Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment In Dedicated Listening

Jan 16, 2018
Originally published on January 18, 2018 4:30 pm

In Charlotte Zwerin's 1988 film Straight, No Chaser, Thelonious Monk road manager Bob Jones tells a story about Monk appearing on a television show sometime in the late '50s. Monk is asked what kind of music he likes, to which he replies "all kinds." The interviewer, hoping for a "gotcha" moment, smugly asks "even country?" to which the maverick pianist coolly deadpans, "I said all kinds."

Me too. It has been said that we are living in a golden age of music fandom; with a single click, we can access almost every piece of music ever recorded, and for less than it would cost to hear a single song on a jukebox in 1955. But I've begun to feel that my rabid consumption of music, when coupled with the unprecedented access encouraged by new technology, has endangered my ability to process it critically.

Streaming has become the primary way we listen to music: in 2016, streaming surpassed both physical media and digital downloads as the largest source of recorded music sales. There are plenty of valid complaints about a music world dominated by streaming. Among the many arguments musicians level against Spotify, for example, one typically repeated is that the artist is the only link in the food chain getting the proverbial shaft. This argument is often predicated on notions of economics, intellectual property and ethics. Missing from a larger discussion is the radical idea that maybe it is the consumers who are being done the greatest disservice, and that this access-bonanza may be cheapening the listening experience by transforming fans into file clerks and experts into dilettantes. I don't want my musical discoveries dictated by a series of intuitive algorithms any more than I want to experience Jamaica via an all-inclusive trip to Sandals.

A few years ago, I started noticing that my brain was no longer retaining song titles. I struggled to recall the names of labels, compilations and the members of bands I liked. Partly due to the ubiquity of music playlists and partly due to supply outweighing even my most insatiable of demands, all music was becoming Muzak. In the interest of trying to experience it all, I was fast approaching a saturation point that was rendering me numb. As a person who still legitimately believes in music's potential to transcend life's banalities, disappointments, and even its suffering, this was cause for concern.

Like many people about my age — I'm 39 — I used to study and pore over the records and cassettes in my collection. I read lyric sheets and thank-you lists. I knew every song title on every album, even the ones relegated to the deep recesses, like side 2, track 4. Music was religion, mythology and history rolled into one. The narratives became as important to me as the music itself; I studied lineages, developed affinities, obsessed over mythos and minutiae. If you're the type of person who has learned to identify a wine's year of harvest and country of origin with a single sniff of a cork, these nascent stages of obsession will be familiar.

My familiarity with any album was almost directly proportional to whether or not that album was purchased alone or had arrived in a batch with several other albums. For instance, albums received as Christmas gifts were judged quickly and more harshly than an album purchased with money earned shoveling snow or raking leaves.

Even as the passage from adolescence to adulthood afforded less time to devote to this kind of mania, I continued to feverishly pursue new music while most of my crate-digging peers and companions dropped off and developed other interests. I couldn't understand why a friend who loved one Sonic Youth album didn't want to own all the other Sonic Youth albums. I didn't understand people who claimed to love the Stones but couldn't tell you what year Ron Wood replaced Mick Taylor. When someone told me they "don't really pay attention to lyrics," I would stare at them as if they'd just dipped a Snickers bar into a jar of mustard. Rather than feeling alienated by such posers, I viewed them as further affirmations of my own uniqueness: I had nothing in common with people for whom music was merely an entertaining distraction from real life rather than a way of life itself. When you're young, few things keep you caring about a thing more than feeling like you're the only one who really cares about it.

I know far more today about albums I hated in 1990 than I do about my favorite albums released last year.

This fact troubled me, and I wanted to do something about it. But first I needed to try to isolate when — and why — the way I listened to music changed in the first place.

***

In the early '90s, I found myself drawn towards activities familiar to any music fanatic faced with a need to feed their habit. While still in high school, I founded several bands, began volunteering at the college radio station and took a job at a local record store. I befriended other musicians. I wrote music reviews for various zines and newspapers and I started my own label. It wasn't long before I became acquainted with the greatest fringe benefit of thankless and/or low-paying jobs in the lower rungs of the music biz: promotional copies.

By the end of any given week, I had more music on my desk than someone only a century ago was able to hear in five lifetimes, and all without spending so much as a dollar.

Then came the Internet.

As a listener, critic, label owner, veteran record store clerk and professional musician, I have for many years been a vocal opponent of both Spotify and illegal downloading on economic, ethical and aesthetic grounds, having witnessed firsthand their destructive force. But I will confess that when peer-to-peer file-sharing came into my life about 15 years ago, I was not immune to its siren song. Remember astronaut Dave Bowman's facial expression during the Star Gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey? That was me, around the time of the actual, non-fictional 2001, discovering how easy it was to download MP3s.

