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”).