I’m embarking on a project.
The increasingly intangible nature of our music collections seems to have resulted in a lesser focus on music in general. Sure, some people utilize streaming services as massive, free libraries and rack up hundreds of streams without all that business of having to buy and maintain a music collection. That sounds awesome, but it has a deleterious effect on our relationship to music as a medium.
Notwithstanding the obvious issues of not paying for music, the problem is that whether it’s Spotify or iTunes or really any other screen-based music platform, the program itself flattens the total experience. It isn’t a discrete unit of music anymore; it’s a bottomless portal with a flat, unchanging visual experience.
I’m oversimplifying to make a point here, but you get the idea. By contrast, having to interact with physical media to initiate a listening session creates a more specific experience. It’s less immediately convenient (among other concerns), but it’s also more directed.
My observations about this are informed by my own experience and choices. I’m more or less a modern person, so my listening habits have kept pace with the general consensus of each era. Over the course of my life, I’ve transitioned from a Walkman to a Discman to a MiniDisc player and then to a used 3rd Gen iPod. (I later had a Classic, which is the best iPod ever made.)
I had a boombox with a top-loading CD player and two tape decks (which I used to make countless mixtapes) that gave way to a three-disc changing shelf system. After that, I built up a component system that included a mid-level receiver, five-disc CD changer and a record player only to dismantle them to sell or give away — twice. Being a minimalist who moves around a lot is at odds with having a physical media collection, unfortunately for me.
My music consumption habits of late more or less lapsed into the following:
On both my computer and my iPhone, I use Spotify Premium. Spotify has become my terrestrial radio replacement, in particular because dreadful mainstream radio stations played a leading role in murdering music for everyone by being so awful. (But I digress.)
When I find something I love, I buy a digital copy, preferably from Bandcamp. Then I circle back and listen to that album on Spotify to drive a little long-tail revenue to artists I love, however slight that might be. For reference, my iTunes (/Rhythmbox, now that my primary computer is a Linux machine) library weighs in around 40GB and would play for just over 18 days straight from end to end.
Of course, now I am fully in vinyl buying mode, which to be completely transparent began anew thanks to Evan indicating it as an activity we should do together. For the most part, we’re beginning with backfilling music I already have on my computer. I have lately begun to think that it’s very important to preserve music in a physical, high-fidelity format, lest an EMP (or something, I don’t know) renders my devices expensive paperweights. I’m also just beginning to think it’s important regardless of what the future holds.
In terms of hardware, I currently use:
- iPhone 6S. My entire iTunes library fits on my phone, augmented by the Bandcamp and Spotify apps.
- HP Compaq 6200 Pro with UbuntuStudio Xenial Xerus. I’ve transferred my music library across four computers now, often culling unloved items as I go. Normally used with headphones or a first generation Soundfreaq Sound Platform. I also have a Mid-2011 Apple iMac 21.5-inch, which is my music production machine, as well as an Acer Chromebook 14, though any listening is accomplished with Spotify or Bandcamp on that.
- Bose OE2 and Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones. Both are very good headphones (without being excessive), which I see as being non-negotiable. I don’t really believe in the audiophile arms race, so I’ll probably not stray too far from this level anytime soon. The Bose are for playback and the Sennheisers for recording monitoring.
- Audio-Technica LP3 turntable hooked up to a Fluance Fi50. This is our main “hi-fi” stereo, I guess you could say. I think it sounds great, but I’m aware of its limitations. I’m considering buying an external phono preamp to sweeten things up a bit.
- TaoTronics TT-SK11 omnidirectional speaker, which is perfectly adequate for most things. I use it in the kitchen and the backyard.
Regarding Bluetooth, I usually use it in the car, even though I’m kind of sensitive to the volume drops and ever-so-slight speed and pitch changes that happen occasionally. I vastly prefer things to be hardwired when possible. Besides, nothing kills a device battery faster than running the Bluetooth radio.
This is a pretty good system. It’s reasonably modern, but certainly not bleeding edge. In my mind, a bleeding edge system might be to possess no music at all in any form and stream Amazon, Pandora, or Spotify through a multi-room Sonos system or equivalent. Which is totally valid. Conversely, you could also consider a five-to-six digit, high-end audiophile component system that uses only pristine physical copies bleeding edge, as well.
