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The Lost Art of Listening, Part 1: Ubiquity & Scarcity

A few weeks ago, my seventeen-year-old daughter Skye told me she wanted to take a walk and listen to a complete album, top-to-bottom. She said she was tired of listening to singles, and, though she spins full records all the time, wanted to experience an artist’s work in an intentional way. To my great pleasure, she asked what she should listen to.

I stood up in the garden where I was weeding and told her the first album that popped into my head: Josh Ritter’s So Runs the World Away. (I wrote about what a revelation that record was to me here in the Rabbit Room a few years back.) She came back about an hour later and we talked about the songs—most of which she had heard, though they had most likely been cherry-picked in a playlist or played in the background at our house. It’s a different thing altogether to sit and listen to a full record, each song a part of a larger opus.

Now, if a member of Generation Z is telling me she’s growing weary of singles, something must be up. I’ve been thinking that for years, but I can be sort of a curmudgeon when it comes to music. Granted, Skye is a singer/songwriter, a musician, and has grown up in a musical home—but the fact that she arrived at that conclusion on her own makes me wonder if she’s not alone.

Spotify has not only changed the way we listen to music, it’s changed our relationship to it. My feelings toward Spotify are complicated, because I railed against it when it first arrived. (For our purposes, I’m referring to Spotify, Apple Music, and any other similar streaming platform.) Friends in Sweden, where it started, told me in so many words, “You can fight it all you want, but this is the future of music.” Well, I fought it all I wanted, and it was still the future of music. My record label also saw it before I did, and pushed me to release my albums there for years before I finally conceded defeat. I’ve made my peace with it, honest.

(And now for a small rant: I still maintain that if there were two tiny tweaks to the platform, things would be so much better. First, there should be a paywall after, say, the third listen of a song. If you’ve listened to a song thrice, I’d say it’s time you paid a dollar to the people who made it. The best argument for Spotify is that it’s a great way to discover music. I totally agree. But after three listens, I think it’s safe to say that you’ve discovered it, right? Easy. Now support the folks who made it.

Second, why not treat new music like new movies? Nobody expects brand-new movies to be free on Netflix on the opening weekend (quarantine anomalies notwithstanding). If you want to see the new Star Wars, then you go pay the ten bucks and watch it in the theater. If you don’t want to do that, you can wait a few months and watch it at home. This is how movies are funded. If you want the new Coldplay record when it comes out, just buy it—or wait a few months and then listen on Spotify. I realize it’s too late for this tweak, because the philosophy of the model is entrenched. The bird has flown. But my first point is doable. And I also realize it’ll never happen.

As a side note, a third grievance is the death of liner notes. Why on earth don’t Spotify and iTunes have a “credits” link on every album so people can see who played what, who produced it, where it was recorded, who got thanked, etc.? It would be so easy, and it would draw attention to the many, many people who help make the music we love.

Here ends the rant.)

Ubiquity makes us giants, and puts the world at our fingertips; scarcity makes us small enough to see that the little things are vast. Andrew Peterson

My hunch is that the combination of 1) the quick and easy thrill of being able to listen to anything you want whenever you want and 2) the glut of new music at our fingertips, has sucked some of the enjoyment out of the listening experience. This is really about scarcity versus ubiquity. False dichotomies are a pet peeve of mine, so I’m not saying that old is always better or that new is always better (though I’ll admit I tend to err on the side of the former). But I am suggesting that the above combination of on-demand music coupled with millions of options is causing us to drift away from something really wonderful and enriching, and to drift toward something that’s wearing us out (evidenced in Skye’s desire to sink into an album for a change).

When I was a kid, we didn’t have much money. That meant it was a big deal if I saved the ten bucks to buy a tape at Turtle’s Music in Gainesville. When I got home I would smell the cassette, unfold the booklet, and read the tiny liner notes while I listened. I would treat the tape like it was a rare jewel. I had to think twice before I lent it to someone, and I always made sure I got it back when they were finished. The cassette was a treasure. When I rode in my buddy Joe’s 280 ZX I would drool all over the tapes in his Case Logic case and beg him to lend me the newest Tom Petty album. He had to think about it hard, because if he did, it meant he couldn’t listen to it in the meantime. He would miss it, pine for it, until I gave it back.

