight release was something you lived for as a music fan and is something that feels totally lost in today’s “everything now” disposable music climate.
Camping Out to Get Concert Tickets
Buying tickets for a concert these days can be totally frustrating and annoying, especially with ticketing bots grabbing up so many tickets online for the secondary market often driving up the price you’ll pay to see a concert. But getting tickets for a show wasn’t always such a pain. Yes, it may be seen as progress that you have the convenience of just getting your concert tickets via phone or computer, but today’s generation is missing out on some of the fun of how we Gen X’ers used to do it.
You would actually go to the venue to get tickets and the most hardcore of fans hoping to score the best tickets would often camp out overnight to have one of the first spots available when tickets went on sale. Was this a prudent strategy? It depends on how you look at it. As most of the venues did what amounts to picking numbers out of a hat to assign line positions, it could end up being quite random where you ended up in line. But that said, often with a ticket limit of 10 per person, if you brought friends with you to get tickets, you increased your chances for a good number draw. Not to mention, if you made friends with those camping out in line around you, you could often see if someone wasn’t going to use their full 10 ticket allotment if they had a better line position and buy your tickets through them.
Once again, it was a great way to hang and meet other fans of the band you were there to see, share stories, make friends and all the while do your best to score the best tickets you could possibly get. It was a much more personal experience than watching a countdown bar go across your computer screen hoping that you’re able to get in the queue in time to score a decent ticket for the show you want and praying you’re not relegated to a secondary market ticket provider.
Concert Ticket Stubs
As technology continues to take over, one thing that seems to be more and more phased out is the concert ticket stub. It was often the easiest keepsake that you could score showing proof you were there when your favorite artist came to town. But as everything has gone more online with ticketing, at best you’re getting a printed out page of your purchase as opposed to a physical ticket, and more and more that is becoming less of an option with a push to have ticketing shifted to scannable data on your smartphone.
For music fans, the concert ticket was once a badge of honor, often used to decorate bulletin boards, tossed into scrapbooks and treasured as a memento of your concert going experience. Now it’s viewed as the expendable piece of data that you can ditch as soon as you enter the venue.
But rejoice ticket lovers, all may not be totally lost. Seeing that market for those who still desire their concert ticket stubs, Ticket Time Machine are working with numerous festivals and promoters to provide commemorative and souvenir tickets. Stubforge has started a service printing realistic replica tickets for shows that you attended and want to have that keepsake. And BuyMeCool, Etsy, PhunkyThreads, Red Bubble and more have started taking your favorite concert tickets and using them as designs for comfy and stylish throw pillows.
The Concert Hotline
Who’s coming to town? Odds are you know when your favorite acts are going to be around you just by following their socials or seeing their names pop up on ads for your favorite local music venue. But where did you get that information before the internet? The Concert Hotline, of course.
It was not uncommon for radio stations to have a number that you would call that would take you directly to a recorded message that would roll out the list of big name acts in the genre that station played, letting you know which local city, venue and the date they would be in town. Just have that pen and paper handy so you don’t miss the details on which concert you wanted to see or you might have to call back and listen to it again.
976 Phone Numbers for Music Trivia
Special phone numbers weren’t just for finding out your favorite concerts. Yes, you may think of party lines, phone sex and mystical fortune tellers when the numbers “976” are mentioned, but there were “976” numbers that appealed to music nerds out there as well.
Who didn’t want to test their knowledge with some music trivia? Way before you could just Google everything or use Shazam to identify a song, it was kind of fun to get that little piece of music knowledge that you could then tuck away and quiz your friends on later.
Music Videos Being In Demand Entertainment
YouTube, VEVO and a band’s individual website are typically where fans go to see music videos these days, and often the pull of the music video is the initial viewing for the fans, who then move on unless that video was super engaging.
