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?
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
|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!
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.”
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
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?
In fact, EMusic provides the bulk of my music.
I pays my money each month (painlessly autobilled to my credit card) and
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.
|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.”
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!
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
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
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
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
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.