On the Disposable Nature of Music

I’ve talked before about how I read voraciously, deep-diving into all-consuming worlds that supplant my reality for days and weeks and months at a time.

As a child I spent most of the years between eight and fourteen in bed, books wedged against pillows to hold them in a comfortable reading position. My parents supported my reading addiction by carting around boxes and boxes of books from house to house, country to country, every time we moved. Each summer I’d read through everything on my shelves, then immediately read through them again. I’d borrow a book from a friend and read through it that night, then call them the next day asking for something new. On camping trips our family would cart around bags of books, mainly for me and Mum and Dad. My brother would be out fishing. So from an early age reading has been an addiction of sorts, and I know that when I start a good book, everything else in my life will suffer until its finished. That’s how I read all seven Harry Potter books in one seven day spell, shuffling around various positions in a one bedroom apartment to find comfort. This is not meant as a point of bravado but merely a demonstration of how poor my ability is to multi-task when I have a book in hand.

To counter this addiction I have to swear myself off books completely when I have something else important going on in my life. Through my uni years I would read only during summer holidays, for if I started a book during term-time I would give up practice, give up assignments, give up lectures until it was done. For the last ten years I’ve read voraciously over very small chunks of time, then put the books away until the next brief period where I know I can be lost to the world.

One would assume that in a period of global pandemic, book-addicted me would be in his element, and while the first week or two of lockdown were incredibly book-productive, the last month has seen me lost in a world of practice and video-editing.

I still have a stack of books that I’ve put on the ‘later’ pile for years, and I made the mistake of opening one of them on the weekend. Now I’m knee-deep into Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free, reliving my childhood in a way I totally I hadn’t expected.

How Music Got Free is an examination of the mp3, and the early days of digital music. In its process it delves into Napster, looks at the start of downloadable music, and talks about the original pirates of music. I had this funny realisation that despite the fact I spent my formative teenage years in the technological ‘blackhole’ of early 2000s Middle East, I somehow lived all the scenarios discussed in the book (although possible a couple of years later than most). We had a modem that squeaked and squawked its way into life, that cut itself off when someone picked up the other phone line, that haphazardly stopped at inopportune moments. I had the experience of cuing up an mp3 to download (thank you mp3.com), and then spending either four hours sitting and watching it tick away, kilobyte by kilobyte, or leaving it to click overnight and hoping when I woke up in the morning that a) the song would have downloaded and b) that the song was actually what claimed to be. Ah the experience of waiting eight hours for the hot new Three Doors Down single and discovering you’d inadvertently downloaded three minutes of Russian gibberish. My friends and I had folders of burnt CDs, neatly labelled in marker and we’d excitedly await the new Dogwood album as it would move from hand to hand through our friendship group over a period of weeks.

I’ve been exploring my own listening habits of late and questioning aspects of it. I haven’t gotten on the Spotify train. I have a ‘free’ account, but I predominantly listen to music via Youtube (mainly in the form of live videos) or via a sixty gb USB in my car that covers everything from 1930s Django Reinhardt to Fourtet to The National. I love albums. I love listening to one artist for an extended period of time. I love playing an album that I love, over and over and over, until the friends who get into my car go ‘oh you’re still listening to this hey?’. I think the joy I get out of music is in the familiar, in the chord that feels like home (thank you Punch Brothers), or the vocal line that is so so predictable because you’ve listened to it a thousand times and yet you still love it. I have this collection of albums that I’ve listened to over and over, beyond the point of familiarity and into something else entirely. But at some point, each of these albums gets supplanted by something new. I’m not sure how the process works, it’s obviously a gradual thing, but I can almost mark the years by the music I was listening to at the time. 2019 was a Gregory Alan Isakov year and the start of a Fleet Foxes phase that soared its way into 2020. 2018 was The Tallest Man on Earth, and Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle. 2010-2014 were the ‘jazz years’, mainly an exploration of Brad Mehldau’s Art of The Trio (in conjunction with my Honours thesis), with a little Kanye thrown in. 2008 was a combination Missy Higgins, John Butler and Dave Matthews phase etc.

