I can rarely predict where a column about music is going to raise my ire next. I’ve all-but stopped reading Lefsetz recently in the name of self-preservation, and on those rare moments when I bothered to open his e-mails I’ve simply laughed at the awfulness of the first few paragraphs before deleting.

Fortunately, there is my sister, who is usually awesome and I love her dearly. But right now she’s dead to me.

Yesterday, she tipped me on to a column that’s appearing in today’s New York Times Magazine. She tagged me in the Comments section of its Facebook post without any explanation, so I’ll assume she thought, “Oh, here’s an article written by a music fan. Dave will like this.” It’s called “Streaming Music Has Left Me Adrift” by Dan Brooks and it’s…wow, I can’t even describe it. After reading half of it, I was hoping it would be ignored, but then Duquette tweeted it out, and Annie responded by asking if it was a joke. So here I am. Let’s begin.

It’s hard to imagine now…

Five words in and already he’s a smug, condescending prick.

…but there once was a time when you could not play any song ever recorded, instantly, from your phone.

Wait, I take that back. That is hard to believe.

I call this period adolescence. It lasted approximately 30 years, and it was galvanized by conflict.

“I became a man when I got my iPhone!”

At that time, music had to be melted onto plastic discs…

Actually, the plastic was melted and formed into discs, at which point the music was embedded into it. That’s more or less true for both vinyl and CDs. I’m not even going to try explaining cassettes to him.

…and shipped across the country in trucks.

Goddamn carrier pigeons couldn’t handle the weight.

In order to keep this system running smoothly, a handful of major labels coordinated with broadcasters and retailers to encourage everyone to like the same thing, e.g. Third Eye Blind.

It took two paragraphs to essentially say, “There was thing called the music business…”

This approach divided music into two broad categories: ”popular” and what I liked.

“…and it sucked.”

Lest history remember industry versus indie as a distinction without difference, I should point out that mainstream rock was genuinely awful in the two decades before Napster.

And in the 15 years since Napster mainstream rock has gotten better?

Classic rock gave way to glam metal, which was vanquished by Nirvana and grunge, whose promise quickly curdled into the cynical marketing strategy known as ”alternative.” From Journey to Smash Mouth, the major-label system peddled an enormous quantity of objectively hideous music in its waning years.

This paragraph is going to make Wardlaw cry. He’s trying to get on my good side, and I don’t like it.

In a now-famous 1993 essay for The Baffler, the musician and recording engineer Steve Albini…

Albini wrote a famous essay? Was it remixed by Scott Litt?

…described how this system pauperized bands to enrich a series of middlemen. The structure of most contracts meant that artists paid back almost all their royalties in managers’ and recording fees. The occasional hits profited the artists far less than they did the labels, whose marketing departments ignored most of their catalogs to focus on the hits.

I’m not going to defend the practices of the majors, but another way to look at this is that the top-selling acts subsidized prestige artists, giving them time to develop and find their audience. Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Richard Thompson — none of them could have been signed if there weren’t people high up at the label who were willing to take a loss because they believed in them. The labels also got the side benefit of saying, “But we also have…!” to shield themselves from criticism that they were pandering to the masses. It was only by the mid-90s, after all the majors had been bought out by multinationals and the old-time A&R guys were forced out that this stopped working.

Look at Sire in the 80s, for example. Now imagine they didn’t pick up Talking Heads and the Pretenders a few years earlier. Could they have taken a chance on Madonna without those two? Whether you like Madonna or not, it was still a risk for an imprint of a major to sign a thin-voiced white girl making dance music in a post-disco world when the commercial potential of videos was still unknown. Now think of how many great bands Sire signed after she blew up.

For a majority of bands, signing with a major label was the first step toward going out of business.

Technically, forming a band is the first step towards going out of business.

Albini called it ”the problem with music”: the major-label system acted as an anticurator by making good music harder to find.

That depends on your definition of “good music.” I’ve found most everything Albini’s touched to be unlistenable unless it’s been remixed by Scott Litt.

For me, adopting an indie-snob identity (subset punk) didn’t just solve this problem and provide me with a lifetime of sound-as-art…

Here’s where I came close to throwing up.

…it also gave me something to talk about with other pointy-haired youngsters I ran across.

