I did something yesterday that I hadn't done in almost a year, something that I used to do at least once a week: I bought a compact disc, My Morning Jacket's The Waterfall, to be precise. I'm pretty sure the last CD I bought was Gaslight Anthem's Get Hurt in June of 2014; before that it was The Hold Steady's Teeth Dreams and Bruce Springsteen's High Hopes. (Insert your snarky comments about "dad rock" here.) That's four CDs in the past 15 months or so, though there were a few iTunes album purchases in that stretch. Still, I've bought maybe 10 albums since the beginning of 2014.
From the time I first entered the University of Wisconsin in 1984 until just about a decade ago, Tuesday was my favorite day of the week—new release day! Even during my time as a music journalist, when I'd get plenty of promotional discs for free in themail, there would always be a few I'd need to shell out my own hard-earned cash for.On my lunch break, or sooner if I could get away, I'd make the trek to B-Side Records or The Exclusive Company and pick up as many new discs as my paycheck would allow.
Even after I'd discovered file-sharing services like Napster, Limewire, and Bearshare, I'd still sink plenty of cash into my music collection, which I approached not as a leisure expense but more like a utility. I'd no sooner have bypassed electricity or water than I would the new R.E.M. or Drive-By Truckers album. In fact, given the choice, I'd put off paying the utility bills, which may explain why the electricity got shut off that one time in 2000.
By 2002, Napster was gone, and legal digital music services were popping up. Between iTunes and eMusic—which for a glorious stretch offered unlimited downloads for less than $10 a month—I paid for plenty of downloads (and blank CDs on which to burn them for listening in the car and on the home stereo), in addition to my weekly CD purchases. By 2005 or so, I had run out of room for my CDs, so I got rid of all the jewel boxes and started storing them in plastic sleeves. In 2010, I paid someone to digitize my CD collection, and started listening almost exclusively through the computer, sometimes streaming from it to the components in the living room or kitchen. But I was still buying albums.
That all came to an end when Spotify came to the U.S. in 2011. Not quite the "celestial jukebox" that Napster was, it still offered access to just about everything I had on CD, as well as much more that I'd never purchased. At $10 a month for the premium membership, which allows me to download up to 3,333 songs for offline listening on my iPhone, it'sa steal.
But I can't help but feeling like digitization and streaming services like Spotify have cost me something. With everything available at my fingertips, I find I'm less emotionally invested in music than I've ever been. I don't listen to music all day like I used to, something I attribute to both listener fatigue that comes from compressed digital audio (I'm no audiophile, but everything I've read about ear fatigue and compressed audio rings true, or maybe I'm just looking for a fall guy) and the fact that music (at least with lyrics) distracts me from my work. And spending time on Spotify is only slightly less potentially distracting than spending time on YouTube, where one song makes me think of another, which I sometimes jump to without even finishing the first. I often have to force myself to listen to a complete album from first song to last.
I'm not discounting two very important, non-digital factors: First, I'm almost 50, long past the age when lots of folks simply stop listening to as much music as they once did. But I'd never simply been a casual music listener, and if you'd told me 10 years ago that I wouldn't be listening to much music now, I'd have laughed at you.
Second, I've got two young children, so I've got less time to listen to what I want to, though that's offset by the fact that I listen to a lot of "their music" and find myself appreciating stuff that I previously might have never given a chance. But the money that once would have certainly gone toward CDs is now going towards the latest Pixar release or, you know, food.
Some people claim that streaming services devalue music by making so much of it—just about everything, for all intents and purposes—freely available. I'm not sure I buy that. I don't think that unfettered access automatically makes for reduced appreciation.I've certainly listened to a wider variety of music, both new and old, than before I started using Spotify. And I certainly never felt like radio devalues music, and I will say that there's nothing quite like the thrill of encountering a new song on the radio and feeling, if only for a few minutes, like it might be the best thing you've ever heard; Paramore's "Ain't It Fun" had that effect on me when I first heard it in an airport shuttle in New York.
(Streaming services certainly further devalue the labor of the artists they play, but that's just a matter of degree. The big record labels have always screwed artists; it's just worse now than ever before. But that's a different topic.)
So what's the problem? Age? Kids? The nature of streaming services? Ear fatigue? Am I doing all of these mental gymnastics to avoid blaming the music itself? The last album I bought that grabbed me by the shirt collar and wouldn't let go was Frank Turner's England Keep My Bones, which I listened to incessantly from the moment I popped it into my car's system. As I wrote at the time, "it seemed like forever since a rock album shook me by the shoulders and said 'This is what it's all about'."
Actually, that's not true. Since I wrote the paragraph above (I've been working on this blog post for more than a week), I've spent more time with James McMurtry's Complicated Game, and in that time I've confirmed my initial reaction to the album: It's the best thing he's ever done, with stories and songs that are rich and nuanced and complex, execeptionally so, even by McMurtry's standards. (My friend Kevin Lynch wrote the definitive review of the album on his "Culture Currents" blog.)
Complicated Game came out in February, and I listened to it a few times before I saw McMurtry perform a wonderful acoustic set at the Continental Club's Gallery in Austin in March, but it wasn't until the last week that I've been able to spend time absorbing the album. And it took repeated listenings for the characters—like the soldier who comes home in "South Dakota" only to find a world that's, in its own way, as desolate and hopeless as the one he left behind—to reveal themselves fully, and for the understated beauty of the songs to insinuate themselves into my consciousness. (For instance, it wasn't until the ninth or tenth listen that the doo-wop chorus at the end of "She Loves Me" bubbled to the surface.)
Maybe it's as simple as that: While some songs (like Complicated Game's "How'm I Gonna Find You Now" or "Copper Canteen") come to you, others demand that you come to them. Perhaps I've been asking too much of the music, without doing the work that sometimes the music asks of me—an investment of time, the effort to meet the music in conversation, and the willingness to set aside distractions and give the music the attention it deserves. The delivery mechanism—CD, streaming, vinyl, radio—doesn't really matter, as long as the receiving mechanism is fully engaged.
(Photo by the author)