My Spotify Year
As a music hound and obsessive seeker of new, heart-pounding sounds in rock and roll (one of the mysteries of the modern world is how musicians continue to come up with new sounds and songs from the same three chords), I’ve always believed that the objective of collecting all these albums (I was never a singles guy) was to build a permanent storage of music that I could get my hands on whenever I wanted, in the event the music becomes obscure or goes out of print. However, over the years I have slowly been disabusing myself of the notion that the music I collect must exist as a physical thing, these days either a vinyl or plastic disc. At a time when nearly any album is available at the click of a button, it doesn’t make much sense to collect plastic discs that cost money, take up space, require shelves and cabinets, or organizational system (trust me, every music geek has one). Enter Spotify, which has essentially halted my music purchasing and downloading in its tracks. Spotify, one of the most popular of the music streaming services that have been cropping up, is like listening to a radio station over the internet, only you’re the programmer, DJ and announcer of your own station. Oh yeah, and no commercials (if you subscribe to the premium service)! I’ve become so enthralled with the possibilities of this technology that I’m embarking on an experiment to see how many purchases and downloads I can eliminate this year.
What Spotify has already taught me – and the ability to download before that – is that I’m merely curious about the majority of music I listen to, but that doesn’t mean I will end up liking it enough to include in my permanent collection. If I am being honest with myself, I know that I may listen to a good portion of albums in my cd collection or digital files once or twice before filing away forever. From time to time, I will even go through my collections to weed out those albums, because in the back of my mind keeping them in the collection means a moment or mood will come along that calls for THAT specific record. It’s hard for a collector like myself to admit that a large portion of the music I have in my collection is disposable.
What a magnificent thing, then, to be able to listen to an album whenever I want to, as many times as I want to, before I decide that it’s something I should add to my permanent collection. Spotify gives me the ability to sample and vet as much new music as I can possibly take in, and do so legally, which is something I would never have been able to afford when I was limited to seeking out and buying physical releases. I don’t intend to eliminate all acquisitions of music, as there will always be music that captures me so completely or is released by one of my favorite bands that I will want in my permanent collection (I received Dylan’s Complete Basement Tapes and the Sun Zoom Spark box set by Captain Beefheart for Christmas this year, as two of the most recent examples). Nor is Spotify the first time I have changed my listening habits. My ever evolving lifestyle over the years has forced me to adapt my listening habits accordingly. Certain life changes, such as marriage and children, have threatened my ability or available time to listen to music, but I have always managed somehow to work it in to my routine.
When I first became obsessed with music in my teenage years, starting with Beatles, Stones and Led Zeppelin albums before moving on to punk in the early 80s, I had all the time in the world to absorb in great detail the handful of albums I was able to afford or get a friend to copy onto cassette. These were the days when I lived in my bedroom with headphones and could listen to albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall every single day for an entire month, absorbing every nuance of the musicianship, lyrics and artwork. Needless to say, with family and work obligations, I can no longer immerse myself in the music that way. These days, I’m lucky if I can eke out an uninterrupted hour or so to listen to an album on headphones. Most of the time, I’m having to listen to albums whenever I’m in the car, or going on a run. A good day is when I am taking an extended road trip. In fact, just this week, I had to drive to Atlanta to pick up my wife, and I was able to listen uninterruptedly to all 6 cd’s of the Complete Basement Tapes set. Far better to listen when the opportunity presents itself than not to listen at all, I figure.
One noticeable difference in transitioning from physical media to digital is that I no longer have the actual disc with its accompanying artwork to hold and look at while I’m listening. This means no more poring over the lyrics and liner notes, which would add to the useless pieces of trivia piling up in my head. I barely even remember song titles anymore, or sometimes which albums certain songs belong to. Not unlike reading a book, I’ve come to accept that certain amount of information in and about the music is lost almost immediately upon listening to an album. But again the alternative is not to listen to it at all, which is unacceptable. I acknowledge that total recall of the music, like building any kind of collection, is the delusion of permanence. Again, when I was a younger obsessive, I tried to train my mind to be like a steel trap so that musical details – drum fills, guitar solos, vocal phrasings that touched something in me – would become part of the fiber of my being and never leave me. Yes, I was delusional then, too. We don’t possess any work of art in that way, if at all. Even those scholars who devote their lives to certain artists and their works exclude certain avenues of experience by focusing on others. The artists themselves must live with the way their work imprecisely captured the emotion or experience they were trying to convey. If the truth of the matter is that no one experiences music the way I do, doesn’t this mean that no way of experiencing music or art is better than any other? Unfortunately, there was no telling that to my younger self who would argue to the brink of fighting over a certain musician or band’s merits, or who would refuse to go on a second date with a girl who liked a band I despised. Music, like religion, is ultimately a private matter, and there’s no accounting for taste (or beliefs).
There is a dark side to having all this music available at a keystroke, as illustrated by a conversation I had recently with a dear friend and fellow music collector. This is a person who has taught me everything I know about American roots music, and his collection of records, cd’s and tapes puts mine to shame. When I encouraged him to get on Spotify, he told me that he was wary due to the way it made finding music “too easy.” He romantically remembers the days when he had to travel by foot or bike to the local music store in downtown Savannah to order certain blues or country albums. He would then have to wait a couple of weeks or a month for the album to arrive, if it did at all. It makes perfect sense that wanting something so bad that you’re willing to wait however long elevates the value of the music itself and your experience of it. I can also appreciate how the pride he has for his collection is commensurate with the effort it took to build it. I, too, remember the days of combing through every single vinyl record or cd in used record stores to come across that rare gem of an album I’d been hunting for what seemed like ages. But for a music obsessive to deny himself the ability to hear a rare or obscure album because it’s too readily available is like a man dying of thirst denying himself water because someone brought it to him in a crystal glass with ice.
The challenge for music obsessives today is not so much in finding the music but rather in navigating the ocean of shit to find the streams (see what I did there?) that lead to significant and meaningful music. Then, whenever possible, one should wield what influence you have to keep friends from listening to shitty music. This is one of my motivations for creating this blog, which I hope will include the occasional Spotify playlist of the music that is currently rocking my world. I’ve learned that I don’t need to treat everything I listen to as something I am required to keep simply because I spent time and/or money on it. Spotify enables you to build libraries of albums or tracks, but just because you have the ability to collect as much as you want to doesn’t mean either that you should, in the same way that making connections and following people on social media doesn’t make you a popular or better person. It’s not about having the music, it’s what you do with the music you have. Music is a soundtrack, an accompaniment that continually changes with the times and circumstances of my life, as does my ability and availability of time to listen to it.