Random Play

Random Play

It’s a plain folder, found nestled deep in the recesses of an ancient hard drive, holding days and days of painstaking work. Labeled simply “90s”, with a web of Artists, Release Years and Albums, it represents my most safely worn epoch. Copying it out of its native environs, transplanting it into a music player to be carried through dull Xerox tinted days, seems like a grave sin against the past. But any feelings of transgression melt away when I plug in and hear the distorted steel drums of Tool’s Aenima. I wonder how I could have spent any of the last decade without the sonic comfort I’ve just rediscovered.

As I page through the dozens of stand-alone ditties that formed my conception of music at the turn of the century, I realize that my Napster sourced collection doesn’t accurately reflect the way I listened to music over a decade ago. I ‘m hard pressed to find anything approaching a full album on this greatest hits tribute playlist. Truth is, I never owned anywhere close to the volume of the collection that I so laboriously catalogued – and what I did own was constructed on a series of eclectic hand-me-downs and found materials that caused my CD rack to hold Sailor Moon, The Three Tenors, and Trisha Yearwood with nary a hint of irony.

Instead, this collection emulates a particularly epic set list of radio rock. The more I revisit it, the more I realize it forms a musical fata morgana. It’s a commentary on what I remember the '90s to feel like, not an attempt to capture what I was really listening to back in the Clinton years.

Among the many changes that the vast and infinite web has brought to me, the absolute thrill of being able to find a single song at a moment’s notice is well in the top 5. Just the other week, I instantaneously and miraculously became 80 Microbucks poorer when I realized that I Want it That Way was not on my laptop. This relative convenience has turned my music collecting into a mad grab at tiny slivers of personal significance. Were I more organized, I’d have a hit list of songs that I absolutely must have at my beck and call before my time on this blue marble comes to its close.

For the majority of my life, music was something to be experienced but not necessarily collected. One of my earliest memories involves a portable music player and disappointment at not being able to listen to Stevie Wonder’s "I Just Called to Say I Love You" ad infinitum. Knowing that I could not call the song as I wanted led me to value the moments I was able to catch from the radio. Later, when I could afford modest toys, I spent a large chunk of my music listening endlessly replaying the CDs and Tapes that came under my possession. I remember long car rides in Mexico looped against the constant flow of country music. I remember a clandestine 16 hour Greyhound trip from Berkeley to San Diego, made tolerable thanks to Poe’s Haunted, made amazing after discovering that the entire album was one long slice-of-thought tribute to the presence of the singer’s father. And, like so many other wide-eyed teens, I remember rainy nights set to the sounds of Dark Side of The Moon.

I may have the routine of cataloging down to a science, but the art of listening is something sorely missing from my modern music experiences. Much of that owes to the fact that I’m just not as interested in buying whole albums anymore. The digital music revolution lets me cut out the filler. I’m free to sink my wallet into whatever individual tracks I want, without the messy commercially repugnant B-sides to clutter up my e-walls. I'm free, in other words, to be picky.

And picky I most certainly am. That freedom I mentioned has led to troubling habits that keep me from venturing too far off the well trodden path. My interest in music has cratered recently. No surprise, since my car rides are filled with youth anthems and familiar bands. Who needs current hits when I have decades worth of space waiting to be filled in? The last album I purchased, a little indie-published beauty that I had discovered on a chance outing to a music club, was never listened straight through. Instead, I scanned, replayed and removed. I spent no time getting accustomed to its lyrical flow. No time to learn the shifts in tempo, to appreciate the order and selection of songs. Instead of an event, my little indie album became a stripmine that I efficiently sorted through.

Just another sacrifice to the gods of Random Shuffle, with its viable ores perversely stored on my Zune.

It’s instant gratification, plain and simple. The ability to jump through a catalogue of thousands of songs promotes a shortened, disinterested, attention span.
I don’t really want to listen to Bach this moment. Nor do I care for this particular Luther Vandross work. Trance? That can wait for driving, I suppose. When there’s a deluge of talent available, who has the time to sit through 45+ minutes of just one artist?

It’s an odd truth that a little scarcity can lead to wonderful discoveries. This may be the nostalgia speaking, but my formerly limited access to entertainment prompted some resourceful and, in many cases, rewarding habits. It taught me to learn to really listen to the quaint assembly of discs that sat on my wall shelf. It taught me to take care in choosing what I would have with me during those uneventful days. It taught me a kind of patience that is only found in wanting.