You couldn’t just discuss hair care tips?

Look, he’s not really wrong. The major label system thrived by finding acts that catered to the widest possible audience, and that rarely results in the best art. That’s hardly news. Still, sometimes the people in charge got it right. He singles out Journey while ignoring that, at the same time, Columbia also had massive success with critical darlings Bruce Springsteen and the Clash, with Elvis Costello just below them. Conversely, plenty of times great bands failed to catch on through no fault of the label. How many chances did the Replacements get on Sire no matter how many times they shot themselves in the foot? It’s not an exact science.

Then a different subset of nerds invented MP3 encoding, and everything changed.

There are few phrases that reflexively get my eyes rolling as much as “and everything changed.” Still, there’s no doubt that the digitization of music had an irreversible impact on the music business.

The good news is that digital distribution neatly solved Albini’s problem with music:

Except his biggest problem, making something people want to hear.

Now that nearly every piece of recorded sound is as easy to find as any other, everyone can finally listen to what we snobs wanted them to hear all along.

Let’s see…your co-workers wouldn’t listen to your recommendations — most likely just to spite you — but they will now that it’s on the Internet? Yeah, that makes sense.

(Also on the plus side, labels have joined bands in not making any money.)

“It’s great when people lose their jobs!”

By the way, when labels — major or indie — have to make layoffs, it’s usually the good people – the true fans who were field reps and stuff — who go first. The people who made the bad decisions that caused them to lose money? Yeah, they remain employed.

The bad news is that we have lost what was once a robust system for identifying kindred spirits. Now that we all share the same record collection, music snobs have no means to recognize one another.

It’s real simple. Go into a record store and shout, “I’ve got a test pressing of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart!’ right here” The first person who knocks you down to get it? That’s your new best friend.

We cannot flip through a binder of CDs…

CDs, not vinyl? Some snob you are.

…and see a new friend, a potential date. By making it perfectly easy to find new music, we’ve made it a little more difficult to find new people.

You’re judging people entirely by their record collections and complaining that you can’t get a date?

Before Spotify solved the problem with music forever…

Until it goes out of business because it has yet to post a profitable quarter.

…esoteric taste was a measure of commitment. When every band was more or less difficult to hear by virtue of its distance from a major label, what you liked was a rough indicator of the resources you had invested in music. If you liked the New York City squat-punk band Choking Victim, it was a sign you had flipped through enough records and endured enough party conversations to hear about Choking Victim. The bands you listened to conveyed not just the particular elements of culture you liked but also how much you cared about culture itself.

Like blasted pecs or a little rhinestone flag pin, esoteric taste in music is an indicator of values. Under the heel of the major-label system in the early ’90s, indie taste meant more than liking weird bands. To care about obscure bands was to reject the perceived conformity of popular culture, to demand a more nuanced reading of the human experience than Amy Grant’s ”Baby Baby” and therefore to assert a certain kind of life. That assertion was central to my identity as a young adult, and I found that people who shared it were more likely to agree with me on seemingly unrelated issues. Like all aesthetics, taste in music is a worldview.

These are the dumbest paragraphs I’ve ever read about music fandom, and I’m the guy who takes apart Lefsetz. For him, it’s not about needing to look outside the mainstream for music with which he emotionally connects. It’s about wielding his obscurantism as a cudgel against those feeble minded idiots who aren’t as cool as he is. Hell, I’ll take Wardlaw’s love of Night Ranger and REO Speedwagon over this guy any day because at least I know that it’s genuine and without pretense or concern for what anybody thinks about those hacks.

And as for “a more nuanced reading of the human experience,” here are the names of the four songs on the aforementioned Choking Victim’s 1996 EP Squatta’s Paradise: “Infested: Lindane Conspiracy, Pt.1,” “Death Song,” “Born To Die” and “Suicide (A Better Way).”

The nuance is bludgeoning.

But music is not just an aesthetic pursuit; it’s also intensely social. You listen to music at parties, around the house with your college roommates, in the car on the way to high school — anywhere meaningful interpersonal connections are made or, importantly, not. If you prefer to put on the radio, you have something in common with most people, and therefore nobody.

You can listen to music and meet people or not meet people. Got it.

But if you put on the Brian Jonestown Massacre, you will quickly identify who else in the room is a bit like you.

