I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the way I relate to music, apropos of nothing much. My interest in what’s going on in the popular (and unpopular) music worlds waxes and wanes, and right now I’m on a serious consume-enjoy-analyse kick, spending at least an hour or two every day seeking out new sounds, reading critical commentary, following groups around the internet. It wasn’t always like that, and I suppose that’s what I’m interested in: how the way I listen to music has changed over the years, and how those changes intersect with the huge psychosocial upheaval of the Information Revolution.*
My first memories of listening to music are of my sister and me loving, just loving, tracks like the Scaffold’s Lily the Pink and Loudon Wainwright III’s Dead Skunk – tracks with funny words and a great tune. And I remember my Dad playing me Madness and Bowie records, and that meshing weirdly with my sister (five years older) playing Huge Hits and Now compilations. I feel like when I first listened to music I was listening to it as part of social and familial bonding: I listened to what friends and family played me, or to what I wanted them to hear me playing. (My identity, like many people’s, has long been bound up with impressing and making an impression.) The first CDs I bought (I missed the end of cassettes) were Eternal’s Greatest Hits and Madness’s Lovestruck single.
As I started to grow awkwardly into adolescence, those odd beginnings became some kind of musical identity. Of all of the mass entertainment products we consume (films, books, games, music) the kind of music we listen to seems to be the strongest defining – and dividing – factor. Think of the factions at school: you might not have watched the same films as your friends, but you likely listened to the same music. I grew up in Orkney, though, and my school was too small to have High School Musical levels of faction: there was the mainstream, and then there was the rest of us, skaters and goths and metalheads and oddballs like me huddling together for warmth. Music in early adolescence for me was about particular passions and obsessions: Madness (still), The Divine Comedy, Belle and Sebastian, Rufus Wainwright. There was still an element of wanting to impress people I cared about – those now including friends online as well as in the flesh – but something autonomous as well. I started buying a lot of CDs, but usually not venturing too far, usually focussing on getting complete collections.
Then Audiogalaxy happened. I was never on Napster, but I was devoted during the heyday of Audiogalaxy, and the illegal beginnings of the social music scene that dominates popular music now.** I was now downloading music – on dial-up! Remember dial-up? – furiously: stuff people sent me, stuff the website recommended, stuff that completed my collections. A couple of years later mp3 players happened, and I was an early adopter (a Creative kid), having luckily missed those unfortunate MiniDisc players. So now the Album was no longer the focus of my listening: I started that drift into Song-focussed listening, or, rather, the Song as part of the Collection. This is the period, in the overlap between having obsessions with particular groups and exploring obscure music online, in which I bought the most CDs, always buying the artists I loved, occasionally buying something new (but usually testing online first). These were the years when I’d lounge on my bed reading lyrics in insets, looking for messages in Radiohead or Boards of Canada albums, learning all the words, listening to discs on repeat. Music still had a physical element, and, perhaps connected to that, and the money, this was the time when I identified most strongly with what I listened to.
I went to University. I was reinventing myself, and that meant putting some distance between me and the music of my teenage years. I had less money, and that meant I was listening to far more music online. Moving regularly, my music had to be digital, and so the money I did spend was on eMusic. I had less time, so now it really was about the track more than the album. I bought fewer albums, and sought status through having a huge knowledge of obscure alternative music. It was a morning ritual to listen to new tracks on the Hype Machine, filtering the mess for something sweet as I read the news; for more relaxed exploration I’d turn on my Last.fm radio station; in the evenings I’d probably listen to favourites. I discovered hip-hop, and country music. I could genuinely say I listened to something of everything. And I started playing music – in a folk and blues band – which gave me, for the first time, an understanding of what it meant to be a musician, and a respect for the work, the labour. I started thinking about the economics of the music business, and how I should ethically interact with it: how should I support the music I love? For a while I was anti-downloading, but I soon started figuring out a more philosophically subtle stance. I think this was the period when I knew and cared most about music, though a little more coolly than in that past.
Now I’m a young adult, and I’ve lived what most be the biggest change in the music industry since the invention of the LP. The geography of music exploration online includes recommendation services like Last.fm and Pandora, streaming services like Grooveshark and Spotify, and mp3 blogs, dominated by giants like Stereogum and Pitchfork and mediated by aggregators like the essential Hype Machine. The blogs are my biggest source of new music, and when I find a band I like I can be certain that one of those other services will let me hear more, or at least the Google Oracle can help. I spend very little on music, but it’s almost always there. As soon as my partner is stirring, or after 9am, I’ll start playing music – again with the morning ritual of scouring mp3 blogs – and I’ll carry my laptop wherever I am in the house, whether I’m working, cooking, cleaning or socialising. Music has to be there. The one interesting change is that I no longer have an mp3 player, or want one; when the Creative finally died I decided not to keep listening to music that way. For lots of reasons, I prefer having my ears open when I’m out and about, and I have my laptop – a crucial and ever-present cyborg extension – for all the other times.
These days I’m carried less often to the sublime heights to which music took me in adolescence, but I’m accompanied by beauty pretty much all the time. I have a huge, sprawling music collection, jack of all genres and master of none, I’m able to obtain a great group’s entire back catalogue with relative ease, and I’m relentlessly pursuing the new. About 20% of my listening is exploring new stuff, about 60% is listening to everything I’ve downloaded (or favourited on Grooveshark/Spotify) in the last fortnight or so, and the remainder is either listening to my entire collection on repeat, courtesy of Foobar, or occasionally – less than once a day – putting on an old favourite. Overall, in the past decade of actively caring about music, I’ve moved from being awed and passive to being an active consumer and producer, interacting with music on a daily basis, engaging with it on multiple levels. That’s the story of the rise of social media all over,*** the aspects of empowerment as well as the strange new relationship between corporation and customer.
What’s next for me and music? I’m trying to cultivate again that sense I had at university of responsibility towards artists, and I’d like to be obtaining music in a less morally dubious way; I’d like to be able to support artists more. I care more about current trends than I used to, out of cultural interest, because, my identity stronger I no longer have to position myself as anti-fashion and in the world of obscurity. And I’d like to return to something very old, something the Information Revolution has only aided: making mix-tapes again.
A particular song always plays in my head when I think about music, one that I think many think of. Even after this long post I’m not quite sure what the answer to the question is:
But don’t forget the songs
That made you cry
And the songs that saved your life
Yes, you’re older now
And you’re a clever swine
But they were the only ones who ever stood by you
Do you still love me like you used to?
* See this post for a certain about of scepticism regarding internet utopianism, and a recognition that the so-called Information Revolution is a highly class- and culturally-specific sort of revolution; so much so that it may not be a revolution at all: does it actually change power structures in a fundamental way, or does it reinforce them?
** I’ve also always listened too – and played – everything that comes under the banner of “classical” music, but it’s harder to incorporate talking about that, because its social discourse operates so differently.
*** So caveat emptor, maybe I’ve ideologically distorted my memories