When I bought my first car (it was really the second one I drove, but since the first one was really my dad's, and I wrecked it after a month, it doesn't really count), it came with its original radio. This was a problem, because the car was a 1973 Plymouth Valiant, and the original radio was a tube-powered AM radio. It had to warm up before I could enjoy the glorious selection of the Jacksonville AM radio market. As I was a big music fan, I found this arrangement to be less than satisfactory.
So I saved up some of my Little Caesars money, made the trip to Circuit City, and bought a Mitsubishi cassette player and Coustic (I think) speakers...which, as my automobile was a piece of crap, effectively gave me a more expensive car radio than car. The radio sounded pretty good, but more importantly, it was loud. When I would have to go to work meetings, I'd pick up a co-worker (who later stole my job), throw in ...And Justice For All, and turn up the volume until the windows started to shake...which worked better than coffee.
It was a good stereo. The problem with it, though (apart from being in a crappy car), was that it was a cassette player...not that there were many alternatives. Having a cassette player made it a necessity to learn basic cassette reconstruction techniques. If the tape flipped out of the shell and got caught on the player heads, I had to be able to fish out the ribbon while inflicting minimum damage. I became adept at re-spooling tapes when the case would crack. Every so often, a cassette would start emitting a high-pitched whine when playing. I quickly learned this could be fixed by throwing the cassette as hard as I could on the floor.
The tapes themselves required a certain care to minimize the playing malfunctions. Leave a tape in a car in Florida in the summer, and it would instantly stretch and warp to the point of sounding unlistenable (I would've used the "experimental label, but I didn't know it back then). In the best case, cassettes had a limited lifespan and would simply wear out. I could directly quantify how much I liked an album by how many copies I went through; Appetite for Destruction, Operation: Mindcrime, ...And Justice for All, and For Those About to Rock all warranted at least three re-purchases.
I was far from alone in having to buy these cassettes over and over. For one thing, cassettes sucked for everyone, not just me. But more importantly, many of the people I knew similarly blew through multiple copies of each of these specific albums. Is there anyone in existence who only owned one copy of Appetite? Nah, not only did everyone buy the Guns n' Roses debut, they inevitably had to replace it more than once. Similarly, every metalhead I knew had Operation: Mindcrime multiple times, and ...And Justice for All similarly seemed to be in every single person's car more than once...a working copy in the tape deck and a crushed copy on the floorboards.
While I'm sure each of these albums can thank the crappy nature of cassettes for a certain portion of their high sales figures, there is another factor at work: each of these albums was especially popular. Sure, Mindcrime had a limited base of appeal, but pretty much anyone who might like it did in fact own it. Metallica crossed over to mainstream with ...And Justice (before, it should be noted, they went commercial), and it was impossible to throw a rock in a local mall without hitting at least one burgeoning teenage GnR fan...visible by the patch on the back of their jean jacket. Hell, Appetite for Destruction reached a certain level of omnipresence among people I know. I hesitate to think of it as a touchstone of my generation, but it probably is more accurate of a characterization of that album than I would like to admit.
It's not really a mystery why it worked this way. Of course we all listened to pretty much the same stuff. How would we ever find out about different stuff? MTV was still playing videos, but it wasn't like they had great access for anyone other than the few bands major labels pushed. We could listen to the radio, but the local stations pretty much only played arena rock from the seventies. We could look at the music magazines, but they stuck on the same several bands which actually managed to hit MTV airplay. If we talked to our friends, they might recommend something they heard of...either on MTV, radio, or in a crappy music mag.
I've been thinking about this for some time. Back in November, I was looking up some band on Amazon, and I just kept following the "people who bought this also bought..." link until I found something I liked...so I was able to discover, purchase, and download an album (the debut from Yuck) from a band I would've never heard of if not for the internet. And if you like one indy band, it's increasingly easy--via mailing lists, bandcamp, and the like--to discover twenty or thirty similar bands; for me, Son Volt led to Uncle Tupelo, which led to Wilco, which led to Drive-By Truckers, which led to Slobberbone, which led to Two Cow Garage, which led to Glossary, which led to Lucero, and so on. It's truly a wonder.
Every so often, I'll read someone complaining about how our ever-increasing media access has led us, as a culture, to increasingly divergent tastes. The critic will continue on, lamenting the days where people used to share more cultural experiences; nowadays, the writer will continue (with a tear on their choice of font), we're growing increasingly apart from too many entertainment choices. Will we ever be able to be a single people, they end, without a shared monoculture?
Admittedly, I'm not usually one for nostalgia, but the nostalgia for a monoculture makes even less sense than normal. After all, if I would've had choices, if I would've known of my options, would I have really invested so much of my youth into Motley Crue? Probably not...and I would've been a better person for it.