In other words, everybody who hasn’t run screaming for the door.

The translation of musical taste to social acceptance was in many ways terrifyingly complex and arbitrary. I once attended a party at the home of a poetry professor who, in her meticulous preparations, happened to leave out one CD: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. It was a gutless choice, the act of a person who reads music magazines.

The nerve of somebody with papers to grade and poems to write and a life to lead only getting their music recommendations from a magazine and not the guy in the corner glaring at the CD’s cover!

Any other album would have revealed her taste, but instead she had only shown that she understood what our kind liked.

The nerve of somebody trying to please party guests with music that they might like!

And please, his singling out of Choking Victim is every bit as calculated as he perceives her leaving out the Malkmus CD to be. He really has no idea if she genuinely likes Malkmus or not. He’s simply projecting his own contempt onto her. “She couldn’t possibly be a true fan. She’s an academic!”

Her transparency scandalized me…

I’m guessing he didn’t get invited to her next party.

…because at that time I understood musical taste as a central element of personality.

Only for those who don’t have one.

In college, I was horrified to learn that a smart and culturally sophisticated woman I had been dating owned just six CDs. I couldn’t comprehend how such a sensitive — and, given the circumstances, evidently charitable — person could not be interested in music.

Maybe she became smart culturally sophisticated because she spent her time pursuing other artistic disciplines than looking for the most obscure bands to use as a litmus test for other people?

I felt like a sommelier walking into A.A.

Dear Lord, make it stop.

At a level of understanding since replaced by OkCupid match percentage, I knew I was taking a long shot. Years later, when my friends and I discussed the powerful and surely arbitrary forces that had kept us single, we toyed with the idea that ”into music” was a deal-breaker quality in a mate.

He judges people solely by their record collection and then wonders why he can’t get laid?

The application of such reasoning over two decades of romantic entanglements, night-life chums and road-trip mixes makes it safe to say that musical taste has plotted the course of my life. Since age 14, it has determined my leisure hours and then my career, and by extension, my friends and lovers. We embraced art and rejected a major-label system that cared only about selling records. Oddly, we expressed our position by buying records.

Oh, the irony!

The problem with my life as an anticorporate bohemian was that it was predicated on a consumer behavior.

That’s not the only problem with your life.

Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter explore this contradiction in their 2004 book, ”Nation of Rebels: How Counterculture Became Consumer Culture.” They argue that contemporary consumer culture is driven not by a desire to keep up with the Joneses but by the opposite impulse: to individuate. We believe our purchases distinguish us from a perceived mainstream of numb consumers, so we cannot stop buying things.

I’m no expert, but there’s probably a degree of validity there, at least for the percentage of the population that line up outside the Apple Store. But not everybody defines themselves by their taste or their possessions. My experience tells me that those people tend to be happier.

Certainly, this reasoning lay at the core of my indie identity. But when nerds figured out how to play music over the Internet, it rendered indie culture inert. The shift away from physical albums destroyed that mechanism of consumer individuation. When getting into a band became as easy as typing its name into a search box, particular musical tastes lost their function as signifiers of commitment. 

We at Popdose often get into internal discussions about the difficulty in bonding with music today. Music is easier to find, but between the sheer volume of choices, listening for the purpose of reviewing rather than pleasure and the responsibilities of adulthood, it’s tougher to form the connections we had to the music we’ve loved for 20-30 years. Undoubtedly.

But that’s not the point he’s making. He’s not talking about how technology has affected his consumption of music. He’s more concerned that people whose pedestrian tastes offend him are able to encroach on the territory he carved out specifically to get away from them.

And keep in mind this is after he’s already written that “everyone can finally listen to what we snobs wanted them to hear all along.” In his world, people are only allowed to like his music if they also adopt the lifestyle he deems to be correct. The least self-aware aspect of this stance is that there are people in his scene who were around in the ’80s and undoubtedly look at him as a poseur.

What you listened to ceased to be a measure of how much you cared and became a mere list of what you liked.

Worse, this list was no more ethically righteous than anyone else’s.

Nobody’s list has ever been more ethically righteous than anyone else’s. Or less.

Well, except Wardlaw’s. His sucks.

