The Soundtrack of Our Lives

beatles3Today is my 365th blog entry, and while that has taken over a year and a half to publish that represents a full year worth of short essays. I am going to use this personal milestone to step out of my normal daily blog and talk about something that has been on my mind. It’s still something that is somewhat tech-related but it’s also quite personal and I bet most of you reading this will see yourself in here somewhere.

I want to talk about how I grew up with music and how the web has changed that experience. I was prompted to think about this a few days ago when on the last day of my recent vacation I played four Beatles albums end-to-end. That’s something I haven’t done for a while because the modern music experience doesn’t favor listening to whole albums.

I did this using a modern music web site, Spotify. This music service provides millions of songs on their service but also lets me import and integrate my own music library. I generally let Spotify mix up my music and use it like a radio station, but instead I listened straight through Magical Mystery Tour, Revolver, Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. And as I listened I got that old feeling of listening to music linearly like when we plopped albums onto a turntable and listened to them end-to-end. The satisfaction of listening this way came from the fact that I knew the words to every song, having listened to these albums many times, but I also always knew what song was coming next. My brain not only stored all of the lyrics of these Beatles songs, but also the play order on the albums.

This was refreshing to me since I hadn’t done this for a while. It was like meeting a long-lost friend. But it made me think about the difference in the personal experience of music today versus music back then. When I was young we obviously did not have millions of songs at our disposal. What we had instead was the radio, music stores and friends with album collections. Radio was pretty vibrant in those days, particularly when I moved to Washington DC, and it introduced you to a lot of great music. You would listen as much as you could to the radio or to friend’s collections to see what you liked and then you made an investment in buying an album. Since none of us had unlimited funds, the choices you made became the music that you listened to over and over (and over). You got to know certain artists really well.

I remember the great satisfaction once a month when I had enough excess funds to make a trip to the music store. This would always be on a Friday night and I would linger from bin to bin making the choices that I knew I would have to live with. Whether I had enough money to buy one album or half a dozen, these trips were one of the highlights of every month. And while buying a few albums at a time was somewhat limiting, it didn’t stop me over the years from migrating from classic rock, to punk, to folk, to reggae, and to new wave with many other side trips.

But then jump forward to today. Spotify, iTunes and other music services are more geared to songs than albums. I look at my daughter’s play list and she has one or two songs from hundreds of artists rather than a lot of a stuff from a few of them. And to some degree I have jumped on the same bandwagon because there is such an immense library of music available, including many of those things that I almost bought years ago on a Friday night buying trip. I can now indulge every musical whim.

But this smorgasbord of choices makes our music into a personal radio station. What I notice is that my daughter and wife drop and add songs all of the time, making their play list fresh and different. Artists are sampled and if something tickles their fancy it gets added to the playlist, and if it gets boring it goes. This is so different than the linear experience where you listened to an album with its good songs, bad songs and great songs and you came to know and love them all.

I’m not being nostalgic because I love the options that Spotify offers me. One of my favorite activities when I have a spare hour is to just leap from song to song, from artist to artist and listen to music I’ve never heard before. That is a freedom that was not there in the analog days. But I do lament the loss of intimacy and commitment that came from choosing an album and choosing an artist. That became your music and you listened to it and you learned it and it became ingrained in your mind and in your soul. Every person’s album collection was different and we each created our own personal soundtrack to accompany our lives.

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