In today’s NYT, Dan Brooks explains his problems with music, really focusing on how band choice reflected one’s level and type of interest in music–making it a shortcut for understanding a person. The past tense (“reflected”), is because Spotify has changed that, causing assessing someone based on their musical interests/tastes to be more difficult. His reasoning is that Spotify et al make it trivial to collect and listen to all music; there’s no effort required.
Although the essay is a good read and you should read it, he invites criticism because he muddies the distinction between the signal from the material aspect of music (e.g., what albums you own) and the social aspect of music (e.g., having a conversation about the albums you own). He never parses the two apart, nor does he connect the two with an explicit argument. The convenient lack of clarity between the two us used throughout the piece to build his argument. Although the piece focuses on the material aspect, it’s the social aspect that is important to him:
Last spring, I befriended a charming stranger on the basis of our mutual interest in the Slits. If you haven’t heard them, statistics suggest that you will enjoy their cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and nothing else. When she started talking about the import version of “The Peel Sessions,” I knew I had met somebody special. We went back to her apartment and played each other songs on Spotify for three hours. Thanks to the Internet, we both had all the same albums.
Such connections are still possible, even in this new world of abundant content.
The special moment came when “she started talking about” the particular album, not when she said she owned it or had a t-shirt of it. Conversation is the important element, which is one reason why I ditched most new music where conversation is ephemeral and have focused more on classical music and opera performances, where there’s hundreds of years of conversations for me to catch up on.
I want to make one other point before ending: Spotify is the major-label of streaming music. These days, if you rely on Spotify, then you it is the same as relying on major labels before streaming music became “a thing”. In addition to the quality of the stream, a major issue with Spotify and many other streaming services is it lacks a significant amount of current music in certain genres. And that’s not even opening up the fact that non-label music (e.g., self released, mix tape) is outside the Spotify universe.
Again, the essay is a great read for any current or former music snob. And what made me chuckle and want to share the piece–using the critique as an opportunity to point out not a problem with the essay but an opportunity for improving it–is this beautiful and Truthful paragraph:
I once attended a party at the home of a poetry professor who, in her meticulous preparations, happened to leave out one CD: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. It was a gutless choice, the act of a person who reads music magazines. Any other album would have revealed her taste, but instead she had only shown that she understood what our kind liked.