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Don’t touch that dial ... share the file

Although the advance of Swiss Cheese memory increases, some of the holes brought on by my creeping dotage shine a large light into the forgotten corners of my memory.

For whatever reason, last week’s announcement by Apple about iTunes 10 (an upgrade which includes a social networking function allowing friends to share music) made me think of a night camping on the beach near San Diego. My brother asleep and me up late and wide awake, listening to “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 on a palm-sized transistor radio, the tinny sound of the speaker blaring out mono perfection.

Everything about that moment remains so vivid — the rippling of the tent’s sides, the rumble beneath the sand from the distant tide crashing down, and the elation of hearing a song that was immediately and unequivocally THE BEST SONG EVER.

That song eternally ties me into that moment in time and, if hadn’t been for my little transistor radio and AM broadcasting, it would be forever forgotten.

It was a time when AM ruled Rock and Roll. Back then, FM was mostly classical music and a playpen for audiophiles. Pop, Rock, Soul, R&B, Gospel, Country — everything everyone was listening to — was heard on AM radio and it was always a frickin’ gas, gas, gas. More than that, discrete music scenes popped up all over the country and, growing up as a military brat and always on the move, I learned that one area’s Top 40 was not necessarily another area’s Top 40. And while there was more Rock in the mid-west, more Soul and R&B on the coasts and in the south, the thing was, you always heard it all: no form dominated anywhere and no matter where you were in the U.S., Top 40 radio was the only game for pop music. The DJs were annoying (if not amusing) and the commercials interminable, but the excitement of not knowing what was coming up next and then getting your grill kicked in more than made up for the previous prattle.

On a clear night, you could pick up AM signals from almost everywhere. Once, near the end of AM radio’s primacy, I laid out on a picnic table while camping near lake Mead, staring up at the stars. The Las Vegas station had it was 2 a.m. and 109 degrees. Depressed, I turned the dial, sought through the panoply of sounds and voices, seeking something different. I landed on Bobby “Blue” Bland, “Turn on Your Lovelight” followed by some Dr. John live cut from Jupiter. The station was out of Chicago.

Maybe some of you remember when AM radio was Mr. And Mrs. American and all the ships at sea. Maybe some of you remember when an AM radio was all you had to listen to in your truck as you tried to navigate your way to the next pasture. On the other hand, maybe you remember American Idol as your first election.

I remember that night in the tent, threading it onwards to the mercurial end of Top 40 radio.

Somewhere in the ’70s, corporations began buying up radio stations as they discovered FM’s sonic and financial potential. Rock took the lead, taking just a few years to distill its listeners tastes to a singular format, mostly void of black artists (“Jimi!” being the lone exception). Other formats followed and, soon, you had all this, or all that, but nothing else.

With Satellite or streaming Internet radio, you have all this, that, and even all them (or him) — all the time. Yet, things haven’t happened the way that they might have. Music has evolved in a way its industry has not, often times in defiance of the corporate fatcat’s greedy designs.

Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” (and by implication, Billboard Magazine) took the first step in sealing the doom for AM Top 40 radio. Not through corporate buyouts or technological razzle-dazzle but by transitioning formats through international syndication. By the end of the ’70s, at least in the U.S., formats had been compartmentalized and Top 40 radio had become, for the most part, a bland and largely monochromatic wasteland.

I have nothing against Casey Kasem (he was the voice of Shaggy in Scooby Doo, after all) but “American Top 40,” more an idea than anything coldly corporate or technological, homogenized music to a standstill, ossified it and made it static and stagnant at best.

Two things happened in the seventies, concurrent to the tally insouciance of the late ’70s (see: Disco) that saved pop music from an unsavory early death: punk and rap. In fact, it was the dull state of mid- to late-’70s Top 40 that kick started Rap and Punk.

With a DIY determination and a “screw you” attitude, both forms seemed to be oracles for new technology, demanding it, precociously and petulantly. By the early ’80s, both began bubbling up onto the charts to remind Rock and Roll that it had always annoyed parents and been, if not overtly sexual, then completely subversive.

Although the best of Punk and Rap remained “underground” and only within reach of the faithful, the influence they held was inestimable, creating a renaissance in music that defied the best intentions of the critics and the worst inclinations of the record executives.

More than that, it briefly brought back the spirit of diversity that seemed to have disappeared with the marginalization of AM radio programming. Overcoming the ugly racist overtones of the “Disco Sucks” rallies in the late ’70s, the “anything goes” attitudes inherent in Rap and Punk broke down the walls again.