But for Gen X’ers, the music video was more of an event, something to be viewed repeatedly and something you could endlessly be entertained by. The ‘80s saw the music video become one of the most successful ways of marketing your band. MTV became the place where most artists got their big break, with the network dedicating a majority of its programming to music videos with the occasional concert special thrown in during its infancy.
The world premiere of a new video was a big thing, sometimes almost eclipsing the popularity of the song itself. And a great video could occasionally catapult an average song to greater heights. Labels dedicated big budgets to crafting conceptual clips and these short music films captured the imagination of a generation of music lovers. And, as MTV didn’t initially segment their audience, you could make a Billy Idol fan out of a viewer who had just tuned in hoping to catch the latest Madonna video. Rock, pop, R&B, rap and metal could all co-exist with fans of each overlapping.
But MTV wasn’t the only game in town. Canada had MuchMusic, VH1 initially catered to an older audience of music video watchers, NBC dedicated a Friday late night slot to Friday Night Videos. USA Network had a mix of music videos and interviews on their long-running series Night Flight and even HBO carved out time in their schedule for repeated viewings of Video Jukebox each month showcasing some of the best new videos. Simply put, the music video not only was viewed as a nice marketing tool for your song, but it got you national exposure on many major television networks.
But as we now know, the music video has largely been relegated to something that is most often found via online search or the suggestion of an algorithm as opposed to within a featured block of programming on a major network. Even MTV, the network named Music Television, started phasing out music videos, opting instead to fill their airtime with reality series. Sadly, the large scale, big budget music video seems to be more and more a thing of the past, with most clips these days focusing on the more cost-effective performance based clips as there are fewer high profile platforms to support them.
Music-Centric TV Shows
Yes, there are still music shows on television, but the types of these shows are largely different from what Gen X’ers grew up with. A majority of music-centered television these days is focused on singing competitions (American Idol, The Voice) or more documentary-styled programming recounting music history that AXS and Reelz have offered. The Coda Collection has also scooped up plenty of older music programming, as well. And yes, you still have the talk shows and Saturday Night Live that provide bands a platform to showcase a tune (or two, usually off-air for their web platform).
But what is largely missing are the music shows that are largely dedicated to music performance. Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and Burt Sugarman’s Midnight Special were shows often dedicated to bands playing their music for kids in the '70s. Dick Clark’s American Bandstand was already an institution before most Gen X’ers were born, but gave us a Saturday morning spotlight to listen to the hits of the day and see bands play. Solid Gold was the U.S. equivalent to England's Top of the Pops, counting down the biggest hit songs while showcasing the Solid Gold dancers and providing a platform for musical performances as well.
MTV also found programming gold in the early ‘90s with their acoustic Unplugged series for artists.
Broadcast full band concerts were also more of a thing. HBO would tend to have several major artist concerts throughout the year. MTV, still in its infancy, also dedicated late night weekend viewing time to showcasing fully recorded live concerts.
So what happened to those concerts? The VHS/DVD market soon became a better platform for showcasing full band concert performances and likely landed the bands a better paycheck in the end.
While there seem to be fewer established outlets for bands on broadcast television, it appears that some of those types of opportunities are now best found online.
Infomercials / Compilation ads
K-Tel is likely a brand name that sounds familiar to many a Gen-X’er. Music compilations were often a way to spotlight a bunch of artists that fell within a specific sound to a mass audience, especially with cheesy TV ads to often sell it. In pre-Internet days, television was a goldmine for music compilations. Today’s equivalent might be the specialized streaming playlist, though there are still physical song compilations being made.
Anyone remember Freedom Rock? (Well, turn it up, man!). The NOW! That’s What I Call Music series has essentially picked up the torch of these frequently promoted sets of the ‘70s and ‘80s and carried it forward to a new generation.
But it wasn’t just music compilations that got TV plugs. Bands would go to great lengths to market their music, even if it meant promoting other businesses. Ever seen Cinderella record their jingle for Pat’s Chili Dogs? Want to know what Warrant are up to? You should check out their hotline. And how about that time when Guns N’ Roses’ Slash told you not to be a butthead and wanted you to order RIP Magazine? In a world where everything is at your fingertips (even these old commercials), we miss the days of seeing the creative ways in which the bands would try to get their name out there.
