How MP3s Made a Music Lover Out of Me

How did a thirty-something woman who’s never touched Kazaa and knows about Napster only through breathless reporting in Wired News join the “online music revolution” — and why does she now listen to three times as much music (and, counterintuitively, spend 10 times as much money buying music) as she did before?

Three years ago I thought I had safely passed out of the new-music-seeking demographic. Britney and the boy bands were everywhere, like used bubblegum stuck to my brain.
Well, I blame They Might Be Giants. And of course there’s the little matter of Apple’s culpability for the iPod to take into account.

Three years ago I thought I had safely passed out of the new-music-seeking demographic. Britney and the boy bands were everywhere, like used bubblegum stuck to my brain. I didn’t think there was any new music out there for me, and had resigned myself to listening mainly to “Greatest Hits” compilations — when I listened to music at all. My music-listening was mainly confined to stabbing at the buttons on the radio when it was pledge-drive time on public radio, trying to find something that didn’t make me feel like stabbing at my ears instead. I hardly ever felt the urge to buy a new CD. I didn’t even read music reviews.

One day, one of the few bands whose new music I sought out, They Might Be Giants, sent me an e-mail newsletter telling me that their new album was available immediately, no waiting, on EMusic.com. Since I’d been buying things on the Internet before they even had SSL, for god’s sake, I ponied up my credit-card number and signed on to EMusic.

Once I downloaded the album, my helpful new Mac G4 automatically fired up iTunes (which I had never opened until that point) to play it. And — there were all these other MP3s, already there! Many of them were songs I actually liked (like “Bobcaygeon”), but that had never had the strength to overcome my natural musical inertia and make me go and buy the CD. Others I had never heard before but fell in love with on first listen (Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms”). I heard the whole list out, deleted most of them (especially the soul-searingly horrible “lite jazz” MP3s), and then played the hell out of what was left.

With EMusic and iTunes, I found myself listening to much more music. I spent a little time every week checking out EMusic for songs from genres that I was intrigued by but had never been motivated enough to seek out on the radio (if they were even played on the radio during my waking hours) or in stores: electronica, rockabilly, alt-country. I’d rip songs from my CD collection whenever they crossed my mind: “Oh, I want to hear ‘Jane Says,’” or “I need ‘Begin Sweet World’ in the office.” I started burning CDs of my own favorite mixes to take with me while traveling. I joined the (now sadly defunct) crabwalk.com mix CD swap club. I swapped mix CDs with friends, and even put a couple mixes I was really satisfied with up on artofthemix.com. But the tipping point for me, as it was for some many other people, was the iPod.

Now I listen to a lot more emo and techno, much more punk and rockabilly, and (slightly) more swing and big band jazz. Sometimes all within the same half-hour. Take that, ClearChannel!
When I first heard about the iPod, I was fairly unmoved. Sure, it was cool as hell, but so were any number of other geektoys I had no immediate desire for, like GPS receivers, or a cellcam, or that golf club with explosives in the face that makes your drive go farther. But a friend evangelized me. “This will change your life,” he said. He put the earbuds into my hands as if they were communion wafers. I was mesmerized; I was converted.

Once I had my iPod, I was unstoppable. Four thousand songs? I became obsessed with building the perfect iPod. (After all, we had the technology.) No longer was I limited to listening to my preferred music only from within a five-foot radius of my G4, or only to what I managed to fit on a CD. Any musical whim could be satisfied, any pointless, silly or purely nostalgic craving instantly sated (yes, cheesy songs from my high school days make up a not insignificant number of my 4000 songs). No longer did I have to make a special effort to carve out time to listen to new music; I could load it on the iPod and listen while walking to (and standing in line in) the post office or, with the assistance of Griffin Tech’s iTrip, over the car radio while driving. Now I listen to a lot more emo and techno, much more punk and rockabilly, and (slightly) more swing and big band jazz. Sometimes all within the same half-hour. Take that, ClearChannel!

With iTunes and the iPod, I was freed not just from the monotony of the radio, but also from the tyranny of the album. I could just listen to my favorite songs in random order, or set up playlists of just the songs I wanted to hear. (I have only found six albums that I can listen to in their entirety with no skipping: Van Morrison’s Moondance, the Pixies’ Doolittle, Beck’s Midnite Vultures, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Paul Simon’s One Trick Pony, and TMBG’s Flood.) Or, much more useful for those long car rides, just the songs that my 3-year-old wanted to hear: “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” “Octopus’s Garden,” “Wonderboy,” “John Lee Supertaster.”

