Buried in Tape


In 1997 I used my tax refund to get satellite television.  Although I was much more of a television-watcher back then, the one primary reason I wanted to get satellite television when I did was so I could catch a documentary on Björk that was going to air on Bravo, which my local cable company didn’t carry back then.  Back when we were closer to having 500 cable channels than the 5,000 or so we have today, a documentary on Björk airing in the United States was a big deal.  Once I had satellite, I was stunned at just how often I could catch performances of the musicians I loved the most — Björk, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Jill Sobule — airing on channels I knew my local, non-national cable company would never carry.  It seemed like almost every week there was something for me to videotape; in addition to the wide variety of channels, the nineties was just one of the best decades for popular music, at least until the record companies dragged us back into the dark ages of boy bands and teen divas.

Between how much I had to tape, and how messed up my sleep schedule was back then, it got to the point where I started collecting tapes and not labeling them, wanting to see if I got a clean copy of the show (or at least the musician’s performance) before putting a permanent label on the tape and adding it to my collection.  (Satellite television, for those of you who’ve never had it, is prone to dropping out at random due to a myriad of factors.)  I took care of a few tapes here and there, but then the house fire came in 2001 and the tapes got shipped off to a warehouse for nearly a year.  By the time I got them back I was back in school, and I wanted to devote more time to my studies.  I’ve maybe looked at two or three tapes since then, but I still have a couple of stacks of them inside my television stand — about sixty in all — that I’ve yet to get to.  Even though they’re right out in the open, I forget about them for months at a time, and of course I have no time to go through them now with everything I’m trying to deal with.

Back when I was first taping everything in the nineties, my original thought was to keep the original videotapes, but then to use tape-to-tape to make “collections” of performances, so if I wanted I could just watch two hours of live Björk performances or Tori Amos interviews or what have you.  Later I got the idea that I might get a DVD recorder, transfer all the tapes to DVDs, then make the compilations.  Needless to say I’ve never had the time for this, but more importantly there’s no real need now.  So many of these performances and shows — including that Björk documentary I first got satellite television for — are now available on DVD, and even if they’re not available on DVD I can usually find a recording of the show on YouTube to queue up whenever I want to watch it, at a higher recording quality than my dinky VCRs could ever have recorded.  This doesn’t even get into all the shows that air in foreign countries that I would never have access to even with one of those house-sized satellite dishes.  I don’t go in for the whole file-sharing thing, but I know that I could probably find even higher-quality files on there that I could download and watch and burn to DVD-R and all that.

I don’t do that, though, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I have neither the time nor interest for that sort of thing now.  On top of just being too busy these days to devote much time to these kinds of pursuits, I don’t feel the same compulsion I used to feel to track any musician like I used to.  Most of the artists I listened to religiously in the nineties haven’t produced work that’s resonated with me as much as their older work did, and even those I still feel strongly drawn to just don’t seem as important to me these days.  Even if one of them appears on one of the big late night talk shows, I rarely even watch their performance as it first airs, let alone record it.  (I still have a VCR, but no DVR, and no way to hook my cable box up to my computer.  Ironically, my cable company now carries a fairly large number of channels, but I don’t really watch television any longer.)  Maybe this is part of that whole “growing up” thing.

More importantly, though, is there a point in recording these things any longer if they’re just going to be up on YouTube the next night anyway?  Even though I tend to follow artists who don’t have huge followings in the United States, they have enough fans that I can count on one of them recording a performance or interview and uploading it somewhere.  There used to be something fulfilling in recording an artist’s every television appearance, buying every album the day it came out, buying every single (even if it meant paying huge shipping fees to ship them across the Atlantic or Pacific), but not only do I not have the resources to do that any longer, but I don’t feel a need to.  If I need a quick break from my work then I can just load YouTube up, search for a performance, and watch it, then get back to my work.  Maybe if I’d been watching more television these past few years, maybe if I’d gotten in on the whole DVR and VOD thing, then maybe I wouldn’t be thinking so much about this because I would have gotten used to it.

Still, I don’t see myself throwing out those video tapes.  I may be in my sixties by the time I can finally sit down and catalogue them all, and I may have to drive halfway across the country to find a working VCR by then, but despite all the changes in my life, there’s still something special in those videos that await me, a reminder of a simpler era when the music was great, even if video-recording quality wasn’t quite what it is today.  Those tapes are coming with me wherever I wind up next.

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