Over the past few years, I've been making an effort to become a better listener. In practice, this has meant taking more time with fewer recordings, being patient with ones I didn't get immediately, and aggressively filtering out hype by actively avoiding review sites and people raving about things released yesterday – or next week (ahem).
Circumstances have also meant that a lot of this listening has been done on my mp3 player, which is a hand-me-down from my friend Dave S that he donated after mine was incinerated in that pesky little bushfire that nearly killed me, back in early 2009. Dave gave me his player mostly because he's a nice guy. Hi Dave. But the headphone jack was slightly busted, which is the main reason why he'd replaced said pod with a smaller, lighter flash drive version. I had my hand-me-down repaired for about sixty bucks, and it serves me well enough to this day.
I can't say I love my mp3 player, really – does anyone? It works, but I don't identify with it or through it, the way some people do with their iPhones (that Siri thing is especially creepy). I can't say I love my mp3s, either. Is it even possible to really love files?
Still, I'd be fucked without mp3, my hand-me-down player, and the internet, music wise. Being a PhD student and living in Australia means that I can't afford to satisfy my appetite for new music with the physical objects, especially vinyl, that I so prefer. I still buy vinyl, but only sure things that I've already had for months on file, in big orders, to cut down on shipping costs. Net effect? I am almost completely dependent on mp3. Quite the full-blown user. I slam that shit right directly into my pod; streaming is for pussies.
Facilitating this habit in an acceptably ethical way means that increasingly I rely on friends of mine sending me sendspace links to their copies, and I do likewise when I've got something new, as well as taking full advantage of soundcloud, and listening to a lot of podcasts. I'm right back where I was in high school: one of us would fork out for the CD, after which we'd fill all reasonable requests for a cassette copy, knowing that our friends would do likewise for us when it was their turn to take the hit on the CD (at a time when 30 bucks was an obscene amount of money). The rest was all radio, which I'd also tape. In quantitative terms, my biggest 90s music spend was on TDK AD cassettes and a series of Walkmen. I listened to my tapes a while back, on a 4 battery 80s Walkman (one of the early 80s models with the double jack) in good nick that I picked up in an op shop; the tapes now sound like shit, but they're easy on the ears. You can listen to their muddy renditions of your faves for hours and hours and hours. They make mp3 sound pretty good.
The combined effects of my efforts at better listening and my mp3 dependency have had interesting effects. I listen to things a lot more. Not just more closely, with undivided attention (which is the ultimate scarce resource in the age of the iCon), but more often. The play count bar, which I activated in iTunes a while back, indicates that I've listened to John Maus' Pitiless Censors... 20 times, Peaking Lights' 936 19 times, and the Menahan Street Band 13 times. This is more than you'd think. In fact, since activating the play count, I also learnt that I've only listened to some albums (I purport to know and understand) three to five times. Which is kinda rubbish, no? The fact that I have a 30 gig mp3 player and prefer 320 or lossless, in tandem with my listening policy, also means that I continually prune the shit out of my collection. If it's NQR, it doesn't last long. But on the other hand, if I've so much of an inkling that a recording has something amazing or exceptional about it (or if a person I trust insists it has), I persist with it. Thus Destroyer's Kaputt stayed on board for months, even though I thought it was a bit naff at first, based on silent ssg DW's rave. Now I fucking love it. As hardwax would say: tip!!! Just had to sit with it for a while, until it clicked into focus with my mood. See? If you're careful about what and how you use what you use, you can learn: not just about the music, but about yourself and the way listening works its way in to you. Give it a go. But then a little something happened...
Anyone who's come within five feet of me this year has heard me gab on about John Maus, Tim Hecker, and Kangding Ray. My wife's father has been on the receiving end of some of these gushes. He's a muso and a boomer and a recorded music aficionado; that rare beast, a man in late middle age who is still actively seeking out, and genuinely open to, new sounds. He's also picky, and will often surprise me by liking things I hadn't expected, and hating things I was sure he'd dig. It turns buying presents challenging, nerve-wracking fun.
I went into a record store - a real, physical record store - to get him the John Maus for his birthday after pump-priming him with a superenthused rant about it, and (seduced by the cover yet again), I also bought him Winged Victory for the Sullen – Christmas sorted. I hadn't bought CDs for years. It felt... weird. I don't dig CDs as objects. Ugly data carriers in cheap plastic cases. Well, the discs themselves were cool when they came out. Frickin' laser beams. So 90s. But, you know, in 2011 in Melbourne, a city where a pint of beer costs ten bucks (USD 10; 6.3 GBP; 7.5 Euro, at least for the next few days) and a burger in a pub costs 19, 25 spaceclams isn't really that much to pay for a CD.