Comments

Interesting reflection, Alex. I always found that I didn't have nearly the sizable music collection as the people I knew. Personally, I have a fairly limited number of artists in my library, but I listen to certain tracks a much higher number of times than most people I know. I get really familiar with the nuances of the song as a result. I admit it does tend to lean towards older artists, but maybe there's just less crap to wade through as you go back further, since all the crap that did exist is likely forgotten.

Nice piece, Alex. I find that with the advent of websites such as grooveshark.com and the recently deceased lala.com I find myself listening to a more diverse set of music than what I used to and I have returned to listening to whole albums again. With just a few clicks I can find the exact track listing and then assemble a new playlist that is the entire album, after I find a new artist that interests me.

I've always hated the single. If you need to, make a playlist, but you owe it to the artist to listen to an album as a single body of work.

As the holder of a CD rack referred to as "The Crypt" by the houseapes I can relate to this article. And I have a few marks of oddity and embarrassment to admit to. Today's mix involved Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts, Drowning Pool, VeggieTales, BTO, and Chopin.

It is different today. I grew up before Walkmen even came in. I saved up my babysitting money for months and bought a boombox that was twice the size of my current big computer case. Listening to the radio for hours to catch a song to record for my own mix tapes. I can remember when everyone didn't move through their day to their own personal sound track.

hbi2k wrote:
theditor wrote:
I've always hated the single. If you need to, make a playlist, but you owe it to the artist to listen to an album as a single body of work.

I think that depends entirely on the artist and album in question. There are certainly some that conceive of the album as a work in and of itself-- you can't just pull a single song out of Dark Side of the Moon and listen to it out of context


I do. I pair several of the "songs" together as single files (Brain Damage & Eclipse, for example), but other than that I listen to my entire playlist of 1300 songs as a big shuffled playlist.

momgamer wrote:
As the holder of a CD rack referred to as "The Crypt" by the houseapes I can relate to this article. And I have a few marks of oddity and embarrassment to admit to. Today's mix involved Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts, Drowning Pool, VeggieTales, BTO, and Chopin.

It is different today. I grew up before Walkmen even came in. I saved up my babysitting money for months and bought a boombox that was twice the size of my current big computer case. Listening to the radio for hours to catch a song to record for my own mix tapes. I can remember when everyone didn't move through their day to their own personal sound track.

I remember making my own mix tapes that way.

Though I do like being able to instantly listen to whatever song I want, it has killed the art of the album somewhat.

theditor wrote:
I've always hated the single. If you need to, make a playlist, but you owe it to the artist to listen to an album as a single body of work.

I think that depends entirely on the artist and album in question. There are certainly some that conceive of the album as a work greater than the sum of its parts-- you can't just pull a single song out of Dark Side of the Moon and listen to it out of context and get the same experience-- but I think there are a lot more that write two or three singles and then pad the rest of the disc with filler. It's been that way since long before Napster gave rise to the single-song download (and iTunes legitimized it as a profitable business model).

I still buy full albums from iTunes most of the time. If I'm interested enough to buy one song, it's usually worth another nine bucks to see if it's a band I can get into. Sure, I get more misses than hits, but music is important to me, and given the money I spend on the habit seeing shows, the $10 for an album is nearly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

I also give every album at least two full spins. The only time once is enough to know for sure is when I know I love a record right from the start.

When I first got my iPod I was a shuffler. My iPod seemed overly fond of Robbie Williams though, so that stopped.

I've been on a discovery mission for new bands for a few months now and I've been making myself listen to albums, even if an album isn't a concept a la Dark Side of the Moon there is usually a unifying current through the extended work that I find it worth exploring.

I agree with TheCouselor that you should listen at least twice to a full album.

So does it indicate that you're over 25, 30, 35? if you STILL expect to hear a certain song after this one ends, because it was arranged that way on your workout tape? ...or that I said "tape".

It's that you said "tape" and you weren't sticking two things together.

I still listen to albums. Once I get to know an album, I'll skip tracks, but I don't even have playlists and I never use shuffle. Sometimes I'll get singles, but only if I'm really excited about the work the artist is doing and the single format is relevant(Kanye's recent excellent internet-output comes to mind immediately).