Not only was the artifact itself a treasure, it wasn’t easy to skip songs—which meant you discovered buried treasures within the treasure. You had to suffer through songs you didn’t like in order to get to the ones you did, giving the B-sides time to grow on you, with the happy result that they became favorites. Nowadays, if I don’t like a song it’s really easy to remove it from a playlist and never give it another shot, and I’m certain that by doing so I’m missing out on some great music.

This came up recently in a Rabbit Room meeting. I was talking to Chris Thiessen, who reviews a lot of albums, and asked him how he knows an album well enough to review it if it just came out. To my great relief, he said he tries to listen to a record from front to back at least five times before he writes about it. That’s a good discipline, especially if it’s a bad record. I honestly don’t know how reviewers do it. But I’d argue that even five academic listens in one weekend is nothing to what it’s like to live with a record for a few months because it’s the only thing in your car. A few examples are in order.

1. Counting Crows. Their first record is a masterpiece. A game-changer. One of the great albums of all time, in my not-so-humble opinion. The second album, Recovering the Satellites is grittier, rockier, and takes some time. I honestly didn’t like it at first. But I kept listening, because I was a fan. After a few months it grew on me more and more, and now I’d argue that it was the perfect follow up to that perfect first record.

2. Rich Mullins. A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. Honestly wasn’t sure about it at first. I liked a few songs, but didn’t get it. Then one day, after a few months, I realized it was magnificent. His last album, Brother’s Keeper is another example. A lot of people don’t like it, but I think it’s wonderful, and it’s because I let it steep.

3. Bob Dylan. Blood on the Tracks. A classic, recommended to me by Randall Goodgame. It was my first real listen to Dylan, and it took about eleven listens.

4. Alison Krauss and Union Station. So Long, So Wrong. Truly a masterpiece of an album. But in the late-nineties I didn’t think I liked country or bluegrass. Boy, was I wrong. And it took driving around America with Gabe Scott for a few years to realize it.

My point is this: if I made a list of my very favorite albums of all time, I’m pretty sure most of them cost me some time and effort before they really clicked. The key was the scarcity. The fact that the CD or tape lived in my car and I didn’t have the world at my fingertips meant that I gave the songs time to unfold themselves to me, to surprise me, to shift the tectonic plates of my taste and understanding enough that the next time I looked out the window I could tell the landscape had subtly broadened. The time spent with the music was the key that unlocked it—and the music, in turn, was the key that unlocked something in me. None of that would have happened if I had bumped up against a difficult song and merely skipped it or removed it from the playlist. Back then, the interface made it a little more difficult to banish a song into outer darkness. But now, the path of least resistance is to make a knee-jerk decision about a song and never revisit it, or to mean to go back and listen again but forget because eighty-five new albums came out today.

So rather than peddling a false dichotomy, I suggest meeting somewhere in the middle. If you’re a fogey like me, it’s good to remember that old is not necessarily better. I absolutely love the fact that my kids love music. They’re always discovering new stuff. Folks, I’m here to tell you that there’s some wonderful music being made today, by people half your age. Some of the stuff my kids like is tough for me at first, but by paying attention and giving it time I not only honor my progeny and get to know them better, I get to put my money where my mouth is and do the work of learning to like something new. (PSA: if your kids are playing an album loud enough for you to hear, chances are they want you to like it. They might be telling you something about their hearts.)

On the other hand, it’s good to submit to some self-imposed limits. Rather than Pandora, or a playlist, try what Skye did and commit to one record, front to back. Put it on repeat. Don’t let yourself skip anything. Sink in. Take my word for it: the artist worked hard deciding what order the songs should be in, and dreams of listeners experiencing it as a whole. My best argument for scarcity is this: for years our family vacations have been marked by one or two albums on repeat. When we went out west, it was Riders in the Sky.

A few summers ago it was the second Colony House album. Another it was Coldplay’s Viva la Vida. By choosing our “vacation album,” we’re imprinting those songs with that memory of that place. A record can be a cloud storage drive for a memory. It’s just floating out there, and when the right music plays it downloads like a bolt of lightning. To this day, when Riders in the Sky’s Silver Jubilee record comes on I’m in Yellowstone National Park and a herd of memories stampedes through my mind.

There’s a lot to be said for ubiquity. I sure am glad I can find a song I want to hear in a few clicks. Indeed, Paul Simon, these are the days of miracle and wonder. But scarcity can be like fertilizer for your soul. Slowing down enough to savor one thing for a long time can teach you to enjoy everything a little more. Ubiquity makes us giants, and puts the world at our fingertips; scarcity makes us small enough to see that the little things are vast.


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