Shortly after we'd purchased our first desktop PC, my then-girlfriend downloaded the file-sharing program Audiogalaxy. In an intense sleep-deprived delirium bordering on narcotic, I downloaded every private press/weirdo/garage/psych/folk/prog/punk record I'd ever heard about throughout my years of fanzine-and-catalogue-trawling and conversations with other musicians and collectors. I challenged Audiogalaxy by plugging in to the search engine the most obscure records I could think of, but it couldn't be stumped. It was incredible. I missed a few shifts at the record store and definitely lost a few nights of sleep. I remained indoors and had to be reminded to take regular meals. Only in retrospect can I see that my obsession with music — once the proud badge of the misfit, the precocious autodidact — was beginning to resemble something prosaic and common, like an addiction to World of Warcraft or Internet porn.

When Audiogalaxy vanished, another peer-to-peer program, Soulseek, took its place; same dealer, different street corner. All the while, I continued purchasing physical media several times a week (a habit that continues to this day), but many of these treasures now remained neglected for months at a time. Soon came the practice of exchanging music with friends via Dropbox and Yousendit. Podcasts and playlists, Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Music everywhere. Music every day. Music every minute.

Tripping over unopened parcels of LPs and small towers of factory-sealed CDs, I recognized that I was becoming recklessly, needlessly acquisitive. I added up the time spent collating and organizing the glut of digital data on my hard drive, the untold hours maintaining a bulging collection of records, CDs and cassettes. My collection was starting to feel like an albatross, and, ironically, was cutting into my recreational listening time. On New Year's Eve 2013, I made a resolution: "Less stockpiling; more listening." Like most resolutions, this one was mostly forgotten by the first week of February.

And then one day, a revelation: It occurred to me that it was no longer just difficult to hear all the music I'd amassed, but impossible. I mean literally, mathematically impossible: I calculated that if I lived another, say, 40 years, and spent every minute of those next 40 years — that's no sleeping, no eating — listening to my collection of music, I would be dead before I could make it all the way through. That means there are records I own today that I will definitely never hear again. It was a sobering thought. Toward the end of David Foster Wallace's 2001 short story "Good Old Neon," the narrator recognizes the "state in which a man realizes that everything he sees will outlast him." With one single calculation, made on a whim, I had placed myself in this very state.

What did I do after spending a few reflective moments reckoning with this bleak logic? I bought some records. I did so not as an ironic palliative to the grim calculation I'd just made, as narrative might dictate. On the contrary, I did so thoughtlessly, compulsively, simply because it was part of my routine. Clearly, I needed to make some changes.

I concocted a bold experiment: For the entirety of 2017, I would listen to just one album a week.

I decided to conduct this experiment because I romanticized the days of intimate close listening, of prolonged concentrated meditation with an art object, and I sought to reactivate the ritual function of such encounters. I knew that "tuning out" and taking myself out of the loop of new releases, reissues and fledgling artists would require discipline, but I was sure the results would be worth the sacrifice.

The rules:

  • One album a week. No exceptions. Avoid other music whenever possible, but don't be so unyielding about it that you become insufferable to your friends and family.
  • Each week's album must be something you own in physical, "hard copy" form, because the experience must involve interaction with the object as a whole. You will read liner notes and lyrics, and engage with the artwork. Become familiar with names of band members. Learn the producer's name. Where was the album recorded? What time of year? Can you hear this in the music?
  • You are free to listen to your weekly album in any context you desire. At least a few "dedicated listens" should be considered mandatory, but you are also free to listen casually, while doing other things, if you like. It shouldn't feel like homework.
  • The album can be old or new, in any genre. Revisiting albums with which you are already somewhat familiar is encouraged.
  • There is no minimum amount of listening time required. If you dislike an album so much that you'd sooner choose a week of quiet rather than endure it a second time, so be it. Enjoy the silence.

For week one, I chose Autechre's 2010 album Oversteps, one of the British electronic duo's latter-day full-lengths with which I am less familiar, despite having purchased a copy of the CD on the day it was released. Choosing an Autechre album to kick off the experiment was not an arbitrary decision: my reasoning was that there was enough texture and nuance in Autechre's singular brand of sound design to retain my attention over the course of multiple listens. I also relished the irony of attempting to reacquaint myself with ostensibly primitive listening practices by listening to one of the most technologically advanced musical acts of all time.

By the end of the week I hoped to become so intimately familiar with the machine-crunching, software-strangled squelches on Oversteps that I'd be hearing them in my sleep.

***

Making breakfast to Autechre wasn't as challenging as I feared. Though usually I prefer to listen to something a little more traditionally metronomic when engaging in menial tasks, I found Autechre's post-humanist din oddly conducive to omelet-making. This was going to be fun!

