It took me longer than many people my age (I’m 32 going on 70), but last year, I finally signed up for a premium music streaming service. The sensation of using said service as a primary method for listening to and discovering new music is probably a lot like what someone who grew up during the Great Depression feels when they swipe a credit card. I press the button and the music plays, but I can’t shake the suspicion that the whole system is built on an illusion that could leave me without two songs to rub together.
As a result, I still buy the occasional CD. Mostly, it’s a gesture of support for artists I really love, since I know that revenues from streaming services are a joke. I’m just trying to throw them a couple of extra bucks. Most of the time, though, the disc never even makes it into a CD player. It just gets filed away alongside its fellow relics, and I feel the pleasant little tug of nostalgia that accompanies the momentary connection to the way things were not that long ago.
The switch has produced at least one obvious and substantial improvement to my music-listening life. Gone are the days of ignoring friends’ recommendations or stellar reviews because I don’t have ready access to the music they’re touting. I start every Friday by downloading a few of the day’s new releases, so I stay up to date on what’s out there. The scope of my access to music has increased, as has the total time I spend listening to music, the number of new artists I’ve discovered, and the variety of albums and songs I hear on a regular basis.
But. (Oh come on; you knew this was coming.)
As I tried recently to think about the best music I’ve listened to this year (with one eye on my year-end best albums and songs lists, naturally), I found it surprisingly difficult. This is not, as you might assume, because this year has been somehow devoid of good music. On the contrary, I think 2017 has been a step up from last year.
The issue, I realized, had more to do with my relationship to much of the music I’d listened to recently than with the music itself. Basically, I’ve listened to a lot of stuff, but I’ve absorbed almost none of it.
Given my recent change in music consumption habits, it’s impossible for me not to fear that having every new release at my fingertips has something to do with this (as I see it) unfortunate development. I’ve put in some serious time with Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound and Japandroids’ Near to the Wild Heart of Life. I’ve given new albums by Spoon, Waxahatchee, Fleet Foxes, and Hurray for the Riff Raff a fair few spins. But everything else? Even the stuff I’ve enjoyed? It’s been one or two listens, then on to the next one. The sheer volume of exciting new releases means that, to get to everything (by which I mean the two or three new albums released each week that I have at least some interest in hearing), I’ve got to parcel out tiny amounts of attention to each artist, album, and song.
The end result is a collection of half-formed musical opinions, a vague sense of what I’ve enjoyed and what I can live without. What’s missing is that bone-deep investment that stems from living with a record for months at a time with little else to drag away your attention. Of course, when that sort of monolithic focus was enforced upon me by my limited purchasing power, I bemoaned my narrow listening habits and read best-of lists with the kind of longing usually reserved for other people’s vacation photos.
I’ve solved that problem only to see a different, potentially more troubling one develop. Yes, my access to music has increased, but my amount of free time hasn’t. And so I have a new problem: I like a lot of new music, but I love almost none of it. That’s because to love music, you have to spend time with it, internalize the lyrics, learn every note, let it serve as the soundtrack of your life for a while. It’s hard to do that when you’re trying to listen to everything.
I should have been careful about what I wished for; the grass is not greener on the other side; Pandora’s box should, perhaps, not have been kicked open. Pick a cliché, any cliché.
I don’t expect pity. The real problem here is one of balance. I’ve got to figure out how to find the time to truly dive into music if that’s really something I value. No one’s got a gun to my head, forcing me to listen to everything with a Metacritic rating above 75, so I have no excuse for not adjusting my habits.
It’s just that, for a short time there, the dream seemed real. I could have all the music I ever wanted, and all it would cost me is ten bucks a month. Alas. Tomorrow looks like a light release day, though, so maybe it’s a good time to start taking my time with some stuff I’d like to give a little more attention to. It’s not like I can listen to everything anyway. It’s not like I can listen to everything anyway. It’s not like I can listen to everything anyway.
Sorry. If you need me, I’m just going to be repeating this to myself for a while.
It’s not like I can…