I turned into a consumer, not just of music, but music journalism. I read reviews, ripped out pages and circled bands and songs I thought might be worth looking up on EMusic. A quick glance at allmusic.com’s listing on bands I liked would point me towards other bands with a similar sound or feel. I looked for issues of the New Music Express, especially the ones with the attached free CDs. I noted the recommendations of friends, and even started desultorily reading an online bulletin board devoted to music discussion. I was adding, on average, nearly a hundred songs a month to my iTunes library.

And all this without any Napsterizing, Kazaaing, Limewiring or Soulseeking — without any P2P file sharing at all, besides the old, lo-tech mix-CD swapping or e-mailing a particularly great MP3 back and forth. The RIAA has nothing to fear from me, besides, you know, the complete and utter downfall of the modern music industry.

Because even though I’m not file sharing, I’m not buying or listening to music the way the RIAA thinks I should, either. Why should I buy an entire album when all I want is one song? Why should I buy an album from a major label at all when music that comes more highly recommended by people whose opinions I trust is available for my all-you-can eat price at EMusic?

By buying online I never have to leave the house, and also there’s never the rage engendered by a bricks-and-mortar store that has a display of 10,000 Good Charlotte CDs but not one copy of the Bad Livers’ bluegrass cover of “Lust for Life.”
In fact, EMusic provides the bulk of my music. I pays my money each month (painlessly autobilled to my credit card) and I takes my cherce. The artists and labels, mainly small independent ones, get their money, and I have a simple, easy-to-use interface without any spy- or other malware sneaking in. (Plus there’s that lovely, too-cool-for-school indie rock hipster feeling — bonus!) And — this cannot be underestimated — instant gratification. I hear about a band, I look it up on EMusic, and three minutes later I’m listening to them.

Are there busy months when I can’t seek out more than a song or two? Sure. Do I then resent paying my $9.95 anyway? Nope. Some months I go crazy, downloading hundreds of songs — others, I only download one album. (Of course, if that one album is a masterpiece like the new New Pornographers, well, I got my money’s worth right there.) Would I pay more — as much as cable TV subscription, at least — if I could get any song within reason? Sure. It’s the health-club model of music consumption. I pay whether I show up or not. I can use those MP3s as I wish, too — on any computer, any device, burn them to a gazillion CDs or even never listen to them at all. Take that, DRM!

Of course, there’s plenty of essential music not available on EMusic — Cheap Trick Live at Budokan for one — but I resort to the Internet for that as well. By buying online I never have to leave the house, and also there’s never the rage engendered by a bricks-and-mortar store that has a display of 10,000 Good Charlotte CDs but not one copy of the Bad Livers’ bluegrass cover of “Lust for Life.” So, what I can’t get from EMusic I buy from half.com. If it’s something that would be nice to have but not essential — like Ice Cube and Yo Yo’s “The Bonnie and Clyde Theme” — I’ll buy it used. If it’s something that I really want, like “These Are the Vistas” by The Bad Plus, I’ll buy it new, from one of the many resellers on half.com that buy wholesale and sell for a very small markup — which they can do because they don’t have to pay for overhead on that 10,000 CD display.

Current models of music distribution are deeply flawed: radio is too homogenized, stores are too chaotic and under-diverse, and the media too lockstep, for the most part, to make finding new music to enjoy easy. But MP3s have let me enjoy music again — on my terms, as I want to. I’m more motivated to look at reviews or hear recommendations from friends, because listening to new music or even entire new styles of music is virtually painless. If I don’t like it, I delete it from my iPod. I spend more money on music because I know it won’t be wasted on CDs I won’t like or won’t have time to listen to or that are pointless wastes of electrons except for that one must-have song.

Yes, MP3s made a music lover out of me. I’m never going back to the way I lived before; you can have my iPod when you pry it from my cold dead fingers (and after I set up the perfect playlist for my own funeral, of course). I’m currently scheming to update my G4 to OSX so that I can start using the iTunes store. I’ve moved a lot of my CDs, post-rip, to deep storage, and there’s a thin film of dust on the CD player itself. I may even relinquish my hard-won mostly-thrifted stash of ’80s new-wave LPs to the used-record store (as soon as I find a used CD copy of Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way,” that is) because I’m never going to listen to music the “old way” again. Never.