You didn’t have to support local businesses or hang with freaky beatniks to hear Choking Victim anymore, so liking them became no better (or worse) than liking Pearl Jam.

I got news for you, Ace. Nobody’s listening to Choking Victim.

Last spring, I befriended a charming stranger on the basis of our mutual interest in the Slits. If you haven’t heard them, statistics suggest that you will enjoy their cover of ”I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and nothing else.

“Even if you’ve made it this far, you’re still too ignorant to like anything by them other than an old song you’ve heard done better by someone else.”

When she started talking about the import version of ”The Peel Sessions,” I knew I had met somebody special. We went back to her apartment and played each other songs on Spotify for three hours.

Translation: he didn’t get any.

Thanks to the Internet, we both had all the same albums.

That’s a great story. It has something for everybody: people who like music, people who are on the Internet…

Such connections are still possible, even in this new world of abundant content. But have they become too possible — so possible, in the universal digital distribution of Slits records, that they have lost meaning? What is a Slits fan like now that her habits differ from those of a Kesha fan only in the letters she types into a box?

What the fuck does this mean?

If I passed her in a store aisle, would she notice that we used to hate the same media conglomerates?

You do realize this is published in the New York Times, right? 

I worry she would not. Now that the tyranny of the majors has been overthrown, the members of the resistance don’t recognize one another anymore.

I got news for you. The “resistance” was quashed long before you came on to the scene.

The digital age has given everyone in America a better music collection than the one I put together over the last 20 years, and in so doing it has leveled us.

What’s your proof? Just because a Kesha fan can discover the Slits doesn’t mean that she will. And even she does, that doesn’t mean she’ll get it.

James Murphy describes this problem in the LCD Soundsystem song ”Losing My Edge”:

I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody:
Every great song by the Beach Boys, all the underground hits, all the Modern Lovers tracks.
I heard you have a vinyl of every Niagara record on German import.
I heard that you have a white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit: 1985, ’86, ’87.
I heard that you have a CD compilation of every good ’60s cut and another box set from the ’70s.

My computer just crashed from a bad case of meta.

And by the way, Murphy is MAKING FUN OF YOU!

In a swoop, the Internet devalued the consumer capital that Murphy amassed through years of collecting records as a D.J. But at least he was married before it happened.

See, it’s possible for self-proclaimed music snobs to find a nice girl. Maybe it’s because Murphy put his massive collection to help bring others together, first as a D.J., then as a songwriter. Your collection exists to exclude others. It’s a major difference.

And since meeting girls who like the same music is so important, have you ever tried to play an instrument? It’s been known to work. Hell, I spent much of my 20s working in record stores glaring at those who were buying Hootie. But a few nights a week, I was in bars, singing covers with my acoustic or sitting in on a few songs with friends. Guess which got me more action?

Then again, I’m a single guy who spent a perfectly good Saturday night writing this, so who am I to talk?

As generational problems go, this one is pretty mild. My grandfather, for example, had to stop Hitler from overrunning Europe. But in the same way that he came back from France saying beaucoup a lot, these seismic changes alter us in ways we don’t perceive.

Who cares if your grandfather helped save the world? Did he like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion?

Consuming music, an act central to my being for as long as I can remember, has changed forever. Who knows how that will change me?

Hopefully it will turn you into a person capable of seeing others for who they are and not what they collect.

My record collection is no longer a lifestyle, a biography, a status. The identities that I and a generation of fellow aesthetes spent our lives fashioning are suddenly obsolete.

Sucks to be you.

They turned out to be mere patterns of consumption, no more resilient than the patterns of production that provoked them. Not content to ruin music for the first three decades of my life, the major labels have collapsed and ruined dating too.

It’s not the labels’ fault you can’t get laid. You’re just a dumb jerkface.

I will probably never forgive them, if I ever get around to forgiving myself.

Here’s a bit of advice. If you ever start a conversation with a girl again, don’t tell her about this column.

About the Author

Dave Lifton

The perpetually cranky Dave Lifton produces and co-hosts the Popdose Podcast and contributes an occasional column when he darn well feels like it. But mostly he eats Cheetos and yells at kids to get off his lawn, which is strange because he lives in an apartment. The guiding force behind LifStrong, he can be found on Twitter at @dslifton.

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