Music subscription and the failed fan (well, me, at any rate)

From about age twelve to twenty-two music was an important part of my life and how I identified myself. My teen and young adult years were marked by a host of cultural obsessions – roleplaying and strategy games, soccer, comics, science fiction, political fiction – but music was always the most public and probably the most constant pursuit for that decade. In middle school and high school, in particular, what I listened to and what I didn’t, and attendant signifiers in dress and hair, grounded friendships and associations, sparked heated debates, and defined how I spent much of whatever spending money I had. For the record, punk, new wave and ska were the primary genres that I trafficked in, with some early dips into what is now called alt country, and, in college, neo-folk. Examples of important artists for me, c. 1982-1994, include: The Clash, The Jam, The Style Council, Echo & the Bunnymen, Lone Justice, Simple Minds, ABC, The English Beat, The Special AKA, World Party, 54-40, the Indigo Girls, Talking Heads, U2, and Crowded House.

Once I moved from college to graduate school, though, music began to recede in importance, and while I have made attempts to change that, mostly I haven’t recovered my interest in music, even as I have rediscovered other passions like genre fiction and comics.

Why music has remained on the fringes of what I do as I’ve settled into ‘proper’ adulthood is something I’ve thought about, sometimes intensely, at different times, often ending with a dissatisfying visit to iTunes.

Anne-Marie and A recently started using Spotify and that initiated another round of introspection, and while I think that there are a lot of reasons why music receded and has remained in the background for me, I think that there are three which are of particular importance.

  • The standard I set as a teen was, and is, particularly hard to maintain going into graduate school and settling into post-student adulthood. When I first started acquiring music to listen to at home, I would buy records and then record those albums to tape so as to limit the amount of wear and tear on the vinyl. I would spend whole days making mix tapes, both for myself and for others. I was, and still am to a degree, an ‘album person’. My primary mode of listening was to put on a record and play it from start to finish. Not surprisingly, this led to me to be something of a completist, at least when it came to favorite bands and artists. When I’ve thought about getting back to music in a serious way, this is the level of engagement I have in my head as for what that would mean, and I think that has caused me to stop short. I am, of course, not the same person with the same interests that I was when I was fifteen, but this is still my frame of reference.
  • That relates to another problem, which is time, notably listening time. As a young adult, I turned into a public radio junkie. I’ve been listening to shows like Talk of the Nation and This American Life since their inception. For many years, that kind of programming has been my background of choice for reading and work. More recently, podcasting has fed the completist impulse that used to be fulfilled by albums. In addition, going to movies and watching TV have also taken up more of my time than they did when I was younger, and, for whatever reason, sharing those activities has been more of a foundation for Anne-Marie and I than has music.
  • I think that the decline of American radio and of MTV as a serious place for music programming has also played a role in putting distance between me and music. In retrospect, my teen years, mid-80s to early 90s, seem like the last era both of vibrant locally-owned and managed radio and MTV’s association with music. Both were reliable media for discovering new music and for making music part of my day in a way that was simple and convenient.

This last point is why Anne-Marie’s and A’s use of Spotify started me thinking again about why I don’t listen to music in even an approximation of the way I used to.

The unspoken issue above is money. I think one reason why movies and TV are more of the glue that holds Anne-Marie and I together than is music is that it was (and is) more efficient economically for us to pool our resources and share a cable or satellite subscription, and to go to movies together, than it is for us to buy music together. Obviously, I’m not meaning to reduce these choices to economics, there are other personal taste and cultural issues at work, too, but one thing that music subscription services do is to assign a stable, and for our family, reasonable, cost to the buying of music.

Nicholas Schiller has an excellent summary and discussion of the most recent round of debate over paying for music in the digital world, and I don’t want to rehearse that matter here, but I also can’t avoid it. So, here is my piece. I want to pay for music, but I’ve drifted away from buying and listening to a point where I can’t imagine going back to paying for it in the way I did as a teen and a young adult, which is to say, buying all of the albums by all of my favorite bands and whatever miscellaneous artists and albums caught my attention. So, for many years that primarily meant disconnecting from music or at least being very very casual about my listening. While I recognize that there are critical questions to be posed about the compensation artists get from my use of a service like Spotify (or MOG, the service I’ve chosen to use), my monthly payment will add up to more than I have been paying for music the past fifteen years or so, when, honestly, I could go the better part of twelve months without buying any music (I have never pirated music. To the extent that I have tried to reintegrate music into my daily life, I have done so through podcasts, like those from CBC Radio 3 and KEXP, occasional use of Pandora, and the even more occasional purchase from iTunes, or of a CD).

One reason why I haven’t wanted to buy albums (or songs, though I don’t see myself ever being someone who buys primarily by the song) is the lack of robust ways to discover new music. Looking at what you can do with Spotify alerted me to the possibilities of subscription services that combine access to big catalogs with tools for recommending new or related works and artists. It isn’t the same as old school radio or original flavor MTV, but it fills many of the same functions. As a result, I suspect that, in the long run, MOG will lead me to buy more music than I would have otherwise because I’ll know more and hear more, and with things I really like, I’ll want more secure ownership than a streaming service can provide.

My being clued into services like MOG also comes in a moment where my tendency to want (need?) to listen to every episode of every podcast I subscribe to seems to have been broken, albeit primarily by reasons unrelated to wanting more time for music.

