I’m finding that the trap of Retromania, the ubiquity of nostalgia, the lazy, daily choices we increasingly make in our playlists are contributing to music’s stagnation.
I mostly feel like some of the most exciting music I’ve ever heard is happening right now, but I also can’t rightly defend any of it as particularly new. I’ve always prioritized music that is cutting edge, but I can’t say I’ve really heard any in decades.
He followed this up with a proposed experiment and invitation:
So, I want to see what happens, what I learn if I eschew music that is even slightly old. Even if it means I’m actually just listening to wholly historically derivative music that was made last month.
Instantly I was in. Even though I disagreed that music was stagnating in any way, and I’d been finding plenty of new music I loved, I wanted to take the new new music experience to the extreme. For the month of June, Marc and I agreed we would ONLY listen to music released no more than one year ago (and this could not include re-releases or new releases of old music). There would be exceptions only for listening experiences out of our control (like music piped into grocery stores, public spaces, etc.).
Listen to the JD Moyer episode of Why We Listen.
The first problem I confronted: how would I find this new music? Some I could find by browsing sales charts on sites like Beatport, which have a high turnover rate and rarely include music more than a few months old. But this would only lead me to new electronic music, and part of the idea of the experiment was to expand my musical taste (or at least exposure) into genres I might not otherwise consider.
I hit upon a solution about a week in. While preparing a giant playlist for my birthday party (with a new music theme), I hit up friends and acquaintances on Twitter for their favorite album of the year. I got a 100% response rate — it turns out people love to recommend music. I love to discover and recommend music as well (it’s one reason I co-founded Loöq Records) … it may be a near-universal desire to want to share music that has touched and inspired us.
There are three main ways you can discover new music in this internet age:
- You can rely on algorithms (such as Pandora’s) to lead you to new music based on music you already like.
- You can be a “Knight of the New” (to borrow a phrase from reddit) and actively research new bands and releases (at the record store, on youtube, on music sales sites).
- You can rely on your friends.
Option 1 is the laziest. Option 2 requires time and dedication, and also listening to lots of bad music in order to find the good stuff (not being in love with this process was one reason I gave up DJing). Option 3 is probably still dominant among the <30 crowd, but in my circles and at my age (forty-six) there are more conversations about kids and schools than there are about new tracks and music videos. But I found it wasn’t hard to steer the conversation back in that direction. With a little prompting I received a flood of recommendations — more than I had time to listen to.
Thoughts on Streaming
First digital downloads replaced physical media, and now streaming is replacing a large percentage of downloads. Each wave cut music industry revenues by half or more. Piracy has of course played a role, but the replication/sharing revolution is the main factor.
Nimble players, like my own label, can survive by cutting costs. Vinyl production and shipping were huge expenses, and when we dropped vinyl our profits-per-release shot up. Even though revenue is low, we can keep releasing music we love and make a little money in the process. But I do miss vinyl …
What about the consumer side? Previous to this experiment, my preferred mode of listening to music was still removing a slab of vinyl from its cardboard sleeve, placing it on the Technics 1200, and dropping the needle on the record. Music just sounds best this way. But none of my favorite albums (like Tycho – Awake) had been released in the past year. So I signed up for a 3-month free Spotify trial and jumped into the world of consumer streaming.
It’s amazing what you get for the price of an internet connection and a few cups of coffee. I was able to find 100% of the music recommended to me. It was easy to set up as many playlists as I wanted. Obviously Spotify isn’t the only streaming service but they have a great interface and a huge library. While they may not pay artists as generously as they claim, Spotify is a great deal for the music consumer.
Effects of Only New Music
I listened to so much new music in June that is was overwhelming. I didn’t get to know any of it very well. Of the many recommendations I received, only a few stuck. It’s good that there’s a huge, highly diverse universe of new music, because tastes diverge just as much.