So I pedalled home with the CDs, and cheekily (is it okay to play a gift before you give it?) I fired up Winged Victory, which I've been listening to it very closely on the phones and over the speakers at various volumes for the past few weeks. But on CD? Holy shit balls. Holy fuck. What the fuck was I thinking? Who the hell was I kidding? The CD sounded about 30% better than the mp3. An instant and expensive revelation... I had got so wrapped up in mp3 – by habit, by circumstance, and by active practice – that I straight up jilted myself out of the music. I mean: with mp3, it was all there, all audible, but by comparison it is just manifestly lacking in punch, vitality, body. The CD was just in every way a more visceral, engaging experience. So: if, like me, you are mp3 dependent and think you have heard all your favourite recordings have to give, you are jerking your jack (and not only when you wiggle it 'cos it's crackling).
It made me think of this quote from RA's interview with Ben Frost:
I read this interview today between Nico [Muhly, labelmate on Bedroom Community] and Jonsi [Birgisson, lead singer of Sigur Ros] talking about [Jonsi's new album] Go, where Jonsi was saying he limits what he listens to in the same way he limits his diet to raw vegan food. While I crave red meat and couldn't dream of being a raw food vegan, my approach to music and film and literature is very similar. It's not that I hate music as much as I know I just don't need 99% of it. I don't need to hear every half-baked rehash hipster band Pitchfork is trying to ram down my throat, just like I don't need a fucking quarter pounder meal. But conversely, submitting myself to an hour of like, Darkthrone, is in a way overstepping a naturally occurring inclination to not consume that music and to not submit myself to that sound and that volume. It's more like forcing yourself to go for a run to get rid of the hangover instead of staying in bed. There is a physiological reaction to the experience that translates into this big release of endorphins. It's punishing, and that's the point I think. It's not supposed to be enjoyable in itself, it's a submission. You can't ignore the Norwegians, and I wish more music commanded that kind of commitment.
What's this got to do with the price of dark metal hamburgers in Oslo you ask? Ladies and gentlemen, we live in a depleted age. Depleted fish stocks, depleted tomatoes, depleted uranium: we're loving the convenience, but we're also living the consequences. We are the consuming causes of it all. And all of us have pitchforked the odd 'quarterpounder' when we're in a hurry, no? All of us have partaken in the depleted feast; so all of us have further depleted the feast. The datasea is, weirdly, a hyperabundance of mostly depleted music (just as our real oceans will soon be full of Nomura jellyfish, jumbo squid, and PET bottles, all turning around in the great gyre). What's the problem?
When you eat depleted food, it tastes okay, but it's all in Dr Evil style quotation marks: 'tuna', 'tomato', 'lettuce', 'laser beams'. It tastes 'nice', and makes you 'full', but it lacks... it's not satisfying. And that perpetuates the lack. Which makes you want more. And so you go back, and go back, and keep consuming, and never feel full. Which suits those pimping the depleted stuff just fine. When I visit my mum, she feeds me fresh lettuce from the garden. It tastes deeply green, and deliciously bitter. Winged Victory on CD was just like that: there was more there, there. More space, more dynamism. The silences were more silent, and the strings were stringier. Like mum's lettuce, it was much more satisfying, more nutritious.
So then this week, I went back to the CD shop. I bought Ravedeath, 1972 on CD. I came home, and listened to it, start to finish, at high volume. It was amazing. It was moving. It was also actually quite exhausting. Full on. You had to submit to it, just like Ben Frost's hangover run and Darkthrone marathons. What does this mean for my precious mp3-dependent practice?
Mp3 is incredibly convenient, and, used thoughtfully, mp3 players can offer us all really interesting new ways of moving and listening to music at the same time. They're do-while devices, for using while we commute, work, sit at screens, enter data into the datasea (that's your job, back to work!). Sony invented this paradigm with the Walkman, and with its incredible success, it also proved that most people prefer convenience to quality. Or at least: provided quality is perceived-to-be-sufficient, convenience wins. Most of us will cop a depleted whopper to conveniently address our lack. But are you getting what you need?
So: it's obviously much more important to listen carefully to good music on whatever media you can afford (spending 100,000 on a hi-fi you then play bilge through is most likely a profoundly foolish conclusion to take from what I'm saying). Little speakers, lo fi, a range of setups: they can all offer interesting ways to listen, and they all potentially have value. But don't diddle yourself: our dependency has consequences. Our convenience comes at a cost. Most of us, most of the time? We are listening to depleted music.