01 June 2008

What ITunes means to me, or how I spent my winter vacation

As I wrote a few months ago, I began losing interest in new music last year. It was a combination of a few factors: a frustration in the New York scene as a musician, a loss of interest in seeking out live music as venues closed, moved and featured worse sound, plus a merging of the lounge culture with the live music culture. Even at the Bowery Ballroom, where music sounds good, kids sit on the floors with their hair lice and gigantous backpacks and hit on themselves.

On the positive note, I pulled away from the excitement and hype of new music. Tougher than you think. Up until recently, I discovered most of my favorite bands from two sources: publications, and word of mouth. In the late 1980s, I was listening to classic rock and scrubbed metal, but Metallica's Garage Days led me to the Misfits, to hardcore, to punk and finally to indie rock. I subscribed to Rolling Stone when I was 16, and within a year or two they published their list of the best 100 albums, featuring bands I had never heard of or had considered. I bought Murmur, Zen Arcade, Let it Be and London Calling from that list.

In the year-end issue RS asked artists and other people (who I skipped) what they liked that year. This is common practice now, lists of new music, but then it was essential -- everything flew through word of mouth. Michael Stipe named 'Doolittle' by The Pixies was one of his favorite listens, and I snatched it up immediately.

(The guy who gave me a copy of Garage Days gave me some other Misfits songs, and turned me on to Fugazi. Already, I'd heard 6-7 of my favorite ten bands that exist today.)

Back to the present. This year I realized that what I'd heard from those years, and the music I sought out till recently produced enough great finds to last me for a lifetime. When is enough enough? Sure, there is good music out there being made, and I want to find the energy to keep searching for it. But it was time to take stock of what I'd acquired. So I went through my catalog and listen to everything I owned. Well, not entirely true--I listened to everything I felt like listening to. For instance, I've had no interest in hearing a Beatles track from 1962-1964; they're firmly forged into my brain at this point.

And then I hit on why I love ITunes. I could mold into a living, breathing diary and encyclopedia of the music that I love. Imagine if you had a radio show, where you could play anything you wanted all day. The IPod became my perfect radio.

My motivation ran along these lines: there have always been discussions about desert island music picks: If you could only take so much music, what would you bring? So I wanted to build my perfect radio. If I put the IPod on shuffle, I wanted every song to mean something. Gone for me is the album format that proliferated in the 1970s. Unless the album is perfect from start to finish, why do I need to hear the filler tracks?

There's been so much discussion about how digital music, particularly the mp3, and the IPod are no match for vinyl or even compact disc in terms of audio quality. So maybe I'm of the perfect generation, but growing up, I did 80% of my listening on cassette. Bought 'em through Columbia House. Taped albums and songs off the radio. So an mp3 is a fine replacement for a cassette for these ears.

And from January 1st until last weekend, I did just that. I listened to every song I had at least twice, and usually a third time, to make sure every song represented something, a memory, a story, an experience. I listened to 5,500 songs like this, knocked 1,000 off. It was an obsessive, compulsive exercise.

But going through it is like being able to fit every photo from my life into one photo album. Of course I have all my favorite songs from my favorite bands. I have 'Carousel' from the Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris soundtrack, which I used to dance along with like an acid monkey when I was 5. I have a few choice tracks from the first Meat Puppets record, which is one of the most unlistenable records I've ever heard, which is why I used it to send everyone home at parties I threw in college.

And there are definitely songs that I would never even dream of having access too if it weren't for a change in the way music can be compartmentalized in the digital age. I have mp3s from the last Guided by Voices show in New York City ever, where John van Atta gets up on the stage of Irving Plaza, and in a man-hug with lead singer Bob Pollard belts out the drinker's anthem 'Johnny Appleseed' which is going to sound legendary, and at a key point in the song he chokes on his phlegm, gets escorted off stage, and the guy escorting him offstage gets a shout-out from Bob and an ovation from the crowd. I also have an mp3 of my 5-year old niece singing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

I've built my own personal jukebox/radio. You should all be doing the same.


Blogger Tony Alva said...

I've actually thought a lot about your post some time ago about our music collections and the whole accumulation, search for the next big thing, etc...

Since you went dark here at your blog, I've installed a mac in my listening room and the Mrs. and I do a great deal of biz with the evil empire of iTunes. We regularly have friends/family over and let them run roughshod over my humble collection of CD's LP's, cassettes, and now iTunes. My rule is that if I don't have a song in any of those formats that someone is itching to hear, then the guest is instructed to go to iTunes and pull a copy down. kinda leveraging the word of mouth thing as policy (what the fuck, .99 cents right? until I get my Amex bill after a 3AM scotch infused buddy session).

The coolest thing about my iTunes library though is the shuffle feature which I recently discovered after I got a hold of a wireless stereo streaming access point and set up my outdoor faux rock speakers by the pool. I just put the iTunes on shuffle and now we get to hear stuff that I might in my otherwise limited listening time skip over (I heard "Rock Candy" off of the Montrose LP you mentioned your above post this weekend, would've skipped it otherwise).

I still strongly believe in the album concept, but would certainly agree that, while doing nothing but damage to the quality of listening experience from a fidelity perspective, digital music has indeed given birth to new ways to enjoy music overall.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Dfactor said...

Tony Alva wrote...
"The coolest thing about my iTunes library though is the shuffle feature which I recently discovered after I got a hold of a wireless stereo streaming access point and set up my outdoor faux rock speakers by the pool."

OK, get this - last weekend, at a evening wine thing poolside, my wife casually mentions to the host that I've played and recorded music, and they ask names. I provide them, quietly. He reaches for his wireless music gizmo mentioned above streaming the music poolside, finds "Dfactor" on iTunes and starts to rock out one of my songs right there! Flattering and fucking funny at the same time. I suppose I couldn't do that with my vinyl, CD and cassettes collection. Though I did whip out a pretty quick version of "The Addams Family" theme song for my son the other day as he was singing the song's melody to a kid tune called "Days of the Week" (click, click).

But no matter, I still do not own (nor likely ever will) a portable listening device - why? I have 10,000 songs already running through my head at any given time... :-)

5:32 PM  

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