Things began to fall apart almost immediately. I checked my email. At this moment it is barely 10am, and already four messages in my inbox tempt me with potential musical serotonin-blasts: a friend's compilation of NRBQ rarities; a link to a website where some benevolent maniac had painstakingly assembled a Grayfolded-style playlist of all the Dead's best "Dark Star" improvisations taken exclusively from the Europe '72 tour; a mailing list update from my go-to guy for all things blues and zydeco, full of enticing clips; and finally, news from the peerless Eremite label announcing a new album by Chicago polymath Joshua Abrams, with a YouTube link to the album's first single. Without thinking, I click the link and listen. The song is great, and it makes me regret that I hadn't really given Magnetoception, Abrams' previous album, the time or attention I had given his other LPs, and I begin wondering where I'd filed that record. Oblivious to the folly unfolding before me, I locate my copy of Magnetoception. Just as I do, the mail arrives.

It's a package from U.K. distro Juno Records containing a repress of the Screamers, Bangers & Cosmic Synths compilation, released by the tiny Triassic Tusk label. I've heard this comp already, of course, but not on vinyl, and I really want to listen to it. Good sense and willpower prevail, however, at least for now: I reason that, given the record's not-insubstantial $35 price, seductive packaging and wide range of artists and moods, it will make a perfect "week two" album.

But I don't want to wait. I start to feel petulant. I'm an adult with free will and lots of free time; why am I depriving myself of certain joy? Generally speaking, I have always struggled with delayed gratification, and I eye the open parcel on the kitchen table the way one might eye a package of Double Stuf Oreos on the third day of a diet. I will remind you it is still day one of this experiment, and barely noon. The entire endeavor begins to feel masochistic and trivial. Could it be that I'm just trying to talk myself out of continuing? Am I a "deep listener" or merely another trophy-hunting collector? I'd always considered myself the former. So why do I feel, while I am listening to music I enjoy, that I'm missing out on something else? Why does direct engagement with a work of art suddenly feel like a fruitless attempt at multitasking?

One thing is certain: I don't want to listen to Autechre anymore, at least not today; I want to listen to this "compilation of records played in the early years of the Moon Hop club in Scotland." I want to hear not only Nigerian disco outsider Steve Monite's irresistibly bizarre "Only You," but also the unlikely marriage of gnarly garage fuzz and samba that is "Hey Mina" by The Jones and the darkly funky nuclear cautionary tale of "Last Chance to Dance" by Afrikan Dreamland. But I restrain myself.

More new messages arrive in my inbox. A songwriter whose album I may be producing later in the year has sent three new demos for me to listen to and comment on. Another friend emails to remind me he's in town this week to play a gig and hopes to see me.

My wife proposes a late lunch at our favorite neighborhood Ethiopian restaurant. One of the reasons we like this restaurant so much is because its young proprietors are always playing the most incredible music and, despite my lifelong aversion to piped-in music in public spaces, I make a small exception for any establishment that has a favorite Augustus Pablo album. Today they are playing something unusual I've never heard before. My wife notices it too and before I can ask her to "Shazam it," she is already hoisting her phone above her head toward the mounted speakers, hurriedly placing a finger over her lips to make the universal sign of "be quiet a second." Turns out it's something called the Lafayette Afro Rock Band. I make a note to check it out later.

I begin to really understand why recovering addicts isolate themselves from old neighborhoods and old friends in order to stay clean.

A friend once floated a theory that I've grappled with ever since. She claimed that we only ever really love 10 albums, and we spend the rest of our listening lives seeking facsimiles of those 10, pursuing the initial rush, so to speak. At the time, I argued with her, mostly because I didn't want this to be true. But even as I protested I began recalling how many times I compulsively "added to cart" an item whenever some savvy vinyl-hustling mountebank deployed the phrase "Velvets-y" or "Royal Trux-ish," and how many times I'd bought reissues promising the "holy grail" of "private press proto-doom" only to discover tepid bar rock that sounded like a warmed-over Bad Company. Our individual dragons may vary — Sabbath or Coltrane or Beatles or Beefheart — but we're all chasing 'em.

***

It's been three days, and I've listened to Oversteps one-and-a-half times: once while making breakfast and once in the car while running some errands, during which time I managed to get through about four songs. I have yet to give the album my undivided attention. By now I have "cheated" on Oversteps several times by listening to other music, though, it must be said, far less of it than usual. Maybe it will just take me a few weeks to adjust to my resolution. My immediate plan is to commune with Oversteps with a smoke and my good headphones. But my wife finishes her work early and descends the stairs, breaking my reverie. Before I can even consider subjecting her to Oversteps, she's already at the Rega and reaching for Eric Dolphy's Outward Bound. I don't protest. Man, this is a terrific record, I think, one I might slightly prefer to his other "out"-themed records, Out There and Out to Lunch. Who's the pianist on this date, again? Oh, right, Jaki Byard. I should get more of his records. I make another mental note, still somehow unaware of the ridiculous caricature I have become. I go to bed without having made it back to Oversteps.

