Let me tell you a story that could reflect a huge shift in how music is heard, and where the whole thing (may be) headed in the very near future.
I recently had this conversation with a young music listener. Her ear buds tucked firmly in her earholes, I tapped her on the shoulder and asked what she was listening to.
“Oh, I listen to 8tracks,” she chirped, referring to the music streaming service. Okay, I said, but what band are you listening to? “Oh, I don’t know who it is. I just like listening to this music.”
Wait a minute, you don’t know who you’re listening to?
“Right. I just tune to my favorite theme on 8Tracks. I don’t pay attention to who’s singing.”
This led to a discussion about live music. My friend said she rarely goes to live concerts because, “I can’t imagine listening to music by one band all night.” One band all night? Who could tolerate such a thing in this “random shuffle age”?
For her, going to shows or concerts wasn’t about the music, but the performance, the light show, the spectacle. In fact, the music wasn’t secondary when deciding to go out, it was way down the list, somewhere after the ticket price, venue choice, booze and food availability, and (of course) who else was going.
Data check: This person is an intelligent, educated, indie-music-listening graphic artist in her mid-20s. I thought she was a fluke, an oddity, until I had a nearly identical conversation with a guy at the gym. When I asked him who he was listening to, he said Pandora.
He said he never bothers to interrupt his work outs to see who’s actually singing. The last concert he went to was Nine Inch Nails a number of years ago. He’d never been to a local club. He didn’t even know there were local bands that played original music. It’s not that he didn’t care, it’s that local music doesn’t get played on Pandora, and even if it did, he wouldn’t know because he never checks to see who’s playing.
Think I'm feeding you a load of shit? Try it — ask someone outside of your personal music-listening inner-circle what they listen to. See which (if any) musicians they can name beyond those who have performed skits on Saturday Night Live. Then ask them how they listen to music.
It comes back to the same problem that’s plagued the music industry since the dawn of the Internet Age: The paradigm shift in how music is distributed. And it brings up some stark questions: Why and how do listeners buy music? Are labels necessary anymore? In a streaming age, will the idea of “owning” music even exist?
The so-called “vinyl renaissance” that’s been ballyhooed as a potential savior of the music industry (even though we all know that vinyl sales represent a scintilla of total music sales) could be a backlash to the lack of materialism associated with today’s music options. Digital music is “immaterial” to new listeners. Vinyl represents tangible ownership, especially for “collectors.”
But casual music listeners don’t care about collectables. They don’t buy vinyl. In fact, unless the artist is a mega media star that regularly lands in TMZ or Huffington Post , they don’t know who they are, and they don’t care.
People are listening to more music today than ever before, they just don’t know who or what they’re listening to. Their loyalty is shifting from artists and labels to streaming services — Spotify vs. Songify vs. Pandora vs. 8tracks vs. Rdio vs. Slacker, etc. There’s a new one coming online every six months.
And in a Pandora world, more value is placed on “style” than individual artists. Songify's model involves merely selecting a theme: “Music to study to,” “Runway music,” “Urban Dance Party,” and so on.
8tracks’ “explore” mode is all about curated lists and themes with names like, “I can’t unlove you,” “Numb and trippy” and “Don’t make a sound now.” It takes the shuffle-mode concept to a whole ‘nother level. It’s weird.
Curation has never been more important in this Amazon/Walmart world where we can buy whatever we want whenever we want it. The problem os, of course, figuring out which is “the good stuff.” With millions of digital tracks available from your iPhone or Android device, no one can be expected to figure out what they want to hear. It’s so much easier to let someone else decide.
So how is any of this different than terrestrial radio, where faceless DJs picked the music that was the soundtrack to our lives? Well, at least with radio, they told you what you were listening to. Curated streaming music services merely dish out the songs one after another. If you want to know who’s playing, you have to look at your phone, and who has the time or energy for that?
But even in the radio days, you never heard local bands on the airwaves. That problem is just as bad -- if not worse -- with streaming services.
The other night a local musician walked up to me at the bar and began excitedly talking about his new record — not that it was coming out on a label, but that he finally got it accepted by Pandora. Now if he could only figure out a way to get his songs played on everyone's “Springsteen Channel.”
Now for something less dismal. Without further ado, the list of my top-10 favorite records of 2013, in no specific order:
1. Lloyd Cole, Standards (Tapete) — Don’t call it a comeback, it’s the best thing he’s released since Music in a Foreign Language, and could be a hit if he ever tours the U.S.
2. Low, The Invisible Way (Sub Pop) — Produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy it’s a return to form for indie rock’s throb-pulse heroes.
3. Arcade Fire, Reflektor (Merge) — Probably the most hyped indie album of the year, it lives up to it (for the most part).
4. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed, Ltd.) — As with most of his recordings, Cave is almost perversely dramatic in his singing/speaking, as if telling dark lies at midnight, which btw, is the best time to listen to this record.
5. Foxygen, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic (Jagjaguwar) — Produced by Richard Swift, who worked on the last two Mynabirds albums, it’s pure ’70s Stones, as Stonesy as you can get without dragging Mick into the studio.
6. Destruction Unit, Deep Trip (Sacred Bones) — A twisted, feedback-soaked parade of broken, angry garage rock that never fails to shine brightly.
7. Speedy Ortiz, Major Arcana (Carpark) — Conjures comparisons to Guyville-era Liz Phair (but much heavier), Breeders, Pavement, but with a soulful sound of its own.
8. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (Columbia) — Probably the most hyped dance album of the year, it exceeded all expectations.
9. Tim Kasher, Adult Film (Saddle Creek) — The most tuneful Kasher project since The Good Life’s Help Wanted Nights in 2007.
10. The Gardenheads, Growing Season (Wee Rock) — A lot of bands try to do Americana. A lot of bands are boring. And some might say The Gardenheads' music is “by the numbers,” but there’s something more here, something infectious in its simplicity.
I went to a few shows last year (okay, a lot of shows). Below is the list of — maybe not the best — but certainly the most memorable moments I lived through in 2013:
Gordon at The Side Door Lounge, Jan. 26 — It was a lovely train wreck the likes of which I haven’t seen since The Shanks farewell two-night stand at O’Leaver’s a year or so ago. In a lot of ways Gordon reminds me of The Shanks, albeit a cute, furry animal version without the blood and gore.
Ty Segall / Digital Leather at Sokol Underground, Feb. 10 — Segall and his band was a well-honed noise machine, easily the loudest thing I’ve heard on a stage in a few years. I stood on a chair along the wall and watched the crowd writhe in ecstasy to the knuckle-bleeding music.
The Men at Slowdown Jr., April 27 — Here was a band that could effortlessly switch between hyper-rock and something vaguely resembling alt-country while always maintaining their speed, power, grace.
Baths at The Waiting Room, June 2 — In addition to having the deepest, loudest low-end I’ve heard at The Waiting Room since the last Faint show, Baths’ melodies were abrasive and tricky but worked their way into my psyche. What starts as awkward and ugly becomes big and beautiful by the end.
Digital Leather, Big Harp, Kill Country at The Holland Center, June 7 — On the surface, the line-up for the inaugural Hear Nebraska Live program sponsored by Omaha Performing Arts at the Holland last Friday night was edgy, if not just plain risky. The outcome was — for the most part — a success.
Maha Music Festival at Stinson Park, Aug. 17 — If you came for spectacle, you got it. The Flaming Lips’ amazing light show included pin lights flowing from above Wayne Coyne down a chrome mountain like an LED volcano. But the highlight of the day was Bob Mould, who rifled though a “greatest hits” selection so loud it scared away the faint of heart.
Joan of Arc at O’Leaver’s, Sept. 18 — Vocalist Melina Ausikaitis — hands thrust in pockets, slouched in rolled-up blue jeans, red Converse high-tops, well-worn T-shirt and suspenders — was strangely magnetic, especially singing two a cappella numbers while the band fiddled with their various tuning devices.
Quasi at Slowdown Jr., Oct. 4 — The best moments were the hits, which Sam Coomes supplied with a weathered panache that made them sound as fresh as they did when first performed 15 years ago.
Built to Spill at The Waiting Room, Oct. 18 — Doug Martsch and company played a sharp, measured set that combined the best songs from his classic albums with heavy stuff from the band’s latest. The high point was the encore — a lush version of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now,” complete with Marr’s trademark tremolo guitar effect.
Desaparecidos at The Waiting Room, Oct. 22 — Conor Oberst was in rare form, though his voice was hoarse at times, especially on those high notes. Good thing Landon Hedges was there to fill in the gaps. Here’s a secret: Hedges has a better voice, but when the material calls for screaming more than singing, it doesn’t really matter.
Cat Power at The Slowdown, Nov. 22 — Throughout the two-and-a-half hour solo performance Marshall looked anxious and irritated, clearly struggling with either an illness or a serious case of anxiety, stage fright or just not being prepared, all the while constantly being distracted by someone in the crowd who baited her from the edge of the stage (whether that person realized it or not).
Cursive at The Waiting Room Dec. 5, 12, 19 — This trio of “residency” shows recorded for a possible live album is everything any Cursive fan could want — more than 20 songs performed each night spanning the band’s entire career. What a way to cap off the year.