If I get around to writing a column about the best shows I’ve ever seen, Public Enemy headlining for Primus and Anthrax will be on that list. The show, raucous and joyous, told me you have all this, all that, and even all of them, all the time, everywhere. It revealed to me that the demise of Top 40 radio meant so much more for the form I loved.

It didn’t hurt that, at that time, technology caught up and music was cheap again (CDs a nifty $6 or $7 versus the sale vinyl of $13). However, there was a catch: you had to buy a CD player.

No problem. With the advent of the CD, the recording industry’s costs went down to pennies on the dollar; they just needed the technology to play it on. Suddenly, units that went for about $700 dropped to less than $20 in a matter of years.

And obviously, as the price of equipment plummeted, the cost of music skyrocketed; new CD releases went to as much as $21 — a 300 percent increase — adding to industry profits the previous 95 percent per-unit savings made on production.

Technology’s gift was short-lived — and slyly ironic. As the Internet became ubiquitous, followed exponentially by file sharing, record company giants recognized the potential of a huge, lethal threat. When Napster went viral (as the kids say today), you could hear the record industry’s shorts take a load bigger than Silicon Valley.

If you’ve ever said, “I got to get me one of those,” you know that you probably ought to get you one of those. The recording industry, on the other hand, decided that “one of those” was just some plaything for the kids and would eventually go away, that everything would return to the days when making money was a simple matter of ripping off huge numbers of people for piles of cash. Faced with a technology offering a degree of democracy that took the decisions out of record executives’ hands (as far as who should be promoted and packaged), the industry flailed about pathetically and impotently, taking to the courts with lawsuits and injunction requests as if they were attempting to stop those newfangled aeroplanes with a handful of hot air balloons.

Of course, CD sales continued to plummet as the number of digital music downloads exploded. Furthermore, the technology wasn’t tied to any particular piece of technology other than a computer and an Internet connection: music could be played on a computer, an MP3 player or burned to a disk. There was no symbiotic relationship that the record companies could exploit in order to screw music fans.

For the first time in history, it was the end user who was calling the shots and if the record companies couldn’t deliver, the music buying public would find a way.

Although I still have a collection of about 2,000 CDs, my music purchases now are almost exclusively digital. Long gone are the days when I’d wait all month to take my after-school job wages and ride my bike to the record store. Now, if I hear something I like, I just log in and download it.

Well, in theory. Currently I’m using USA Communications as my ISP but that’s about to change. I signed up for Internet and television last fall (when it was Rocky Mountain Cable) but got rid of the TV portion after only a month; although their channel lineup touted the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon (essential for my kids) and Comedy Central (essential for me), those channels were unavailable due to “lost contracts” or something and the company could not tell me when, if ever, they were going to get those channels back.

In the meantime, the Internet runs far slower than the 1.5 Mbps than I’m paying for, sometimes crawling at a pace that makes dial-up seem supersonic. That is, when it’s even working. Earlier this week, it was down for over a day and, when I called to see what was up, the “customer service” representative (I use that term ironically) said, “Yep, your service is out and you’ll know when its back up before I do.”

With outages several times a month, the company is unwilling to give credit for service I’m not getting but that I still pay for. The response I invariably get when asking for a credit is, “Well ... sucks to be you.”

Raising three kids on my own, reliable Internet is essential: if one the kids is out sick from school, I have to work from home and during those times, an Internet outage is not an option. Yet during the winter time, due to exposed lines and cold weather, the Internet will go down every day — sometimes for almost the entire day — and again, the “Sucks to be you” response is the best I get.

The least of my considerations, downloading music (although hardly “least” considering the tune addict that I am), is just one aspect of why I am going to jettison USA Communications and seek something more reliable; I require reliable service, at decent speeds, and customer service that is slightly more responsive that shrubbery.

Having vented, let me finish by saying that, as far as I was concerned, Apple’s announcement last week wasn’t all that ,but just another step towards inevitability, acknowledging that file sharing actually buys music (because of exposure) and that, well, files are going to be shared.

And while the Golden Age of AM Top 40 radio will never return, the potential for music’s evolution continues to expand. Individuals or bands can record and mix on a laptop without having to spend their rent on studio time. Millions of music fiends produce podcasts that, at any given moment, bring back the spirit of anarchy and adventure that was once AM radio.

And, with billions of music files available with a click, I can as easily search out something from AC/DC as I can some obscure side from a musician in Zimbabwe.

What Apple did was not just the rational response to the technology, it was for all intents and purposes, the obvious next step, the right thing, the good thing.

Don’t touch that dial. It’s about to get better.

jim@pagosasun.com