Swinging Modern Sounds #53: The Distribution Problem, Part Three


There are certain friends of youth that are somehow the perfect music friends, the kinds of friends with whom you might not have that much in common—maybe one of you is in the engineering department and you’re in the English department, or one of you is pre-med and the other is not, or one of you is completely besotted with Marx and Engels, and the other doesn’t even know who Marx and Engels are, or one of you is an alcoholic, and the other is not—but on the music front you are united. There is no light between you.

If there’s a new album that you want to hear, this friend of youth, the music friend, will want to hear it, too, and you can go out driving and listen to the album, or you can go twisting around the dial, attempting to hear the song, the album, that you both want to hear. Your music friend will go to the woebegone flea market and sort through the dusty old LPs with you, or will go to that really hip record store with the disdainful cashiers, and there you will waste an hour and a half, engrossed, scarcely two hundred words passing between you. Your music friend can play certain embarrassing things on keyboards, like the piano solo from “Sweet Home Alabama,” or your music friend knows every single word, every single word, from Born to Run even though these are not songs that either of you likes that much (not as much as you like The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle). Your music friend always teaches you about some new album that you would not otherwise have heard, having heard about some of these from an older sibling, and you, in turn, break in some new stuff on your music friend.

At some lamentable moment in your life, the moment when your youth begins to give way to your adulthood, you and your musical friend relocate to different addresses. From these different addresses, you employ what effort you can to attempt to keep each other from finding some other music friend, or you attempt to conduct your musical friendship from a distance. For example, you might hold the telephone up to some playback device—today you might use a tablet—while a song is playing that will perfectly summon the old days of the record store or sitting in front of that bank for hours at a time singing songs, or drinking beer and playing certain records in their entirety in someone’s falling-down rental apartment. Holding the telephone up to the playback device brings all those days back, and suddenly it’s not like you are in the hard years of early adulthood, the lean years, the years when it’s harder to keep close the people you once knew. Suddenly the interval is erased.

When the friendship begins to give out a little, just because of what time does, still its particulars will always come back to you, by which I mean the feelings of your music friend, when certain songs are played, and this is the value of certain songs; certain songs are markers of eras, and this is how you know that you are alive, that you are sentient, that you are a thinking and feeling person, because you can date your life to songs. Later on, you won’t even be sure if these are good songs—they might be very bad songs, but they are songs from your life, and the songs from your life often have people attached, and that will be something precious to you.

I had several of these friends, myself, but one of the very best of these music friends was my friend Dana, who lived in Providence and went to college in Providence when I was going there. I had my problems in those days, and maybe Dana had some of her own. And we fell together and fell apart in those years like we were bits of ocean flotsam. One thing we could always do together was talk about music, and Dana was from New York City, and she knew all these people who played in clubs downtown; Dana knew people who played at CBGBs and the Mudd Club, and she had used some magical fake i.d. to get into these clubs.

So Dana, late into the night, would play 45s. Dana’s thing was that she really liked 45s. She liked one really good song, and then she would play that song over and over again, and then she would play the b-side of the 45, perhaps (we had some good discussions about the b-sides of 45s), and then she would put on another. Albums were less substantial to Dana, although she had some, because they didn’t have all perfect songs. The single was a thing of beauty. I can remember, though I don’t even like this song very much now, the brand-new 45 of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” by The Police. I believe it did not have a picture on the sleeve. It was just a regular old 45, with the song title printed on the label. I had been disappointed by everything by The Police after their first album, and the more popular they got, the less I liked them, but I liked this song, because it was a song that Dana had, a 45 she had, and we could play it on her shitty turntable in the French House of our college, and it was a celebration of youth, and how youth is itself magic, and how the music friend is a more powerful kind of love than any other kind of love. Girlfriends came and went, and boyfriends came and went, and infatuations came and went, but no infatuation was as good as the infatuation that was music.

This was a whole time, you know, a time when people actually loved to own music, the bygone days that the music industry is always trying to recapture, the period when Dana and I would go to the record store on Thayer Street and basically go through every single album they had there, and look at each one and decide about each and every one—whether or not to buy it. I remember putting off buying that album by Magazine for a long time, because I wasn’t sure I liked the sleeve or not. I remember scraping together $10 I didn’t even have to go see R. E. M. at some forgotten club in Providence because Dana’s musician friends said we had to see them now. Or was it The Individuals?