The concept of shuffle is all shrugs to me. If I'm listening to music I'm either looking to listen to something specifically, or I'm listening to new music. So, to the extent that Hype Machine is a 'shuffle', I guess, but not shuffling music that you already know. No sir, don't get it. I don't see the connection with a shortened attention span though, but I do think that listening to the same songs/albums over and over for years straight will eventually hamper you from even entertaining the possibility of enjoying new music(let me be clear: I'm not saying you should -never- listen to albums from your past, only that it shouldn't be -all- that you listen to, and that's only if you even care about having exciting experiences with new music).

For new music geeks, and I'm assuming we have at least a few here, there is an impossible balance to be treaded - there is, for all intents and purposes, an infinite amount of exciting music to listen to. You could listen forever and ever and ever all day, and not be able to keep up with what's already out there and what's coming out now that you just need to hear. Perhaps there always has been, I don't know, but what's true now is that this fact is obvious, because it is so easy to find not just songs, but genres and subgenres and scenes and cultural movements and musical revolutions. It's being played, logged, archived and analyzed; an infinite amount of data sorted and interpreted by an infinite number of listeners and creators.

How do you approach that? Well, you can't, but you do the best you can. You can consume at the fastest rate possible, searching for the one, fleeting instant that sings to the very core of your being, then run that instant into the ground as fast as you can before continuing upon your path of indiscriminate consumption. This is a perfectly legitimate strategy. You can also take one song, one album, and immerse yourself it, studying it, considering it, reconsidering it, viewing it through different shades of colors in rooms with different lighting, from different historical and emotional perspectives. Of course, you can never fully know it, anymore that you can fully know a human being, but damned if you can't try.

Or, you know, somewhere in between. We do the best we can. But part of that, always, is underappreciating something more worthy of your attention, or never even hearing something that would demand your attention effortlessly. This applies I'm sure to other big umbrellas of media, and perhaps even to other avenues of human experience?

OK i'm done. don't read all that bullsh*t is my recommendation.

BadKeyMachine wrote:
The concept of shuffle is all shrugs to me. If I'm listening to music I'm either looking to listen to something specifically, or I'm listening to new music. So, to the extent that Hype Machine is a 'shuffle', I guess, but not shuffling music that you already know. No sir, don't get it. I don't see the connection with a shortened attention span though, but I do think that listening to the same songs/albums over and over for years straight will eventually hamper you from even entertaining the possibility of enjoying new music(let me be clear: I'm not saying you should -never- listen to albums from your past, only that it shouldn't be -all- that you listen to, and that's only if you even care about having exciting experiences with new music).

So what? Perhaps you have apply subjective importance to trying out new music. I don't.

I'm definitely an album guy. If an artist can't manage to string ~10 decent songs together once every few years, then they probably aren't worth listening to in the first place.

Edit: However, I still understand Alex's plight. With so much music available to me, I find I don't connect with albums the way I remember.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
BadKeyMachine wrote:
The concept of shuffle is all shrugs to me. If I'm listening to music I'm either looking to listen to something specifically, or I'm listening to new music. So, to the extent that Hype Machine is a 'shuffle', I guess, but not shuffling music that you already know. No sir, don't get it. I don't see the connection with a shortened attention span though, but I do think that listening to the same songs/albums over and over for years straight will eventually hamper you from even entertaining the possibility of enjoying new music(let me be clear: I'm not saying you should -never- listen to albums from your past, only that it shouldn't be -all- that you listen to, and that's only if you even care about having exciting experiences with new music).

So what? Perhaps you have apply subjective importance to trying out new music. I don't.

Yes, that's exactly what I've done, and so I explained that these thoughts only apply if you care about new music.

hbi2k wrote:
... It's been that way since long before Napster gave rise to the single-song download (and iTunes legitimized it as a profitable business model)

You would be amazed at actually how little money there is to be made through digital music sales. I used to work for a large bricks and mortar music retail company who launched their own digital music service. It lost money hand over fist every year. Now yes, part of that is certainly due to the impossible task of competing with iTunes, but the actual business case and expected ROI was also that digital music would be a loss leader for the company.

When you make only a handful of cents or nothing in margin on every sale, your ongoing costs swiftly swallow up any potential profit. The real money is to be made in the hardware, not usually the actual players, but the accessories. These often have margins in the 100-200% range.

The real changer for iTunes I think has been apps. These must make Apple an incredible amount of money, for very little work on their side.

