Taking a Wider View On Your Listening Choices
If you take music seriously (and I’m not talking about pinky lifting pretension here)- you can take garage bands or punk as seriously as original Blue Notes, you know your taste. It is seldom dictated by the mainstream trends, marketing, or popular culture of the moment. Sometimes, popular music isn’t just fluff either and can prove enduring as well, see, e.g. “The Letter”.
Chances are, you had some epiphany at some point- probably as a teenager—and recognized that there were certain things you liked, in preference to the music that surrounded you. There was something you identified with- the lyrics, the melody or playing style that had meaning and resonated with you as you matured and developed a worldview. Obviously, those preferences change over time; your tastes change as your perspective on the world evolves and the music around you changes.
Yet there remains something comforting about music from your teen years, probably due to its strong associations with self-discovery. You might still appreciate Zep or the Stones or for a later generation, Metallica, Pearl Jam or Nirvana, but I doubt you limit yourself only to the bands you loved as a “kid.” Yet I don’t discount the power of that time in each of our lives when self-realization coincided with music that helped express or define our feelings. I think that period of our lives stays with us, musically, even if our tastes become more refined, or we become exposed to more, different kinds of music.
But, for many of us we hit a point in our lives where indifference sets in; sometimes, it is the demands of life, the job, the family, and ultimately, the lack of time to spend enjoying music for its own sake. Some lay blame on the quality of the music itself (the “there is no good new music” trope); others focus on how changes in technology have affected how we “relate” to music. No longer do we dedicate time to listening sessions, sitting in front of a home stereo; instead, it’s one of the many streams of “data” that compete for our attention in an overwhelming “information age.”
I recently read an essay someone had linked to from NPR—the premise being that we are suffering from “too much” music delivered and curated by modern technology; in the process, we have lost the ability to fully engage. I think that’s wrong for several reasons.
Are we in a worse place than 45 years ago, when radio and label promotion dictated what was rotated? I know I didn’t depend on the marketing to find music I liked; perhaps people are more passive today, and because music is treated as background for other things, are happy to let Big Data make the selections. But, how is that any different than formatted radio and big label promotion?
The “too many choices” problem always existed. Sorting the wheat from the chaff has always been an issue. Finding a gem in forgotten or overlooked music has always been a process of discovery. And there have always been many casual listeners of music. For the casual listener, a non-interactive service, like Pandora, not only serves up music by band or artist, but its algorithm finds other artists and recordings that meet certain matching criteria. Plug in “B.B.King” and you’ll hear Bukka White, Skip James and a range of other artists who bear some relationship to the initial selection. This is a great way to find new music with virtually no effort on the part of the listener.
Long before the Internet, I was “surfing” music. Find a band or artist you like and look for other of their albums, works by the credited session players, antecedents or artists that tapped into the same vein. In so many ways, the Internet makes such research far easier. There’s no need to go to a library or archive, or even to rely on someone else’s opinion- you can do most of the legwork from your computer.
Ultimately, it isn’t the “collecting” that is important- it is the wealth of choice, along with the research and understanding of the music, its history and context, how it was made and recorded, why one performance or recording is “better” than another. The technology hasn’t foreclosed any of this– it has enhanced it. It all depends on how you use it.
The process of exploration works in almost all directions: from past to present, from modern day music to its antecedents and “laterally” by hearing artists from the same era, mining the same fields, often with remarkably different results.
The music can serve as a gateway to the culture and events of the time and place; it can be enjoyed for its own sake as an art form as well as an historical artifact that reflects its creation, inspiration and influences—in other words, music has context. I can better appreciate some of the psych/electric blues I was listening to as a kid in the late‘60s after having spent more time as an adult learning about the early blues artists and listening to their music. My interest actually got deeper; I not only grew more selective, but also was exposed to a wider range of artists than I was aware of at the time I first started listening to the electric blues.
Many musicians and songwriters are avid students of music history- not as an academic exercise, but as an essential part of learning and refining their art.
Much of this may be beside the point to the casual or even serious listener. It doesn’t take hours combing through books and web articles to appreciate a piece of music, but the more I learn, the more I enjoy what I hear, or at least better understand it. The creative process is an elusive one, and is virtually impossible to explain or understand, even for the creators themselves. Probably even more important than understanding is access and exposure—how do you even know a particular piece or body of music if you haven’t listened it? This has happened to me more times than I’d care to admit. You can’t begin to appreciate something if you’ve never experienced it. (This is the obvious shortcoming of any kind of review- describing a sensory or emotional experience is not the same as experiencing it for yourself).
As listeners, we have a more passive role than musicians, producers or music supervisors, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
Hidden within the complaint about there being no “good” new music is disaffection- you’ve heard it before and the new stuff sounds derivative or it all sounds the same. But there were always fewer innovators and more followers- the music business (and it is first and foremost a business) always depended on trends.
Genres are in some ways an over simplified way of characterizing those trends. And within the popular music of our time- mid to late 20th century-the different shifts- from British Invasion to psych, hard rock to disco, roots-Americana, metal, punk, grunge, alternative and indie rock and hip-hop, all had their trailblazers who broke new ground and popularized a sound that was followed by others- whether inspired or simply driven to cash in on a sound popular in the marketplace. Sometimes the follow-on artists can do it better than the originators, so there’s no shame in that-it’s a refinement of the art rather than mindless imitation of style.
Music is like food– a diet of the same thing at every meal can make the sensory experience unappealing. Trying to recapture the thrill when you first heard a band or piece of music you came to love isn’t likely to happen if you keep following the same musical path.
That’s one of the many reasons that the outliers and obscurities interest me –even if they share some of the same DNA, the same influences and period, some of the more obscure music has a flavor and appeal that isn’t as expected.
To me, the key to recapturing the excitement of those first moments that you heard a band you loved is to seek out new material: new (to you) artists, bands, genres and geographic sources. And, despite the ease with which music can be accessed today, compared to 50 years ago, you have to do a little work. For example, I had little clue about the range of very fresh sounding hard rock from Scandinavia. Some of this stuff is amazing; it is a different take on what we know from the UK and the U.S. Some of these bands are obscure today, but are revelatory and still sound edgy and new.
So, my suggested answer to the rhetorical question “what direction is your music listening taking” is to find some adventure in exploring new paths. It is a cure for ennui; you might not only rekindle the spark of discovery, but also find some new (to you) music that awes and inspires. The reviews posted here reflect just that sort of discovery for me.
 I like the Box Tops version sung by Alex Chilton, but the Joe Cocker rendition was also a huge hit. The Box Tops version clocks in at under 2 minutes!
 The relentless familiarity of classic rock was captured offhand in a 1991 book about assembly line workers in Detroit during the last gasps of Big Auto: Rivethead-Tales from the Assembly Line by Ben Hamper. It describes the line workers toiling like automatons to the beat of the same rock music, every hour, every day. It was the rhythm track that set the tempo of their monotonous work. What did they do after a day at the factory? Crack a brew and fire up some of the same music.
I attempted to reply to this piece but my email to NPR bounced.
 To me, the real genius of Pandora wasn’t just the algorithm but the business model, which conformed to the so-called “sound recording performance complement” in Section 114 of the U.S. Copyright Act. Those provisions enabled statutory licensing of sound recordings provided certain requirements were met, e.g., the playlist wasn’t announced in advance and sequential performance from any one album or artist was limited.
 I’m not sanguine about the “free sharing” of music as a retired copyright lawyer, but that’s a subject for a different day.