For some Gen-X’ers, one of the earliest forms of music they’ll have ever listened to was an 8-Track tape. While a variety of formats are still around, you kind of have to search far and wide to find 8-track tapes or players these days, with them largely being relegated to collector’s items.
The 8-track was a cartridge with a recorded spool of tape that first became a primary music player in the ‘60s and saw its greatest popularity in the ‘70s. Sure the radio gave you individual songs, but you couldn’t really play vinyl in your car, so the 8-track was the first player that allowed you to play a full album in your vehicle. But it did come with some drawbacks, as tracks were often separated by time limit and if a song was still going when that time limit on a track was up, the option was often to fade the song out, and bring it back up mid-song to start the next track. The cartridges and tape were also susceptible to heat, putting your favorite music at risk if you left your 8-track in the player too long, with the tape getting “warped” from prolonged exposure to the tape head. And heaven forbid you actually left your 8-track on the dashboard of your vehicle for an extended period during a scorching hot day.
By the ‘80s, the audio cassette came along, allowing for a more flexible and cost-effective option for music presentation, with the 8-track largely usurped altogether by the cassette by the end of the decade.
The Cassette Pencil Trick
The cassette may have replaced the 8-Track, but it did not come without its own issues. Keeping the heads clean on your player was a bigger thing than you’d think, as it was not uncommon for cassette tapes to get “eaten.”
There was nothing worse than taking your cassette tape out of your player and finding that tape still tangled and needing to be dislodged from your console. It was often a delicate process of trying to unweave the mangled piece from the player, leaving the tape dangling outside of its cartridge.
But many tapeheads found solace in the pen or pencil, which found new usage as the music lovers' way to attempt rolling the exposed tape back into place by using the pencil to turn the circular rollers, spooling everything (hopefully) back into place without any additional wear or tangling so that it could still be played.
Standing By Your Radio to Tape Your Favorite Song
Yes kiddies, there was a time when you didn’t have Spotify, Apple and every other kind of streaming service to play the songs that you wanted when you wanted. The best you could do back in the day was to listen to your local radio station, have your cassette ready and just hope you recognized your favorite song soon enough to hit record when it came on. This was no easy task either, as getting a clean version of the song minus the DJ talking was not always the easiest thing to do as they often went right up to the post. And heaven forbid you had one song that faded into another.
You could sometimes help yourself in your recording task by calling into the radio station to request the song you wanted and trying to get some sort of confirmation that they would play it, but you still needed to be on your toes in anticipation of the song playing. In the ‘80s, this was the easiest way to get a recording of songs you wanted at your command when you wanted them shy of actually owning the album.
The mixtape begat the burned CD begat the streaming playlist. And while the streaming playlist allows for an infinite amount of time for your collection of songs, I’ll argue that it also provides less focus.
With the mixtape in its original form, you knew that you had the full finite length of the cassette to get in exactly what you wanted to say in musical concept and form. And somehow anywhere from 60 minutes to 120 minutes that a cassette provided seemed to form the perfect amount of time to build your musical arc. You could use music to profess your love through song and story, pump up your exercise soundtrack or simply just share the cool songs that you discovered that you just had to make sure your friends knew about as well..
CDs allowed you the ability for more time than the cassette in most cases, and you could still stay pretty focused with a finite ending time. But the streaming playlist allows for a little overindulgence and the ability to perhaps keep a vibe going longer than an attention span will want to entertain it.
There was also just something fun about the physical nature of the mixtape. You could share it with an intended individual, add your own scrawled out artwork and track listing should you choose, give it your desired made-up title and fully realize your vision. That became a little harder to do writing with a marker on your blank CD or attaching stickers to the casing. The streaming playlist, while still being customizable and sharable, seems a little more impersonal by just sharing a link.