Within each of these periods there are other artists and albums and songs of course. But I function best in repetition: pulling something apart, putting it on in the background, wearing the grooves in the record so to speak. But I’m interested in the ‘why’ of it. I understand why I want to play something over and over, familiarity breeds joy in this case (to bastardize the idiom). I understand why the keys part at the start of Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place, feels like happiness to me. It takes me back to that time and that place, and I can put it on now and be pulled emotionally back to that year.

But why do these albums get supplanted by something new? And where does the new thing come from? I had this realisation recently that you can’t make someone like a piece of music. In fact, invariably playing a piece of music to someone is a sure-fire way to disappoint yourself. No-one ever quite gets it how you get it, and when my friend Steve plays me something, my first reaction is always ‘oh this is nice’. At some point something happens and that song returns: pops up in a Youtube playlist, or plays in his car when I hop in, or appears in the background somewhere, and I find some little tendril in it that I enjoy. And then I play it again, pulling out another thread, and then again and again and again and now I’m lost in a new artist or album or song.

I vaguely get how the process occurs, but I’m still not sure why. Is this the ineffable nature of art?

I guess to pre-empt the question on why I called this post ‘on the disposable nature of music’. It feels a little silly to discuss the state of music without briefly touching on Daniel Ek’s (Spotify CEO) recent comments on artist workflow. His suggestion that artists can’t release an album every three to four years and expect that to be a career rings true. I get it. The average punter needs a constant flow of new dopamine hits, spaced out every six weeks. These are the people who are buying our tickets and our tshirts, and to cater to them in a post record label world we need to be drip feeding new content, keeping them keen, then hitting them with something to buy. Great. I get it.

But this discounts the way I love music. I love Gregory Alan Isakov’s The Weatherman album as an album. I want to put the whole thing on and live in it for an hour. Sure, I can put on Saint Valentine and enjoy 3:10 of perfection. But when its over I want more. I want that universe. I want to be in and around it, and the most sensible way to do that is to listen to the next track, and follow it up with the third track and so on, skipping the twelfth track cause I’ve never liked that one. This is the way I consume music, and the way I want to consume music. Hence why Spotify’s ‘one single at a time’ approach has never made sense to me, but watching an hour long live performance on Youtube is perfection.

My hot take away is that in the reversion to ‘single-release-world’, which is where recorded music started out back when we invented the methods to record music, we’ve lost out on the joy of the extended universe. The world went from ‘I’ll watch this man play guitar and sing for an hour’ to ‘I’ll listen to the hot new Buddy Holly single on the radio’ to ‘the Beatles created Sergeant Peppers and I can live in it for forty minutes’ to ‘I’ll listen to this one song as part of a playlist that the algorithm thinks I’ll like cause I’m a middle-aged white male’.

I’ve got a friend who was Triple J famous, back about fifteen years ago. His band scored a high rotation slot and their song was pumped out to millions of 18-25 year olds, for a three month period. It made their career. They went from playing half empty 100 capacity rooms to selling out 250 capacity rooms, literally in the space of four weeks. But they found the audience was full of fickle young things, clamouring for the single. They’d play the song two thirds of the way through the set and people would leave. People had the dopamine hit sing-along they wanted, they had the fifteen second instagram grab and they were outta there. Was it because the rest of the band’s set wasn’t that good? Or because the audience wasn’t familiar with it, hence they couldn’t grasp onto it?

My worry is that with the disposability of music in 2020 we’re losing the extended universe.

Final note. I’ve spent the last month making a bunch of videos. It’s just three versions of me, playing a song together. With a little tricky camera work I’ve made it look like all three of me are in the room together. Would love it if you watch it (on a sidenote, how do you feel about clickbait headlines)?

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