Lost In Translation

I grew up in an era when LPs and cassettes were the predominant forms of buying, listening to, and sharing music. I never saw CDs in the record store until I entered high school. It took about four or five years for anyone to start making the shift to CDs. Everyone had a tape deck in their car or at home, and most everyone had a turntable on their home stereo. I used to buy 45s at Music Hut and Hayes Music, before they both went under. I actually listened to those on an ancient turntable I’d had since I was a little kid. When I was in eighth grade or so, I started making mix tapes of albums by spinning the LP and standing ready at the pause button of left cassette deck father’s dual cassette stereo. You could make echo effects by recording the same snippet several times in a row, and dialing down the master volume a little each time.

Wednesday was the day that new albums would be released. For a few years, it was a regular routine to watch the Upcoming Releases calendar at the local record store and make the tough decisions about which albums we would buy. The only way to discover new music was to see it on MTV, read about it in Rolling Stone or Rip, be curious and buy it our selves, or hear it at a friend’s house or in their car.

When I first started collecting music, I would buy a mixture of LPs and cassettes. It seemed that some LPs had some cool stuff that the cassette versions did not. The Rolling Stones&#8217′ Sticky Fingers had a close up of Mick Jagger’s crotch, but on the record cover, there was a real working zipper. Led Zeppelin III had a spinning wheel that manipulated the background of the album cover. The covers of the cassette versions of Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy and Presence only seemed to tell half of a story, but when I saw the LP versions of these albums, there seemed to be a sinister second half to these stories. The Who’s Quadropenia seemed intent on telling a complete story, not only with the songs, but with the extensive album art. They wanted to immerse you into the world of the protagonist. Even as late as 1986, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill had a cover art punchline that didn’t translate on the cassette version. That album also had hand inscribed messages near the record label (only on the record version) that I think helped add to their mystique.

As the record industry made the transition to cassettes and CDs, they were still trying to find ways to delight us with surprises. Everyone from the early 1990s remembers hidden songs, which were unlisted tracks inserted after a long gap of silence after the perceived end of the album.

These music artists were using everything at their disposal to tell a story. The songs on the album, the live performances, the cover art, concert posters, their personas, the videos, the liner notes, their magazine and TV interviews. The easter eggs from one era faded out in subsequent eras because the medium of transport and consumption changed, and there was no way to translate the exact same experience, but they had to decide what aspects were lost and which were kept.

“ The change it had to come,
We knew it all along”
Won’t Get Fooled Again, The Who

The Web is barely in its adolescence. Our medium is only twenty years old. To put that in perspective, the film industry was in the middle of the silent film era at the same point. Our golden age is just beginning.

However, our medium is the least permanent by its nature. How many working hyperlinks remain from twenty years ago? Even at the ten year mark, there is noticeable link rot. The sites from that age of the 1990s and early 2000s were built for desktop only. many in Flash, nearly all fixed width. They are living snapshots of experiences designed for a very specific point in time.

Today, we are more self-aware that we are designing not only for different devices that have different inherent experiences, but for platforms that do not even exist yet. All our efforts today will be tommorrow’s nostalgia. Our challenge as creators is to craft core messages and experiences that are strong enough to live throughout the ages, even if small nuances of today are sadly lost in translation.

Author: John Locke

SEO consultant for manufacturing and industrial companies.