Saturday, July 13, 2013

Freedom of Choice

Hidely ho, neglecterinos! I apologize for my lack of blogifying lately. Lots going on, leaving me with little brainpower by the end of the day. But as I sit here on a sunny afternoon listening to the pristine 180-gram vinyl copy of Black Sabbath's Vol. 4 I just bought (along with Fugazi's In on the Kill Taker and Curtis Mayfield's Superfly soundtrack), it has me thinking about the myriad ways the music listening experience has changed over the years.

Indeed, I was just discussing this last night whilst recording the latest episode(s) of CompCon with the esteemed Jay Breitling (look for the first one early next week). We have so many ways to listen to music and so many things to choose from, yet we rarely do so for the sole reason of listening to music. More often than not, we're listening to music while doing something else: working, exercising, driving, eating, etc.

It's very different from when I was a surly teen, holed up in my room with the door closed and listening to albums over and over while reading the lyric sheet or staring at the cover or gatefold art. Add that to the fact that with only a measly allowance or a minimum-wage paying part-time job, I couldn't afford to buy a ton of music. Thus, I really got to know the albums I had, and I started taping them onto cassettes so I could listen on my Walkman at school or wherever.

Now, of course, there's a ridiculous wealth of choices for the music fan. Most of the music I buy is digital, through Amazon MP3 or occasionally (very occasionally) iTunes. I pretty much never buy CDs anymore, except if I find them on the cheap somewhere, although I'll borrow CDs from our local library and rip them to my hard drive. But the real game changer is Spotify, which is free (if you want to put up with the occasional ad) and lets you stream just about anything; there are still some holdouts who won't let their music onto Spotify, including Led Zeppelin, Sabbath and others. It's a great way to listen to something you might want to buy later, or to just blast a song or album that popped into your head for whatever reason. And if you can't find it on Spotify, there's a good chance it's up on YouTube, where you can find entire albums posted by users, as well rare singles and live videos.

There's almost too much out there, and it leads to a scattershot listening experience for music fans. A little of this, a little of that, but you really have to force yourself to dig into an album if you want to get to know it well. It's comparable to the information overload that Internet users often find themselves experiencing, skimming through news and other stories with little snippets of information and opinion from social media while missing the deeper nuances that are available to them but often ignored because of time constraints or apathy.

At the turn of the century, my Webnoize colleagues and I wrote a lot about this pie-in-the-sky concept of the "celestial jukebox," a Web-enabled device that would allow users to access all music at any time. The device has turned out to be anything Web-enabled, such as smartphones and tablets that were just a pipe dream before high-speed wireless Internet was a reality. Of course, monetizing that jukebox has proven to be a challenge; there are ads and premium subscriptions, but it's far from the massive moneymaker imagined a decade ago.

That still needs to be figured out, but the fact remains the celestial jukebox is a reality. Has it revolutionized the way we listen to music? Definitely. Is it a better experience? That's still up for debate.

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