The CD Longbox
With a few exceptions, CDs have been sold in cases 5.59” long by 4.92” wide and .39” deep since their inception, but how those CDs are packaged has changed over time. Artwork had been such an intricate part of vinyl sales, the format the CD was largely replacing at the time, and in an effort to maintain that dedication to the album art, CDs were often initially sold in what is referred to as the CD longbox.
Most longboxes were 12” tall, the same length as a typical vinyl LP. They would feature the artwork on the front and most often had the track listing and other info on the back. But seeing as the actual CD inside the longbox took up considerably less space than its physical packaging, it wasn’t long before there was an outcry over the wasteful cardboard packaging.
For fans of album artwork, the longbox front could be cut free and displayed as something equivalent to a poster, but even after cutting free the artistic part of the packaging, what was left could be considered somewhat cumbersome and wasteful. By 1993, the longbox was largely phased out of usage due to these concerns, but not without concern over the visual aesthetic.
Giant Radio Consoles + Boomboxes
Like many electronic appliances, things have gotten more compact over time. Full fledged radio consoles of the ‘80s included large speakers to sit on either side of your player (not to mention any additional speakers), and depending on what year it was, you likely had either a vinyl record player, a cassette player, an 8-track player or a CD player (or some combination of these) patched in to play as well. You might as well consider your radio console an extra piece of furniture if you had one in the ‘80s, and the bigger the better for your audio experience. Even the 1986 Sanyo Console demo seen in the video player below had started downsizing from where things were at the beginning of the decade.
Want something a little smaller? Try the boombox, or ghetto blaster as they were often called in their infancy due to their popularity within urban rap culture. This portable player often contained a cassette player (CD players were later added) to go along with the radio with integrated amplified speakers. You’d want to stock up on batteries though, as plug in outlets were not always readily available for the mobile music listener.
These days, most music listeners use something way more compact, whether it be your phone, computer or sometimes a portable bluetooth. There are also smaller all-in-one radio units, typically something that could easily fit on your shelf and feels more like an accessory than a piece of furniture. Vinyl record players have come back around with the format’s popularity increasing in the last two decades after being phased out in the ‘80s in favor of CDs.
A Selfie and Cellphone Free Concert Experience
It’s rare to go to a concert these days and not have your view obstructed by someone’s cellphone capturing footage of the show. We’ve just become accustomed to having to deal with this inconvenience and hopefully have enough space to move where our views can be a little better. It’s also a little maddening that this has been universally accepted and we haven’t updated concert etiquette that considers the experiences of other concertgoers. In many cases, it is possible to film with consideration for the view of those around you and still get your shot, but that doesn’t usually happen. That’s another gripe for another time.
The point here being that cellphone taping at shows has become so commonplace that we’ve come to accept it, but lo and behold when you go to a show where there is no taping, you can be reminded of what concerts were like going to shows in your youth.
For Gen X’ers, we remember going to shows, singing and dancing along to songs, cheering when called upon and generally leaving a hot and sweaty mess after an enjoyable night of rock ’n’ roll that left us with plenty of memories. It was a communal experience with people united in celebrating the music they love and the artist truly feeling the full brunt of the audience’s appreciation after a show was complete. With no limbs raised skyward to capture footage on your cell phone, there would now be minimal obstructions (save for shorter people) and everyone can enjoy the show fully engaged.
While you can argue that your cellphone video is a keepsake item to remember the show, what exactly do you remember — that you were trying to get the right angle so that your YouTube video will get more likes or that you rocked out in full fury to “Reign in Blood”? And how often will you watch that video you captured? Does it leave you with a fond memory of your concert experience or were you more concerned with that recording than enjoying the show and kind of missed out on the experience in the process? In the end, it was a much more enjoyable time seeing shows where I was much more concerned about my own good time than I was in what others would think when I posted that I was at this show.