My friend Jill and I are out walking.
“Do you remember when music artists had hit singles?” I’m asking. “They wanted to release a song from their new album on a 45’s, and sometimes the song was played a ton on the radio, and people went to a record store and bought it, and it’s really high on the list. Billboard and everyone would say the song was a hit? ”
“I do not know about all that with the record industry,” says Jill. “I just remember we all ended up knowing the same songs at the same time because they were on the radio.”
She presses the “go” button at Third Avenue and Indian School Road. “As I recall, we all had a collective shared experience through music.”
Jill is the kind of person who can say phrases like “collective shared experience” and make them sound exciting and new. I take out my phone and write the sentence in my Notes app.
“But was it not annoying when people said a song was a hit when it had never been released as a single or listed on Billboard Hot 100? ” I’m asking.
“No,” Jill replies. “I’ve never thought about it before. You might be the only person who actually thinks about something like that.”
Back home, I take off my hiking boots and call my friend Rory Musil. He and I worked for the same record store chain in the 1980s. Today, Rory works at Amoeba Records in San Francisco. I’m not surprised Rory knows what I’m talking about when I hesitate to confuse popular album tracks with “hits”. Like Jill, he’s not sure why I’m worried.
“But I understand what you’re saying,” Rory says. “In the old days, people knew that a song was a hit because it came out
Billboard and in your shop it was on a display wall, and you heard it on radio stations promoting themselves with phrases like ‘Non-Stop hits, all the time!’ ”.
Rory also gets Jill’s idea of ”collective shared experience”.
“Back then, even though you did not like the pop hits of the moment, you still knew them. They were on the air, on TV, on the radio, always somewhere. Even if you did not care about Barbra Streisand, you knew the theme of what the hell that movie was – ”
“‘The way we were?’ I hate that song. ”
“Yes,” Rory says. “But big hits are not always present anymore. I do not know anyone who listens to the radio. People are not dependent on Casey Kasem offering them choices of things they like. They go to YouTube and TikTok and Spotify, so your music choices are everywhere. ”
I tell Rory I do not want to be an old lady about it, but I kind of miss being manipulated by a system designed to make me want to buy a record album.
Those days are no more, Rory reminds me. He should know: Most of his record store colleagues are younger than 30. For them, they are Billboard The Hot 100 has been replaced by a list of what’s being streamed on Spotify.
“They do not really understand the concept of ‘hit,'” he says. They come in and they show you their phone because they have Shazam, and they want to know what the song they’re catching is called so they can go home and stream it. ”
So people are not shouting for the same 37 records, I say. “Is not that a good thing?”
It could be, says Rory. But it also means we are not being introduced to a new artist by being force-fed with the prominent clip from their new album. “Now that you can buy a single track from the iTunes Store, what if you pick the worst song on the album and end up thinking the band is lousy?”
And if we do not go to the local record store to buy the hit song we heard on the radio, there is no clerk selling us other things we might like. “Right?” I ask Rory.
“Not necessarily,” he says. “My daughter’s listening preferences over the last few years are Tool and J-pop. And she says iTunes always tells her that if she likes that music, she might like these other things too. It’s a kind of new version of an old system. ”
I think so, I say. We’ve been talking for a while yet about Johnny Rivers and the Monkees farewell tour, and how fun it used to be to guess what the next hit from a new album could be.
After we hang up, I wander around the room where I keep my record albums, some of which contain songs that everyone knows because in a way we could not avoid hearing them. It dawns on me that I may have been hung up on the wrong thing. Maybe it’s just as much what makes a song a ‘hit’. Maybe Jill is right: It’s sharing the song that matters, not why we know it. It could be my friend Rory gently pushing me to embrace the new millennium.
“Alexa,” I shout to the little gray cone on my desk, “play the best hits of the day.”
And Alexa replies, “Robrt, I’m not sure I know what you mean.”