A poor and wretched boy

May 1st, 2011

The other day one of my favorite songs came up on shuffle and I could only remember about half the lyrics. It was “The Chimbley Sweep” by The Decemberists, a fun Dickensian ditty about an orphaned chimney sweep who gets propositioned by a widow. The worst part is I’m not even sure I ever knew all the lyrics.

As I get older I’m starting to notice limits to what I can remember. It’s not that there is a limit to space in my mind (I’m convinced that the brain is malleable enough to store vast amounts of knowledge when needed), but that I’m exposing myself to so much incoming data that I’m letting too much get forgotten. And with music there’s a particular impasse: do I hold onto my cherished favorite tunes or do I relentlessly search for new ones?

Many people give up by my age. They hold onto the songs of their teenage or college years and barely notice anything new except to deride the sorry state of music (the kids keep putting out shittier music, apparently). I know a few who even fill their iPods with music no older than Haddaway’s “What is Love.”

This is somewhat understandable. Music is an emotional medium. We attach memories and feelings to songs regardless of whether the actual song is happy or not.* For me, my comfort music is early-90s pop and alternative (even Haddaway). I also have deep attachment to mid-60s pop because it was my obsession during my teenage years thanks to stumbling onto The Beatles just as I began listening to what I was hearing. When I retreat to heal mental wounds, these are what I retreat to for soothing.

At the same time I fall into the other camp, the new music obsessives. The ones who are always searching for a new experience. There’s a moment with some songs, just after hearing it once or twice, before you have every part memorized, ¬†and you play the song again and there’s this feeling of bliss (or melancholia, sometimes the feeling of sadness or nostalgia is just as strong). And then you play the song to death; but like a hard drug its effect diminishes over time, encouraging continuous pursuit of music that makes you high. There’s even scientific proof that I’m not the only one who feels euphoria with music.

This second group is where music lovers start but eventually age and memory slow down the rate of absorption…sometimes. It used to be there rate of new music being produced was low enough that one could go an entire life in pursuit of new music. Diehard fans like John Peel could pull this off when the barrier to releasing music was still high.

Nowadays it’s almost like there’s more musicians than listeners and more genres than words in a dictionary. And the technology that makes it easier to find music…makes it easier to find music and it’s a whole new form of information overload. My Amazon wishlist – one that consists of only music, has 372 items of albums and tracks, and even if I bought them all I doubt I’d listen to every minute of every recording.

So there’s the songs I already know and enjoy, songs I love but haven’t heard enough (like “Chimbley Sweep”) and songs I haven’t heard but may like just as much. And the latter group can be split into songs that have already been released and I may know about, and songs just being released but I just don’t have the time to process yet. Sometimes this means months or even years go by before I get to great songs that everyone else has played to death.

As a result I have an grotesquely complex system for managing my music:

  1. My iTunes library, which has 21,160 tracks, 1,220 of which have a play count of 0.
    1. Playlists of newly downloaded tracks for absorption sorted by year and month,
    2. A favorite songs playlist,
    3. And about 19,000 songs I haven’t heard in over a year.
  2. Channels for finding new music:
    1. Satellite radio
    2. Friend recommendations
    3. Music posted to Tumblr
    4. Bookmarks of music videos on YouTube
  3. Rdio for listening to whole albums or tracks again to make sure they are good, with several dozen albums and tracks queued up
  4. Three Amazon wishlists for music (regular music, showtunes, and comedy albums)

Last.fm used to be in that mix, both for finding new music and for rediscovering tracks I’ve already heard. But I got rid of that for different reasons.**

In case you haven’t noticed, this is an absurd situation. And probably very familiar.

As part of a larger effort to curb my time wasted on sorting the information that comes my way every day, I’ve instituted a few changes:

  • Canceling my Rdio subscription (this was partly a “why the hell am I paying for this?” decision). It was nice to have the opportunity to listen to whole tracks before purchase but it required yet more time to listen to new music. I may go back later after I’ve reacquainted with my existing library.
  • When I had Rdio I would listen to music there and then mark music I really liked as “High Priority” on my Amazon wishlist. So now I removed all but those high priority tracks. And from no on only music that I respond strongly to gets added.
  • In addition to my favorite songs playlist, I also have a “Songs to Sing” list for songs I want to memorize. I also have a heavy rotation list where I dump music I listen to regularly, and a smart playlist that pulls up highly-rated tracks that haven’t been listened to in over a year.
  • More confidence that I’ll still hear great new music through merely paying attention and the acceptance that I won’t get to hear everything and that’s okay.
  • I deleted half of my iTunes library.

Okay that last one isn’t true. The cost of storing the music is far lower than the convenience of having all that music to listen whenever I want.

No matter what happens, music will always play a major role in my life. Most of my waking life will be filled with its sweet sounds, and my job is to be open to new experiences and cherish my favorites – without going insane.

* For many years I thought Blind Melon’s “No Rain” was a happy song, and it made me happy, until I heard the lyrics. And Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” has such an uppity beat it still puts me in a good mood despite being about a new marriage already falling apart.
** As much as I loved going through statistics of my listening habits, Last.fm only offered cursory opportunities for me to find new music. It might just be how my brain works, but I only occasionally found new music because of the site’s ability to match my listening habits with my friends (Andy McKee’s Art of Motion and Ratatat comes to mind). But that wasn’t why I stopped using the site. It was taxing my attention – I was worrying about things like what music was showing up for my friends to see and what that might say about me to others. I tried to just not care but I couldn’t help massaging the data to improve my image, never mind the likelihood that no one cared anyway. So I deleted all my data and stopped tracking my listening. While I occasionally wish I could go through that data, the freedom to not care is more beneficial.

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