Torq wrote:
I used to work for a large bricks and mortar music retail company

Quick guess: Your old position no longer exists.

wordsmythe wrote:
Torq wrote:
I used to work for a large bricks and mortar music retail company

Quick guess: Your old position no longer exists.

Well I've moved jobs now, the position still exists, and so does the company. Not sure why I'm obfuscating it so much really. The company is the only major entertainment retailer left on the UK high st.

Where music used to be their main area of focus, with every passing year music is becoming a smaller and smaller part of their product mix.

Torq wrote:
You would be amazed at actually how little money there is to be made through digital music sales.

I'd bet you anything it's more profitable than selling music on little plastic discs. (-: The whole industry-- like all entertainment industries-- is in flux right now, and the only certainty is that when it all settles down again a lot of middlemen are going to be in a different line of work. Which, being a middleman myself, blows, but it's the reality we have to deal with.

Torq wrote:
hbi2k wrote:
... It's been that way since long before Napster gave rise to the single-song download (and iTunes legitimized it as a profitable business model)

You would be amazed at actually how little money there is to be made through digital music sales. I used to work for a large bricks and mortar music retail company who launched their own digital music service. It lost money hand over fist every year. Now yes, part of that is certainly due to the impossible task of competing with iTunes, but the actual business case and expected ROI was also that digital music would be a loss leader for the company.


Actually, there's a metric assload of money to be made on digital music sales. Your company may not have actualized a business plan for them correctly (or maybe didn't have the clout to pull the percentages that someone like iTunes is), but I don't think it's at all fair to say that you can't make money selling music digitally.

This is me. I don't buy singles. I don't listen to singles. If I hear that Arcade Fire has a hot new song I buy the whole album. If I hear a song I like by Bloc Party I buy the whole album. And then I listen to albums. I find becoming immersed in good albums that were meant to be whole pieces of art is so rewarding that I can't understand listening to singles (or the radio), personally. I will pop into Pandora now and then, but only to catch new music.

Definitely an album guy. And I have to like most of each album before I go to the show. And with the number of shows I go to (5 this month, familiar with 8 of the 11 bands playing), knowing only the singles would be miserable for me. Case in point, at Matt & Kim last month, they played every song they have. If I only knew Daylight, well, ok, that's a bad example 'cause the show still would have rocked.

Hmm. I guess I'm sort of in between it all. Yes, I suppose my music scene would be quite a bit different without this digital revolution, though it's hard to say exactly how as I've also aged a lot since its inception. Can I attribute all my listening and collecting habits to my computer, or would some have come with age? Before Napster, I owned a collection of maybe 50 CDs. When I discovered MP3s in high school in the late '90s, I ripped them all to my computer and started downloading songs 20 minutes at a time on my 56k connection like everyone else.

My first CD burner really started the shuffling though. That's what allowed me to mix any music I wanted and take it in my car, where I spent the most time listening. Don't forget about those.

Now, like BadKeyMachine, I'm a new music enthusiast. I totally agree that we'll never have the time for all the music we want to love. When I get a new album, the "Recently Added" smart playlist means it gets added to my iPhone, and I get to check it out during the work day commute (and if I have a schedule gap). However, I quite often listen on shuffle. When I'm around the house and in the mood for music, I'm usually in the mood for a certain type of music. To that end, I have my library arranged in playlists like, "Classic Rock," "Modern Rock," "Electronic," "Video Games," "Chilled," etc. It doesn't matter if it doesn't all make perfect musical sense as it's all based on my personal mood and style of listening. Why exactly are The Cure in Classic Rock? Simply because I associate them with my childhood--before I really owned my musical tastes.

My point with this is, I suppose, that this era makes the music geekdome of High Fidelity plausible for busy people who have other geeky obsessions vying for their attention. I can customize my large collection of music, spend hours getting all the tags right, renaming the files from the tags, getting album art...you know, the caretaking stuff that comes with any collectibles hobby. Then, I can listen how I want--really almost no barriers. So, to answer the article above, am I now more picky? Cop out: yes and no. I'm certainly much more eclectic and versatile in my tastes, constantly and hungrily exploring new releases and unfamiliar genres. I DO spend time with albums, especially when I like them, but you should see me flick that "next" button like it's a pog when I'm on shuffle. I am curious about others' listening habits.

P.S. Just saw Arcade Fire live last Saturday in a small venue. So good.