Lately I’ve been noticing some weird, Freaky Friday without-the-actual-body-swapping situation going on between my dad and me: we’re essentially switching places in terms of how we listen to music.
My dad used to tell me stories about how important music was to him as a kid. He grew up in the sixties and was basically a hippie (I have this theory that he did so many hallucinogens in the sixties that it permanently affected his communication skills so that they never fully developed past 1969, which would explain why most of his sentences end with the words "man" or "dude" and he still uses terms like "far out.") He’d tell me about going to Woodstock, and watching The Who play "Tommy" as the sun came up behind them. He’d also tell me about his weekly trips downtown to buy a couple of records for just a few dollars.
Now, he talks to me about the internet like it’s some new discovery he just made (yes, this still happens, apparently). A while back he told me about this live recording of the Grateful Dead that he used to have on cassette. He treasured it. He listened to it all the time. And then, one day, he lost it. Nice going, dad.
But the story has a happy conclusion: he found the exact tape on YouTube, which was astounding to him considering how rare it was. He proceeded to make a dozen other similar discoveries on YouTube and Spotify, and now, while he’s working, he listens to whatever he can find online (which, as he’s now figured out, is literally anything he wants). While he used to ask me to burn CD’s for him so he could listen to Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles in his truck, he’s now cut out the middleman (the middleman in this case being me) and listens to whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and he’s incredibly excited about it.
Of course, this story is almost cliche at this point. Other millennials make jokes all the time about how annoying it is to listen to their parents talk about catching up with the latest social media trends and internet fads. However, I’ve never really been bothered by it. I always thought it was funny to hear my dad rant about political arguments he’s gotten into with my uncle on Facebook and listen to his innocent aspirations to fund his art projects on Kickstarter. But when it comes to hearing him talk about listening to music over the internet, I’ve been feeling incredibly unsettled. I’ve been used to having these services on my phone for a long time now, so whenever I hear him talk so excitedly about the immediacy they provide I can only feel like there’s a disconnect between us.
My generation grew up with devices in our pockets that can give us pretty much anything we want for hardly anything at all. For the price of one album a month, you get a subscription to Apple Music and can listen to whatever album you want with a tap of your finger at no extra charge. And then there’s piracy, which is obviously completely free (I’m not endorsing it, I’m just acknowledging the fact that it exists). It’s ridiculously easy to be able to walk around with every piece of music you could ever want in your pocket at all times. In this way, I think that our current culture of instant gratification has taken over the music industry. I can’t imagine how anyone would not be tempted by this ability we all now have to instantly gratify ourselves every second of every day, because I sure am.
My dad, who has been getting into all of this fairly recently, talks about it all so romantically. But there’s nothing romantic about it to me. It’s simply too much of a good thing.
This morning, before I head out to come to Baeble for the day, I put in my earbuds, opened up my music app, and realized that I didn’t want to listen to anything. The motion had just become so natural to me that I didn’t even think about it. In fact, I also realized in that moment that most days I don’t want to listen to music at all anymore. On paper, this shouldn’t make sense. I have all of my favorite music literally in the palm of my hand! Why wouldn’t I want to listen to any of it?
The answer is actually really simply: fatigue. I am so relentlessly fatigued by always listening to music in the background of my life. I’m hesitant to even call it "listening." When I’m walking down the street, or riding the subway, or getting some work done, I’m never really giving all of my attention to the music playing in my headphones. My attention is always split between listening to the music and making sure that I know where I’m going, or what I’m doing, or what I should be doing. Having everything I want in my pocket, for relatively free, has turned me into a poor-excuse for a multitasker: never giving my full attention to any one thing, always feeling the need to do everything at once, and it’s harmed my relationship with music as a result. What’s even worse is how the actual interfaces on our devices are set up. It wasn’t so bad to have an iPod in the early 2000s that was limited to only being able to play music. But now, the devices in our pockets don’t just play music. They have Twitter, Facebook, games, and millions of other apps available for download, all vying for our collective attention in a myriad of ways. And your music app is right next to all of them. So why not browse the web while you’re listening to that new album? Why not play a game at the same time? You can, so why wouldn’t you?
That’s the mentality that’s always nagging at me when I admit to myself that I’m fatigued by it all: You can, so why wouldn’t you? Because of iPhones and streaming services, my experience with listening to music has become less of a relationship with an art form than an instantly gratifying addiction.
Now, you might be saying to yourself that the solution here is simply to discipline myself to listen to less music, but let’s be real: that’s easier said than done, and it’s a problem that that’s now a matter of discipline in our culture at all. But there is something that’s been helping me discipline myself, and it’s admittedly predictable given everything I’ve been talking about: listening to vinyl. It’s another cliche that millennials romanticize vinyl records, but I think it’s a valid romanticization that we need now more than ever.
When musicians like Jack White say that vinyl is the most romantic way to listen to music, I feel like we all get lost in abstract terminology. I think he’s absolutely right, but I also think more people need to understand why it’s so romantic. Obviously, I can only detail my own experiences. I’ve owned a record player for a few years now, and every few weeks I go out and buy myself a record. It’s a little treat for myself, and it’s something I’ve put in place in my life so that I always have something to look forward to. This, in and of itself, has improved my relationship to music immensely. Sure, no matter how we get our music we all still look forward to specific releases from our favorite artists, but does anyone look forward to adding an album that’s already been out for decades to their Spotify library? Of course not, and if they do, that anticipation only lasts for one brief second as they tap "Add to Library." Or at least, that’s my own experience. I simply can’t get excited about having a large virtual collection that only exists on a screen. There’s nothing romantic about it, and it feels like it hardly even exists. But to have to actually go out and spend twenty-five dollars on a record that I can hold in my hands and put on my shelf feels more like something that actually exists in my life.
And that’s another thing: having to actually spend money on each individual record. I’m still in college, so money is tight and I can’t always buy records whenever I want. I have to actually wait. Waiting sucks, but that’s the point. It makes it all the more special when I finally have the album in my collection.
Actually listening to vinyl was frustrating at first, but the little inconveniences that used to frustrate me are now exactly what I love about it. The main thing I’ve noticed is how the inherent characteristics of vinyl records have disciplined me to listen to albums in their entirety, rather than just pick out the songs I like the most whenever I want to listen to them. Technically, I could pick up the needle and skip to the next song, but this is so tedious and ever-so-slightly inaccurate that I never do it. Plus, I don’t feel as tempted to browse the internet when I listen to vinyl. Because I’m not listening to the music on my laptop or my phone, I don’t feel the pressing need to multitask. In fact, I put my devices away when I have a record on, because I worry that using them while the music is playing would betray the whole experience. After all, I didn’t go out and spend twenty-five bucks on this thing just so I could listen to it in the background of a YouTube video. As a result, I sit there totally focused on listening to an entire album.
Then there’s the matter of having to actually take care of your music. You don’t find this with streaming services. With vinyl, I often worry about records skipping, or being covered in dust, or getting scratched. It’s a physical thing that I not only interact with, but also have to be careful with. It’s made me fall in love with music all over again.
...also I think it’s super cool to watch the record spin, but that’s not as important.
However, the point of this piece is not to convince you that you need to start listening to vinyl records. It’s merely an admission of a problem, and my own personal solution to it. Maybe your solution is something entirely different, or maybe you don’t feel fatigued like I do by the overabundance of music in our lives. Regardless, I still think it’s something we should all at least consider now and again, because music is far too special to be taken for granted. We often hear about how these changes in the music industry are helping/hurting the artists, but what about the listeners? What about the music lovers? What about us?