When I think back on that time, it is so poignant that it’s almost painful. I assume that music will always be wound so fundamentally into the lives of the young, and I assume that my having trouble finding records that I feel as passionately about as the ones I loved then (Stands for Decibels, by the dBs) is just a manifestation of time growing short, but I thought, in my ongoing attempt to describe how digital music is changing the way we consume music, that it would be good to speak to a representative young person about her music listening habits, and, in order to be sure I got one with appropriate genetic material, and a bona fide music jones, I chose the teenage daughter of my old music friend, who I am going to call simply Charlotte, no surname, to make sure that she continues to have a bit of reliable anonymity in her teen years. Charlotte goes to a certain boarding school in the Northeast, having just started there last fall, which is when this conversation first began. She was just a regular public school kid in Dutchess County before that. And how the kids listen to music will be detailed below.


The Rumpus: Tell me five things you are listening to right now.

Charlotte: Right now I’m listening to Cults, Leonard Cohen, the 1975, Black Atlass, and some older hip hop like Tupac and Nas.

Rumpus: Can you tell me, in each case, how you found your way to this music and what you like about it?

Charlotte: I found out about Cults, the 1975, and Black Atlass through some of the music blogs that I follow on the Internet. I can’t remember which ones exactly, but it might have been The Needle Drop or Indie Shuffle. I found out about Leonard Cohen through my voice teacher but also I once read a novel where he was all the main character listened to, so that’s when I really started listening to him. I found out about Tupac and Nas through one of my classmates at school who also is really into music.

BlackAtlassI really like all of them for different reasons though. I like Cults a lot because their sound is really unique and kind of retro and their songs have really original melodies. I really like the 1975 because while their sound isn’t extremely unique, the lead singer’s voice is. The guitar in their songs is also pretty awesome. Black Atlass is one of the most out-there bands I listen to. Their music is kind of harsh almost, but at the same time I find the melodies and the way the song changes predictable and comforting. They have the kind of songs that feel almost like they have electricity in them or something. I like rap music, but I don’t like the attitudes and arrogance that all the rappers have had in the last couple years. All they rap about is like drugs and money and that sort of thing. Nas and Tupac have more instrumental songs, and often feature singers who have parts in the song. Their songs are the kind of songs where the best parts are the lyrics, because they tell stories.

Rumpus: How do you find your way to particular music blogs? Is that a resource that your friends are using as well?

Charlotte: I found my way to particular music blogs through various sources. One blog I discovered through a friend from camp, who also introduced me to various other awesome things (like bite-sized cupcakes). Another blog I discovered by reading the bios of the editors of the magazine Nylon. However, most of the blogs I discovered by Google searching “indie music blogs” because sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in a music rut.

None of my really close friends listen to the same music as me, except for one, so none of the same music blogs as me.

Rumpus: What do you think is different about the music you listen to? And how would you describe the kinds of music favored by your classmates and other people your age?

Charlotte: Most kids my age don’t invest time in discovering new bands like I do, so they listen to what’s on the radio. Since I live in a pretty small town, the only accessible radio station for kids my age is the Top 40 station. I am just making a generalization though.

I think that the difference between my music and the music on the top 40 stations is the level of ease that it takes the artist to create the music. Most (again, a generalization) music on top 40 stations is written and produced and created by a whole team of people, and then just the singer becomes famous for singing the words and tune that are handed to him. With smaller, less known bands, the artists are creating their own words and melodies. They work a lot harder to make their songs and don’t necessarily follow the trends in the industry (like rising pop stars), so they don’t get discovered as easily. Top 40 music is constantly changing to follow the rises and falls of trends in the industry.

Rumpus: To what extent are YouTube or Vimeo part of what interests you as a music fan? Do you care about what a band looks like? Or, once you are into an artist, do you chase down videos? And how much listening do you do on YouTube?

charlotte1Charlotte: In my opinion, YouTube is essential for listening to music. YouTube is where you get to watch live versions, special performances, and interviews. iTunes gives you access to music, but YouTube really gives you access to the band itself.

