I miss buying an album and lying on the floor for three days and going over it with a magnifying glass. I still go to the record store and spend hours there and buy a big bag of CDs. –Stevie Nicks from a recent interview with Rolling Stone
I think most music lovers over the age of, say, 25 can feel Stevie’s pain. Our readership skews slightly older here, so I think I can say with confidence that my early listening experiences mirrored many of yours — hours spent poring over an album’s artwork (either vinyl or cassette, natch), reading the fine print in the credits, memorizing musicians’ names, looking for hidden meaning in the lyrics. (Or just trying, and failing, to understand them at all.) Each major label had a different feel to me back then — from the cool blues of Reprise’s distinctive cassettes to the cheap, bare-bones packaging of MCA’s titles. While other kids my age were diagramming sentences, watching Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and requesting Bon Jovi on our local Top 40 stations, I was learning names like Joe Chemay, Jeff Bova, and Judd Miller.
And although music was portable back then — I never started my walk to school without my Walkman — it wasn’t the bite-sized commodity it is now; if you bought an album, you were probably going to develop more than a passing acquaintance with its contents, whether or not you liked every song. This happened for two reasons: One, because fast-forwarding through a track was a tedious, inexact process that sometimes took half as long as just listening to the damn song; and two, if you spent $10 to $15 on an album, you tended to feel like you needed to spend a little time with it.
I’ve talked before about how I feel like the advent of the CD sort of destroyed our relationship with music — how the ability to push through a song with a single tap of a button, and let a machine randomize an album’s running order, snapped the first tether between us and any kind of consistently deep emotional response to a song. But that isn’t what this column is about — not really, anyway. Today, I want to talk about where snapping that tether has led us — specifically, to a place where we can carry music with us literally everywhere we go, but really listening to it is damn near impossible.
I know my perspective as a music consumer isn’t totally unique, but I think my progression — from a typical ’80s kid who bought albums sparingly (and listened to them for years on end), to a writer who spent the late ’80s and early ’90s gorging on scads of free music (and discovering much of it wasn’t very good), to a thirtysomething critic with 200,000-odd mp3s in his library and an inability to remember enough favorite albums to fill out the latest Facebook meme — reflects the way our relationship with music has changed, and how our untrammelled access to cheap or free songs and albums has backfired on us, specifically those of us who really love music enough to spend time seeking it out.
You see, wanting is better than having / Because having leaves you wanting more / No matter what you expect, you’re gonna get more or less than you bargained for. —Fred Wilhelm, “Sea Monkeys”
As I see it, the problem stems from two things — let’s call them volume and playback. Volume, in this case, refers to the sheer number of songs and albums on the market, which newly affordable home recording equipment and Web distribution ramped up to mind-boggling levels in the late ’90s — and it’s still growing exponentially today, thanks to the major labels’ (admittedly quite late) entry into the digital reissue market. Whether you spent hours trawling MP3.com for listenable indie artists in ’99, or years downloading gigabytes worth of catalog recordings from Napster/Audiogalaxy/Bittorent clients, paid pennies on the dollar for CD-quality rips from the Russian mafia, or (God forbid) spent market price at iTunes and Amazon’s mp3 store, you’ve partaken from the ever-rising trough of cheap, instantly available music. The Internet has democratized music collecting to the point where we don’t even think about it anymore — my grandfather spent his life acquiring a room full of LPs, then scribbling his notes for each one on several filing cabinets’ worth of three-by-five cards, all of which could be collected today with a few months, a $100 hard drive, and a cracked copy of Excel.
Of course, that’s assuming anyone would take the time to write those notes, which brings me to the “playback” part of my argument — specifically, that music’s evolution from a “let’s all go sit in the parlor and sit around the stereo” activity to a byte-sized portable commodity has created a less fulfilling listening environment. We listen in the car, at our desks, while we’re out, even when our cellphones ring — in short, while we’re doing other things. As it’s become more pervasive, music has turned into less of a focal point — less of an emotional touchstone and more of a commodity, a thing. As I’m writing this, I have my Gmail inbox, Facebook updates, Twitter feed, and RSS reader open. I’ve left a comment on a Popdose thread, answered the phone, and looked up directions to a record store in Phoenix — and I’m also taking notes for my review of the new Kelly Clarkson record. I’d like to believe listening to an album this way isn’t typical, but really, I think the only unusual item on that list, for most people, would be the note-taking part — and I am, of course, taking them not because I have any real connection to the music, but because I know it’s the fastest route to fulfilling a professional obligation.
The obvious solution to all this would be to just shut it all down — close my browser, put on a pair of headphones, and just, you know, pay attention for the duration of an album. But my brain — like some of yours, I imagine — no longer processes music that way. Even when I have the opportunity to focus on an album, I find it exceedingly difficult to stay focused. Maybe if I spent a year following the Noel Murray path, my neurons would realign themselves, but that isn’t financially feasible, and anyway, I like my job — a job that keeps me firmly threaded onto the pop culture spigot.
It’s a problem, and one that I’ve finally started taking steps to try and address. As a critic, I can’t do anything about the volume, and as a stay-at-home dad whose office is smack dab in the middle of a chaos-filled house, I can’t do much about the playback. But as a music lover, I can do a better job of reconnecting those broken tethers. For starters, after years of making fun of my already-indoctrinated friends, I’ve hopped on the GTD bandwagon, and have found that keeping a list of writing assignments really helps me organize my listening and finish reviews faster. I’ve also adopted another trendy affectation of creative types, the Moleskine; I purchased a pocket-sized notebook a month or so ago, and have already filled up a quarter of it with notes I’ve scribbled while listening to albums or watching movies I’m reviewing. It seems like an obvious step, particularly for the folks who have been swearing by Moleskines for years, but I’ve never been that disciplined with my writing — I’ve always just turned on the music, sat down at the keyboard, and trusted the reviews to write themselves. In the last couple of years, though, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to write anything about an album without listening to it a dozen times, which is obviously not the most efficient way of doing things.
Between Google Tasks and the Moleskine, I’ve started moving through the music I have to listen to at a pretty good clip, and spent many more hours getting back to an unfamiliar pleasure: immersing myself in music I want to listen to. Perhaps as a direct result, 2009 is shaping up to be one of the best years for new music I can remember: January brought Steve Martin’s terrific The Crow: New Music for the 5-String Banjo, February gave us N.A.S.A.’s Spirit of Apollo, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to spend the next several weeks listening to the Damnwells’ One Last Century more times than I’ll be able to count. Of course, this doesn’t mean I think everyone should start making lists of albums to listen to, or annotating their listening habits — I’m just saying that no matter how hard and fast technology pulls us away from our old listening habits, there are ways of adapting to the new paradigm. We’ll probably never get back to the days of lying on the floor and going over a new album with a magnifying glass — but then again, back in the old, pre-Internet days, we never would have been exposed to the genius of someone like Henry Hey. It all evens out in the end, right?
Prize of the Week: Thanks to a well-timed Twitter exchange, Justin Shumaker will be receiving a copy of the Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia, Live in Concert DVD, a more-excellent-than-you-think all-star concert featuring Bunny Sigler and whatever’s left of the Delfonics, Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes, and the Three Degrees, performing many of their greatest hits. I’ve got plenty of cool stuff to give away, and you never know when your turn will come — so if you’ve got any questions or comments, don’t be shy about dropping me an e-mail, leaving a comment here, or following me at Twitter. (Of course, you should also be following Popdose’s ever-more-awesome Twitter feed, too.)