I’m no audiophile, but I’m definitely pickier than the average person, so I prefer larger files with a little more detail. I don’t always go for lossless files when I buy from Bandcamp, though that’s mostly a consideration for the dwindling free space on my phone. I’ve also sampled things like headphone DACs and largely don’t think they’re worth the money, at least within the ecosystem I’ve outlined.
I relay all this primarily as a starting point for this project. I love music and it’s still a major focus of my life. I’m not one of those people who could probably get by without it, or whose only remaining experience with it is the radio at work. I’m also not one of those with an extensive collection of low bitrate MP3s from the golden age of file sharing who can listen through anything remotely resembling a speaker and be happy. (For example, I fucking hate earbuds.) Music is important to me, and I want it to sound good, within a reasonable definition and cost.
That said, it’s time to take stock. I feel music, and more specifically the experience of just listening to music as an activity, growing more remote by the day. These interfaces, as I said, have flattened the experience for me significantly. New albums have an anonymous quality to them unless I get hooked enough to obsess over ancillary materials, which usually have to be sought out via web search. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but as a musician, I want to invest in the listening of music as much as the artists I love invest in the creation of it.
By virtue of our consumption habits, music has been pushed to a supporting role, a present but distant second to the visual in cinema, video games, television, and web channels. Imagery and video specifically is the dominant form of entertainment. Our ubiquitous smartphones are capable of delivering an endless stream of high-definition visuals, so rarely are we satisfied with audio-only experiences. I hate this, yet clearly, my adoption of newer technologies is just as responsible for damaging my engagement with music.
I also suspect, but obviously cannot by any stretch prove, that the general abandonment of directed music appreciation might have some correlation to the state of our culture as a whole. I mean, look at the discourse. This place is a mess and I fully believe some small element of that is related to the fact that the general populace doesn’t love music anymore. It’s just radios playing classic rock or country in the background while we work or get oil changes. The same can probably be said for books. Obviously I know that a great many people still love these things, but I’m not sure we value those experiences as a culture anymore.
At the very least, music is among the top five great coping mechanisms. As I write this, many of us are merely managing that: coping. If you feel absolutely terrible, wracked with anxiety and stress, but you haven’t put on an album you love for the sole purpose of listening to it and doing nothing else, try it. See if it doesn’t help a little.
To that end, I conceived of this project. Part of this blog will be a record of my slower, more deliberate listening habits. I want to re-center music in my life, and this will be my primary way of doing that. There will be four major themes, accented here and there by other as-yet-undetermined content.
- First, I’m going to buy my top 25 favorite albums of all time on vinyl. Much has been discussed about the vinyl revolution, so this is not new territory. I’m choosing to rebuild my record collection (for the third time) strictly because it’s such an intentional experience to play a record. There’s the maintenance of all the components, but also the large format packaging, the need to be attentive so you can flip the record, and the distinct nature of each play session. As I write this, I don’t even know if all of these albums are available on vinyl, but a future post will outline the list and answer that question.
- Impulse buy album highlights. I hesitate to call them reviews. Some will approach review territory, but mostly I’ll just give you the details about some random album I bought just because I was interested in it.
- A re-evaluation of my digital music library in total, going from A to Z by artist. I came of age in the download generation, so there’s a kind of fragmented, almost incidental relationship to much of the music I own digitally. I’ll talk about how I acquired the files that make up each single and album I have by each artist, if I can remember. Some of it, shamefully, may never have been paid for at all. Taking stock will help me identify the areas I need to shore up, the files I can safely delete, and just what you get for 40+ GB of music.
- Nurturing the love of music in others. This will take many forms; the very existence of this blog is one of them. Gifts I give will shift to centering music, especially physical media. Exploring minimalist, modern audio playback setups that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Literally sending people things to make and listen to music. Whatever helps people obsess over music again.
I’ll also talk about music production from time to time. Maybe just show off my guitar rig. Who knows on that front.
I’m putting this in blog format not only to hold myself accountable, but to really dig into this material. Maybe seeing this will inspire others to reconsider their music consumption habits, and to glorify the work that goes into creating it. In decades past, fanzines and solid music journalism helped create a reciprocal culture that supported the wider ecosystem. This is just a very small version of that.
Music is good. Listen to more of it, okay?
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