I don’t really enjoy music videos, though. I like to have my own associations with songs, and I find that watching music videos obstructs that for me. It’s kind of like when you read a book and visualize the setting or characters and then watch the movie. You then forever see Emma Watson as Hermione Granger instead of how you originally visualized the character. However, I am constantly watching band interviews on YouTube. It’s the whole idea that even though the band has no clue who you are, you feel as if you could have been their best friend since grade school because you know so much about them.

In regards to how a band “looks” though, I don’t really care. As long as they make good music, they could have three eyes and a tail. Although I will admit that it’s a bonus when there is a particularly attractive band member. But I would never like a band just because of their visual appeal and vice versa.

Rumpus: What about the CD? What do you think of the CD?

Charlotte: The CD is almost as outdated as a cassette, in my opinion. However, someone (such as me) can use this to their advantage. It may be easier—and a money saver—to click the “buy” button on an iTunes album than buying the actual CD from f.y.e. But I have a love-hate relationship with iTunes, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. I’ve found that in most library systems, the CD collection is extensive. They have everything from world music to classical music to pop music to new age rock. The best part about this is that as long as you have a library card, downloading the CDs onto your iPod is completely free. I’ve used this to my advantage many times, and probably half the music on my iPod is from the Mid-Hudson Library System’s album collection.

In terms of actually playing a CD just to listen to music, it’s not as convenient as just popping your iPod onto an iHome…

Rumpus: What do you think of the LP?

Charlotte: I love LPs. It’s a sound that really can’t be replicated. I am really lucky because we own a record machine, and my mom has a copious amount of records. However, for someone who doesn’t have this advantage, an LP is something hard to come by. Record machines are expensive, and so are records. It’s also just hard to find records. If it were easier and more accessible, I would solely listen to vinyl.

Rumpus: It happens I know your mother’s collection of vinyl rather well, having listened to it with her back in the day. In fact, both your parents are passionate music fans, and have been for most, if not all, of their lives. How formative are their tastes in what interests you? Are you influenced by their tastes? Or reactive against their tastes? Or both?

Charlotte: It’s interesting because recommending music goes both ways in my house. Most of the time, I’m the one playing the music for my parents. However, my mom has an extensive knowledge of punk, and just most music in general, from about 1960 until 2000. Without her, I probably wouldn’t listen to the Rolling Stones or the Talking Heads or the Sugarhill Gang. Her music collection has sort of slowly become sort of mine, and I’m grateful for that.

My dad knows a lot about music “legends” such as Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and Neil Diamond. He knows more about the areas that my mom knows less about (and vice versa), so I take information from both of them. It’s also really nice that both my parents are so supportive of my music. I know parents that hate the music their kids listen to, but my parents genuinely like hearing new bands that I’m discovering.

There are some things that they like that I don’t like. They both enjoy listening to classical music, which is a genre that I resist most of the time. But most of the time, my parents and I are in sync with our musical tastes.

Rumpus: How much disposable income do you have to buy music?

Charlotte: I have little to no disposable income to buy music. For the most part, I will take CDs out from the music library at my school. I go to a boarding school in Massachusetts, and they have a huge music library with over 7000 CDs. It’s pretty sick. I have also infiltrated my mom and dad’s CD collections. Other than CDs, I do the occasional YouTube conversion or two. When I have iTunes money though, I always use it. The quality of music is so much better and I like seeing the album artwork. The album artwork always says a lot about a musician.

Rumpus: So, in this light, as an avid consumer of music who is not yet able to pay for music, do you worry about the plight of the musician who finds it hard to get paid for her or his music?

Charlotte: I find myself to be in an extremely unfortunate predicament. There is no one who believes more than me that artists should be supported. I used to do a lot more YouTube converting, but a few years ago I tried to limit it as much as possible. I feel an intense guilt for not paying for music by musicians I like, but I try to support the bands I like in other ways. I go to their concerts or buy apparel and posters. I probably owe several thousand dollars to the music industry, and I know that it must be incredibly irritating for an artist trying to succeed that YouTube converters exist.