Four days in, I resign myself to the fact that my experiment is a complete failure, and there is no point in continuing it. My willpower collapses absolutely; my desire to hear Autechre — anything by Autechre — is gone. I admit defeat by listening to the Screamers, Bangers & Cosmic Synths comp while cleaning my office.

Why did the experiment fail? For one thing, it failed because it was unpleasant, and I didn't want to do it anymore. More importantly, I couldn't help feeling almost immediately that I had already reached a conclusion: Modern life, with all of its informational density, has rendered filtering out the noise virtually impossible.

Perhaps if I'd holed myself up in a remote cabin and attempted the experiment in isolation, it might have yielded different results, but short of a Twilight Zone, Burgess Meredith-as-lone survivor-of-thermonuclear-war scenario, such a setting would merely be a simulation and would thus defeat the purpose, not to mention almost certainly result in recidivism the moment I reunited with my iPod.

The hasty abandonment of the experiment also forces me to confront something about myself that should have been obvious all along: If, at the age of 11, I had been granted access to not just the one Kreator album I listened to every day, but everything Kreator ever recorded, I would not have hesitated for a second before mainlining every demo, bonus track and live version available to me. The notion that there is something to be gained by choosing this type of scarcity, by actively inviting a kind of regression, suddenly seems, to this Western mind, pretty stupid. It dawns on me that I've made this choice not for reasons of spiritual asceticism or worldly good, but nostalgia, the last refuge of the middle-aged sad-sack. I begin feeling like a Civil War reenactor, or the man at the Renaissance Faire who scolds you for wearing a watch; a pedant, an anachronism. The very embodiment of everything about a 40-year old that baffles a 20-year old.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on myself. When asked in a 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal whether he thought the epic novel was still relevant to modern readers, author Cormac McCarthy surprised me by conceding the following: "The indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're going to write something like The Brothers Karamazov or Moby-Dick, go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different."

He may be right. As long as we try to maintain the Sisyphean task of trying to experience everything, our brains, unable to adapt and forever lagging behind exponential technological progress, will continue to struggle. "Computing power is still doubling every 18 months," notes cryptographer and technology writer Bruce Schneier, "while our species' brain size has remained constant." No one has ever fought progress and won, but notions of progress are ambiguous. Realizing I can come across as something of a relic, I wonder if my experiences in music consumption have rendered me less assimilable than some of my peers to this pivotal, transitional and (it must be said) exciting period.

My arrogance was not in believing I was immune to the way our relationship to music has been irrevocably altered by technology and the occult market forces that engender it, but that I somehow possessed the ability to transcend it by making myself immune. I try to recall the last novel I read that was longer than 400 pages; it's been awhile. At least I'm in good company: Of the many self-described "film buffs" I know, none have braved Krzysztof Kieślowski's acclaimed Dekalog, a ten-hour series of episodes often cited as one of the greatest films of the 20th century; of the dozens of Bob Dylan fanatics with whom I am acquainted, I can think of only one who has braved the entirety of The Basement Tapes Complete, a box set containing a staggering 138 tracks from the famed sessions. I recall my dentist, who couldn't help interrupting his drilling to periodically consult his iPhone during my recent visit to have a cavity filled.

***

Maybe it's time for new resolutions, new experiments. My goal going forward, if I am to retain my sanity, seems clear enough: to try to avoid imposing fixity on an increasingly fluid world, and to surrender in good faith to the flow, even when I struggle to find good reasons to embrace it. Less stockpiling, more listening? Sure. But I don't believe I will ever pass a stack of dusty CDs in a Goodwill and not feel a pang of excitement, an insatiable curiosity, a compulsive need to rifle, touch, and understand. My old behavior is simply too enjoyable, too integral to my identity to give up completely.

My father once challenged me on what he perceived as the senselessness of my record-buying habit, and I explained to him that the happiest feeling in the world, for me, was walking into a record store with a few dollars to spend; few things have ever made me feel as good, and I suspect few things ever will. There is, in any obsession, a kind of helplessness, but as addictions go, this one has always seemed to me pretty harmless. The modern world, however, has issued a new and terrifying challenge: Try and keep up.

The diluvial nature of modern media leaves us little time to pause. The challenge, then, is to cultivate the patience and the discipline necessary to engage more deeply than the modern world allows. Just because we are flooded doesn't mean we have to drown.


James Jackson Toth has written about music and culture for NPR, Stereogum, Salon, Aquarium Drunkard, and The Wire, among others. He also performs music as Wooden Wand.

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