Changes to the way in which we procure, store and play recorded music has a major impact on how we experience in-car audio entertainment – and there’s no let-up.
You’d think that the quickest way to judge the approximate age of a vehicle is to look at its styling cues and interior trim combinations, but I find you need to look no further than the audio system that’s built into a car’s dash. Manufacturers dabbled with the installation of vacuum-tube AM radios in automobiles as long ago as the ‘20s, but the first commercially successful car radio to see the light of day was a Motorola in the early ‘30s. Since then, car cabins have been filled with broadcasts of music, talk shows, bulletins and live sport commentaries.
The transistor radio made its automotive debut in the ‘50s, as did the auto station-seek function and combined AM/FM receivers. So, as mass-media consumption rolled to the highways and a music industry boomed to the tunes of bankable popular music, the scene was set for the introduction of in-car recorded media players that would allow motorists to listen to exactly what they want – as long as they’d bought it beforehand.
Legend has it that Chrysler offered an in-dash turntable that played vinyl singles in 1956 (was it made by Wurlitzer, perhaps?), but in-car record players never took off, probably because leaf springs and styluses don’t really work in unison.
The ‘60s, however, saw the advent of Stereo 8 cartridges, which were particularly popular in the US. Compact cassettes (known colloquially as tapes) and cars equipped with audio units that could play that medium became ubiquitous in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then, when we’d only just got used to playing our mix tapes on road trips (ones we’d invariably either recorded from hit parades or dubbed from friends’ cassettes or records), compact discs became the rage. From the ‘90s, CDs offered us much better sound reproduction than tapes did; no hissing, no stretching and no spontaneous emissions of brown spaghetti that needed to be yanked out of the dashboard.
Tape dubbing and CD writers marked the beginning of the end of the era in which music recordings were things that could be bought and owned in the same way that we procure and consume other goods. It dealt the music industry a body blow, but worse was to come.
As much as CD-changers were the must-have items for late-‘90s cars, the advent of the new millennium saw the introduction of audio systems that could decode and play digitally compressed music in MP3 file format, and built-in DVD-ROMs that read the maps for early satellite-navigation systems. Thanks to subversive (let alone illegal) file sharing over the Internet, the traditional concept of music ownership changed irrevocably, and the foundation was laid for the proliferation of portable media players that would allow people to carry around their personal music collections in their pockets.
The iPod and its peers didn’t kill off car audio systems, for a variety of practical reasons, but also because manufacturers embraced the trend by offering auxiliary input sockets and slots for USB flash memory sticks or SD cards. These days, members of the plugged-in generation (not exclusively 20-somethings, mind you) don’t look under the bonnet when they consider the purchase of a new vehicle – they scour the glovebox or centre console for places where they could plug in their media players or mass storage devices.
Little do those crazy kids realise that, in the near future, a USB port will be as useful as a cassette deck. The reason for that is loosely described as the phenomenon of cloud computing. Many companies now utilise Internet-based virtual servers for data handling and storage instead of buzzing, blinking silos in their basements. Similarly, individuals are uploading their valuable data (such as media files) to the ‘Net not only to be safeguarded against hardware failures and theft, but also to make portable storage devices largely redundant due to the advent of cloud players.
In other words, when Internet access becomes widely available in cars and the cost of broad-band connections plummet, motorists will be able to play tunes in their vehicles direct from their collections stored on the World Wide Web.
That’s right, soon there’ll be no more need for CD slots, auxiliary ports or onboard hard-drives in your car. Thank you for tracking the state of the art of in-car audio with me; rest assured that by the time you’ve read this passage, yet another contemporary technology will have been overtaken.