A few albums that will stay in my playlists:
- Fort Romeau – Insides
- D’Angelo – Black Messiah
- Jooris Voorn – Nobody Knows
- Galantis – Pharmacy
- Dan Sherman – Places EP
(The last one is a Loöq Records release, but it earned its place on the short list.)
How does this compare to the amount of new music I usually add to my active playlists (not just my library)? At the most I really fall in love with no more than one new album a month, so it was a big increase. I’m still getting to know the albums above, but they’re all keepers.
Since there wasn’t any discomfort involved in listening to only new music, the month went by quickly. Marc had a similar experience. One month might have been too short of a time for this experiment to feel the full effects.
Overall the experiment was a good kick-in-the-pants to expand my listening horizons.
Enter Marc Kate …
As I mentioned above Marc is the host and producer of the Why We Listen podcast. While the typical format is Marc asking the guest to choose three songs – any three songs, for any reason they like – to share and discuss with him, our episode featured a broader discussion about music centering around the June listening experiment. You can listen to our discussion here, or as soon as it posts on iTunes.
Here’s Marc’s take on New Music June:
We live in a world that is changing rapidly, and music isn’t keeping up. It seems to be content with aping the Beach Boys or combining Afro-Beat with post-punk, or looping Italo-Disco album cuts, or discovering faux genres (Yacht Rock) or any other strategy that has been mined for decades. If I’m sounding cynical, it’s because I am. I’m deeply excited about a lot of music I’m hearing, but deeply disappointed in how conservative it all sounds. Complaining that all new music sounds the same is a tired position to take, but it it has never been truer in my lifetime as it is now. If you disagree, I challenge you to point me to five minutes of music that wasn’t possible or is indistinguishable from music that we could have heard 15 or more years ago.
I was raised believing what Jacques Attali said: that “Music is prophecy.” Music is the weather vane, the barometer and the compass. Through it we can know where we are and where we are going. However, for the past few decades, it seems that music mostly reminds us of where we’ve been.
I started my podcast Why We Listen as an excuse to meet with interesting people to learn about their listening habits and learn how music functions for them relative to how I understand music to function for me.
What I discovered, as I spent so much time immersed in this kind of research, is that music really has stagnated. And I’ve been complicit. My listening habits had stagnated too. I’d become lazy and undemanding, settling for middlebrow delights and not asking to be challenged. Technology has made it easy for us to be collectively conservative. We’re surrounded by the music of our grandparents. Public space is more likely to play music that is 30 years old than anything contemporary, and contemporary music is more likely to sound like music that is 30 years old.
This doesn’t sound like prophecy. It sounds like a history lesson, like we’re trying to describe this chaotic new world with dead languages.
So, inspired by JD Moyer’s ‘lifestyle experiments’ as I think of them, I thought to detoxify for a month. I wanted to do my best to purge vintage sounds from my personal soundtrack and see what that would do to my attitude.
What I discovered is what I already knew:
That there is a lot of really fun new music being made with very traditional goals.
That there are some people out there pushing at the edges of what’s possible. Just little nudges. Nothing revolutionary, but promising gestures of discovery.
That there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that some sort of sonic revolt is waiting around the corner.
But I’m patient. And I’m listening.
I’m more optimistic about the current state of music production than Marc, and we have some good back-and-forth in the podcast (as of writing this I haven’t yet heard it, but Marc promised he’d edit out the bits where I sounded like a complete idiot). If they made the cut, I also shared some of my own experiences and frustrations writing and releasing music that inspires me, but isn’t necessarily targeted at any particular audience or market segment. How does your music find its people? And what if those people don’t exist? Should you change your style, chasing what’s popular? Or just do your own weird thing and hope a few other people will like it? Twenty years writing music music and running a record label and I still can’t give you a good answer to this question. I guess it depends on what your goals are, as an artist.
Marc Kate’s most recent album, mentioned on the podcoast, is File: #08, now available from Computer Tapes. His forthcoming album Failing Forms will be released in November.