The first thing I did when I installed the MOG player on my laptop is to make a playlist of “New Stuff”, that is, songs from albums and artists that I had been saving in places like GetGlue and Pinboard. The second thing I did was to start listening to that list. I also began favoriting artists, many of whom I already have in my iTunes library, but usually not their complete catalogs. There are a few people I’ve become aware of during my musical dark age, e.g., Neko Case, Lucinda Williams, The Weakerthans, but my collecting and listening of their work has been less than completist. MOG lets me fill gaps (for the most part; I’ve noticed in some cases, particularly with bands and performers who became prominent before the 90s, that there can be a more limited selection of discs. This is understandable, I think. How many musicians have really made full albums that bear repeated listening decade after decade? Still, I am disappointed that I could not find this in MOG).

The point is, my use of MOG suggests a lot of pent-up demand on my part for new (to me) music, whether songs and albums from people I already know and love or from performers from whom I’ve only heard bits and pieces or read reviews. Without a service like MOG, I’d still be saving up that demand.

I describe myself here as a “failed fan”. I’m sure I could have done better over the past decade and a half, but I also think that drifting away from music happened for reasons that can’t be reduced to money or to having the right tools or resources. I think, in particular, that the identity aspect of music became less significant as I began my professional education. To the extent that I am coming back to music now is both a result of changing economics and new options for listening and discovery and a built-up desire for music as music, more than music as a signifier of self (although I don’t think you can ever fully detach cultural activities like listening to music from identity. We are what we do, or to follow a new favorite, “You are what you love and not what loves you back”).

Growing up free in PDX: the power of public transit

Last week, when I read this report from Joseph Rose at OregonLive about the recent – heavily attended and raucous – TriMet board meeting, I was prompted to reflect on my own growing up in Portland and on the significance of public transit to my mobility, independence and sense of place in the city. The decision to eliminate the Free Rail Zone, in particular, got me thinking about my reliance on TriMet buses, and later Max, for getting around the city as a teen, and how less accessible the system is becoming with each round of service cuts and fare changes.

For me, learning to navigate the bus system was an important coming of age moment. The first time I went downtown on the bus without adult supervision stands out in my memory more vividly than getting my driver’s license.

I began using TriMet in middle school, but it was in high school that using the bus became an everyday part of my life. I lived in north Portland, on the east side of the Willamette River, but attended school downtown, on the west side, and the city bus is how I got to school each day.

More than that, the bus was freedom. Freedom from having to rely on my parents to get places. Freedom from feeling like I needed a car of my own. Freedom to explore downtown after school (and sometimes during). Fareless Square (later the Free Rail Zone) was an important adjunct to that freedom because I, and my friends, could traverse the free ride area together before heading off to our respective homes. I have no doubt that this sense of freedom is one reason why I delayed getting my driver’s license. I was already mobile and I am sure now that my years using TriMet are why I can still navigate the city with ease even though it has been almost ten years since I last lived in Portland.

It is tempting to see the current retrenchment by the transit agency as an artifact of the recession, but the roots go deeper than that.

High school was not only when I was getting around the city by foot, bus, and train, but also when anti-tax activism was coming to be expressed in property tax limitation measures modeled after California’s Prop 13. I graduated high school in 1987, and the first state property tax limitation, Measure 5, did not pass until 1990, but my high school years were marked by earlier, unsuccessful, attempts to pass such legislation by referendum.

One effect of 1990s-era tax limitation in Oregon was to shift the burden of funding local services from cities and counties to the state general fund, which is dependent on income tax. Even leaving aside irrationalities in that system, like the kicker, Oregon’s economy just isn’t that big. There is no way that an income-tax fueled state general fund was or is going to make up for shortfalls at the city and county scale. As a result, local services have been degraded over the course of the last couple of decades, and would have been with or without the current financial crisis and recession.

I also think that there has been an important cultural effect to property tax limitation, and resulting increase in demands on state revenues: many voting adults have come to believe that even basic services are too costly, never mind that many of those services, like, say, accessible and reliable public transit, are things that many could, and did, take for granted as kids and young adults. The fact that we can’t pay for them now is, yes, partly the result of a declining economy, but more significantly is the result of setting arbitrary limits on the ability to pay for services.

Oregon in the 1980s, when I was an adolescent and teen, was a place of moderate population growth, particularly as compared to the next two decades. So, to the extent that I enjoyed the benefits of services like a robust transit system, and extracurricular activities like drama, Model U.N. and speech and debate without having to pay substantial costs above and beyond what my parents were already paying in taxes, was not due to some quirky prosperity, but to a tax system that allowed services to be paid for as deemed necessary by voters and their representatives.

The paradox here is that property tax limitation finally succeeded at the ballot box during a period of relatively high prosperity for the state, and for the Portland metro area in particular. Arguably, that prosperity worked to mask what was happening at the local level because gaps could be filled through a combination of state money and institutional efforts (e.g., teachers bringing in their own supplies). Today, of course, the state money part of that equation has been in decline. More critically, public scarcity is seen as a natural condition.

But public scarcity isn’t a natural condition.  In Oregon, specifically, it stems from political choices made in the 90s, choices that previously had been resisted by voters.

When I see reports like the one I started with, about TriMet, I think of how different the political culture is in Oregon now as compared to when I was a teen and how life at the same age for me today would be materially different than it actually was as a consequence.

Maybe I would have biked more. Or maybe I would have felt a stronger push to have a car. In any case, my sense of independence and my relationship to the city would not have been what it was without TriMet. And while the current round of cuts and hikes are hardly tantamount to eliminating transit in Portland, these changes do make the service less effective and less accessible. And I can’t help but think that the place is a little less free than it used to be.