Rumpus: Do you think the issues that you’re sketching out here—lack of disposable income, YouTube conversion, mass downloading of tracks from free sources—are issues that are frequent for your friends and peers who are into music?

charlotte2Charlotte: I think that these issues really do depend on the person. Of my friends that are into music as religiously as I am, I can think of two opposite examples. One of my friends comes from a wealthier background and her parents give her an allotted amount of money each month to spend on iTunes. Since this allotted amount is quite a sum of money, she doesn’t find the need to ever convert from YouTube. Another friend of mine is in the same situation as me. When it comes to buying music, we are on our own and have little to no money to use toward iTunes and therefore resort to downloaders.

I do think that converting music from YouTube or illegally downloading is a big issue with people my age and acquiring music. It is a bad situation because a large portion of music listeners are young people without jobs. The price of a single on iTunes has gone up by 30 cents in the last five years, making it even more difficult for these young people to buy music. In the Internet era, free downloaders are easy and accessible to those who don’t have enough money to always buy music on iTunes.

Rumpus: And yet you seem as though you actually want to own music, which is slightly novel to me. For example, you haven’t mentioned Spotify, Pandora, or iTunes Radio, which means that you are not terribly interested in streaming services. Is that accurate? Do you friends stream music? Do you know other people your age who are less interested in music streaming?

Charlotte: I know a lot of people that use Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes radio. I think it is very popular among people who are less interested in music because it is a great way for them to discover new music through bands/songs they already know and like. A lot of my friends have come to know a lot of new bands through Spotify or Pandora, which I think is great. However, at the risk of sounding pretentious, I don’t find Pandora or Spotify particularly helpful in finding new music myself. I know all the songs they play, for the most part, and they are constantly replaying the same bands/songs. Besides that, I don’t like how you can’t pick which song you listen to, and you have to have WiFi to listen to the music. But I do know that streaming music is something that is extremely popular.

Rumpus: If you had money to purchase music, would you purchase music? Or, to put it another way, one worry on the part of artists and record labels is that your generation is so conditioned to think of music as something that’s free, that you will never be willing to pay for it. True, do you think? Or untrue?

Charlotte: That is something that I think is extremely true, but not for me. I know that if I had money to buy music, I would. If not for the fact that I want to support my favorite artists, then just for the sound quality and album artwork. YouTube converters are pretty crappy.

But I also know that if something can be free, it’s hard to get yourself to pay for it, given the opportunity. This is the biggest dilemma with YouTube converters. In some eyes, they are good, because they help people that can’t afford to buy music on iTunes have music on their iPods. The more valid argument, though, is that since music can be acquired for free via these converters, consumers’ desire to buy music will plunge, since they can get it for free. However, like I said earlier, I would pay the $1.29 every time just for the album artwork.

Rumpus: It’s been many weeks we’ve been talking now—have you had any musical experiences this month that have been dramatic, or which are otherwise relevant to this conversation?

MidnightinParisCharlotte: I just started boarding school, so I’ve been meeting people from around the world. It’s really different from where I used to live, because everyone has come from a different country with different cultures and values. I have been introduced to a lot of new music, and have also been introducing people to the music I like. Last week I played Kate Nash’s song “Pickpocket” to my friend Carissa, which she really liked. She’s really into movie soundtracks (like I am), and played me the soundtrack for Midnight in Paris. I really liked it, which I didn’t expect, because I really hated the movie. She also knows a lot of French music from the 60s and 70s, which I have found that I really enjoy too. Without her, I would have never discovered music from that place/era.

Rumpus: Have you found in the last few months that your tastes have changed at all? Have you encountered any new music that has really interested you? Or have your habits as a music consumer changed at all?

Charlotte: Actually, yes, I have discovered some new music that I really like. I just downloaded the American Hustle soundtrack and I am in love with it. It has some really great songs on it—songs that I would have never listened to otherwise. My favorites are “Jeep’s Blues” by Duke Ellington and “Live and Let Die” by Wings. Because of this soundtrack I have gotten into more jazz artists like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →