Follow-up on music: local radio & digital music

Today at PopMatters, Ben Rubenstein has a “Mixtape Confessions” column up about the loss of two local radio stations in Boston. In particular, there are two passages I took note of and that prompted me to further thought on themes from yesterday’s music post.

First, Rubenstein notes the role that one of the stations played in introducing him to certain “classic” artists and songs:

When I was growing up, the Rubenstein car radio was controlled largely by my parents, which meant a steady diet of Oldies 103 during any car trips. The station introduced me to The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”, Ernie K. Doe’s “Mother in Law”, the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” and all the rest. Sure, I still gravitated toward Kiss 108 when left to my own devices, but those songs are as much a part of my childhood as anything Rick Dees introduced me to.

But he goes on to ask what role local radio might play in a context where people who want to hear music have tools like Pandora or Spotify at their disposal:

It all leads to a larger question, one that station managers have likely been trying to answer for a few years: What does a traditional radio station really offer now that we can create our own, customized stations with a few clicks? What drives that relationship beyond convenience?

In the first excerpt, I think that Rubenstein notes a couple of key elements to local radio that are harder to reproduce in a digital context, or in a world where radio is largely de-localized and no longer programmed by people who are members of the community for which they play music.

While different local radio stations certainly carved out niches for themselves, even where you found a favorite, you were likely to hear artists and songs that would not be your choice. You were always dealing with someone else’s tastes, but ideally someone with refined tastes whose selections could direct you to artists that you may not have found on your own. I think that ‘discovery’ works very differently in a context where you are giving yourself over to someone else versus picking and choosing on your own.

The other point I want to note from the first passage is the shared aspect of radio. The means of listening to music used to be more scarce, and as with Rubenstein’s family, in mine, other people tended to control the radio (and the stereo), or, at least, what station to tune to (or what album to play) became a subject of negotiation between family and friends; which is another way in which analog technology fostered a context where discovery often came from the need to deal with others, and their preferences, rather than being driven by self-selection.

It is easy to romanticize one’s own formative experiences, and I don’t want to do that here. Local radio was no less of a commercial enterprise than the stations now owned by Clear Channel, and that means ads and certain songs being put into heavy, heavy rotation. Furthermore, as Rubenstein implies, while relying on others for music selection can be enlightening and educative, by definition, those choices will never be exactly what you would choose on your own. I spent many an afternoon listlessly switching between stations until I found something I wanted to hear. The main reason I made mixtapes for myself is to have, essentially, personal radio.

Which is what Rubenstein is pointing to in the second excerpt: the appeal of digital services like MOG and Pandora is user control, of listening to what you want to listen to, or, at the least, to set parameters for listening and, in many cases, to pick and choose individual songs as you listen. For a fee, you can usually lose the ads, too.

On balance, as an adult, is is hard to to argue with that model. As I admitted in yesterday’s piece, I don’t have the same kind of time to devote to music that I once did. Why sit through ads and repeated plays of songs to which I am indifferent or that I may actually hate just to get to something that appeals?

And yet it is primarily the search for new music that I missed, or that decayed, after college.

Digital music services do offer tools and opportunities for discovery, but these are largely based on inputs that the user provides. As noted above, in one sense this is a feature, but in other senses it is a problem. This kind of ‘narrowcasting’ ensures a steady diet of listening that is likely to be appealing, but it is less likely to provide an interesting juxtaposition or to cross genres. If I had this kind of technology when I was a teen, I’m not sure how I would have ended up listening to Lone Justice, or becoming a devotee of the Indigo Girls in college. The one exception to my lack of musical engagement after college is that Anne-Marie and I started going to Grateful Dead concerts, something my teenage self would have found unthinkable. In practice, I’m sure that there probably are a host of ways in which I could have ended up listening to any number of things if I’d had Spotify and instead of local radio and MTV, but user-driven radio/listening seems to work against wider ranging discovery.

Related to that point is another sense in which digital narrowcasting poses a problem, which is that branching out and finding new music depends on the user making an effort to try something or new or to take up recommendations. And as useful and rewarding as that activity might be, it takes time and energy of a kind that listening to your local DJ doesn’t, and, again, is, I think, less likely to provide a surprise.

As a teen and young adult local radio often provided a soundtrack for hanging out. Waiting for the next song became part of our social activity, as did debating the merits of the selections. Music sharing seems much different for A and her friends. Most of her friends are very intolerant of anything new or unfamiliar (and for all I know, A is that way when she is at their houses). Clearly, ‘kids these days’ have some means of finding new songs to like, via YouTube mostly as far as I can tell, but they also seem used to just shutting off what doesn’t immediately catch their ears.

It could also be that I am underestimating the role that face-to-face relationships play in developing one’s musical tastes. Rubenstein mentions his parents and the car radio. We clearly have an influence over what A listens to, even if she isn’t always able to share what she likes with her friends (and they, in turn, must be getting musical influences from their parents). That kind of thing becomes increasingly rare among adults though, except where you have get togethers of people who play music. At least, this has been my experience.

Right now I am motivated and have time to devote to building my universe in MOG, and I am encouraged that the “Editor’s picks” seem to range across time periods and genres, which gives me an immediately accessible adjunct to more targeted recommendations on the service*. And yet when I have to get back to prepping and teaching classes I suspect that I might miss having a couple of go to radio stations, places staffed by people who love and know music and who program for a specific local audience. Or maybe the digital music bubble I am finally making will be all I need.

Read Ben Rubenstien’s full column at PM:

*Yes, I read reviews, but following up and hearing what is being recommended has been a barrier in the past. Read my prior entry for context (linked in the intro).

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”).