I grew up in a small Arab town and didn’t get dial-up internet until I started high school. Before then, I had to walk to the record store in the nearby mall and use what I could save from my allowance to buy cassette tapes, meaning I could afford a handful every year.
At the time, the United Arab Emirates censored cassette tapes. As in, any parts of the song containing lyrics you imagine would be objectionable to the politics and morality of a thirty year old Arabian Gulf government were cut, and not in a subtle way.2
Do you know what it’s like for a middle schooler to pay what felt like a thousand dollars for a copy of the Marshall Mathers EP only to discover that all obscenities and obscene-adjacent expressions were censored? It was practically an instrumental version of the record.
Still, I played my tapes.
At some point I owned a Panasonic portable CD player, although I can’t remember if I had it before or after my first MP3 player. I also can’t remember which model it was and so I can’t find an image of it online. It was black, and I used to carry it in a custom-made black fabric case with a big red pentagram sewn on it. Thanks mom.
I had a few CD albums but I mostly used a CD-RW that I burned and re-burned multiple times a week, treating the player as a heavier and less convenient MP3 player.
This is also when I started ripping CDs and building a modest local music library in Windows Media Player (later migrating to Real One Player).
The first digital media player I ever owned was a no-name USB thumbdrive MP3 player with a janky screen. I am shocked to find that you can still exchange currency for one in this year 2022. Today you can have one for the price of an Americano, but back then it was the most precious thing I owned.
Looking at the image, I can remember how it had that cheap soft plastic smell, and how I played a lot of Three Doors Down on it.
The next evolution didn’t come until 2007, when I moved to Canada, started university, and got my first computer.3
I couldn’t give you a strong reason why, but I asked for a Mac even though that was a risk at the time. Macs were still kinda new, I had never used one, and I couldn’t be sure that I could do everything I needed to do for university on it. But, they seemed cool and the only teacher I really liked in high school had one, so I YOLO’d it and assumed it would all work out.4
Apple’s educational discounts were better back then. With my white plastic MacBook, I got a free iPod Nano 2nd generation, and a free printer (after a mail-in rebate).5
It took me a while to get used to the iTunes/iPod model of a music library. Having spent years dealing with the files themselves (downloading the, copying them, burning them, moving them around), I couldn’t figure out why iTunes seemed to be hiding my files from me.
In the end, iTunes taught me the value of playlists and accurate MP3 tags. Despite the rocky start, I loved iTunes, and would end up moving and growing the same iTunes library from 2007 until today (although it’s been largely ceremonial since November 2020). A lot of people hated iTunes, but iTunes never let me down. Not until they started calling it Music.app.
Over the next few years I started earning some disposable income, became a regular at the local Beat Goes On, started buying a lot of CDs, and also found my way to a private site mourned by many and replaced by none. Those were heady days and the depth and breadth of my music library exploded. This was the golden era of music discovery in my life.
In 2008 friends at the campus newspaper where I volunteered (and loitered at for the majority of my undergraduate life) told me about Last.fm and I created the account I still use to this day.
In 2009, I upgraded from the iPod Nano to a refurbished 80GB black iPod Classic. It was my first, not to be the last.
I loved that iPod. It was heavy, felt good in the hand, was big enough to carry my entire music library (for a while), and did one thing: played my music.
The iPod Classic times were the best of times.
After the iPod Classic came the iPod Touch, and after that came the iPhone.6 This period is marked with a lot of noise. Music no longer had a sanctum and got mixed up with everything else. With the iPod music was everything, but after that it became just an app. It became something that happened while other things happened on the same device.
I have more to say about this phase and the role iTunes played in everything, and that will come in a later post.
Next, a note about Last.fm.
Which are making a comeback. You can buy tapes on Bandcamp now! A coffee shop near my place has a shelf with cassette tapes for their stereo. ↩︎
I always wondered whether the music labels created special copies of these tapes for these censorial markets, or if the distributors in the UAE performed the mutilations themselves on import. Who knows, maybe the labels didn’t even know those copies existed. ↩︎
Until then I used a family Pentium desktop that lived in the living room. ↩︎
A highly underrated tactic. ↩︎
I think I got the silver iPod. I wish I still had it. ↩︎
In the mix was an iPod Shuffle 2nd gen, but it never grabbed me as much as it did other people. ↩︎