How to Ease Your Listening Anxiety, When There's Too Much Music to Choose From
This is a follow-up to the author's earlier piece on listening anxiety and having too much choice in music.
As another week has come around, bringing with it another slew of albums I want to listen to but can't quite get to, I am reminded of how a good friend once listened to new albums. He would buy the album—yep, this was before streaming, but read on since record buying is back, baby!—but not actually play it. Not until he had listened at least once to everything in the band's catalog of previous releases (we refer to this simply as "the buildup").
Can you imagine doing this now? I'm assuming no one reading this even has the time to consider such a strategy or that doing so would just increase listening anxiety further? So instead, this time around I'm prescribing a few simple solutions to having too much to listen to. I'll break it down into three categories: Discovery, Re-discovery and New Ways to Listen.
The streaming services like to claim music discovery is their raison d'etre and that they have it solved. They haven't. It has improved, of course, but largely algorithm-driven recommendation solutions to discovery make some people—me included—skeptical on a number of levels. We'd rather trust other people, not machines, and the increasing awareness of algorithm bias means we do not equate the algorithm with accuracy or better outcomes, necessarily. That said, streaming does solve many discovery issues when we use the services to their full power. For example, rather than scroll down the Spotify menu—which is pretty good, nowhere near as draining an experience as searching for something to watch on Netflix—try playing a recent single or EP you like and then just letting autoplay do the rest. I find Spotify is at its best when you do this. Haven't discovered autoplay? Just go to your settings menu, choose playback, and make sure autoplay is switched on.
If keeping up with modern pop music is on your mind, another cool thing from Spotify's playlisting team is "Pollen," a true multiple genre pop playlist (which by nature is all curated, not algorithmic). It's the equivalent of finding a very cool "contemporary adult pop" radio station that will introduce you to a lot of new music across neo-soul, hip-hop, R&B and bedroom pop (it is very "Spotify core"). Pollen also has some nice extra features, such as little audio clips from featured artists with some "behind the song" stories. If you do nothing else with it, it makes for a good radio substitute—you can stream it all working-day long as the playlist is often nine hours plus.
Then, of course, there is actual radio. The oldest form of music distribution still works, largely because it will always give you the human touch. The problem with radio is we tend to get bored with the same old stations. And those stations are introducing you to a very wide "random" selection of music, unlike Pollen. Also, we are choosing the music radio stations because they are there—they occupy the FM spots or the DAB frequencies or whatever, the gateways. Thing is, we can easily circumvent the gateways—through the internet we can listen to radio from anywhere.
My personal favorites are London's Soho Radio (Alexa will play this on command via TuneIn), the cultish "yacht rock & chill" Poolside.fm and Electronic Ears—a gem of a show on Cando.fm presented by Fenner Pearson (who happens to be that friend with the completist listening habit I mentioned at the start of this piece). For a real radio "trip" in every sense, try Radio Garden, in which you can virtually fly around the world and tune in to local radio anywhere. Or spend a few hours with Mixcloud and settle on a couple of feeds from there that suit your genre preferences. I must say here that radio really does work when it's at its best and not trying to follow streaming trends. The best example I know of is BBC 6 Music, probably the best indie/rock related station in the world. Unbelievable to think the BBC almost shut it down back in the early days of digital, but here it is today, thriving and solving the discovery problem better than streaming does for its core genres.
A big deal was made about Spotify's Discover Weekly when it was first launched in 2015, and quite rightly—it was a breakthrough. But the sleeping giant for Spotify is Release Radar. It came out at the same time but has turned into an even bigger success, largely because it is personalized by you and only you. It's really nothing more than a weekly compilation of new stuff by the artists you've listened to, but it works very effectively, and it's a great way for artists to get new music directly to fans, so if you use Spotify, you should use Release Radar.
It might be that dipping back into the catalog of an artist you love is harder these days (especially for those albums that are less familiar to you), what with the constant flow of new stuff. Playlists are probably a better vehicle for this than trying to work your way through album by album. Spotify's competitors are having a crack at catalog—Apple has its "Deep Cuts" compilations (I prefer these to get under the surface of an artist beyond the bigger hits). Meanwhile, Amazon Music has just revealed its own catalog playlist series called, wait for it, Re-Discover. I tried out a few of these and found them to be very "Amazon," but the Re-Discover '80s Rock was uncomplicated fun (though what U2 was doing on there, I'm not sure). The independent curator sites can do things better sometimes, and I think GetUp Radio is worth checking out—see their series on "A Year In Music."
For my own music discovery and enjoyment site, The Song Sommelier, we work hard to re-imagine the catalog of classic artists with large back catalogs. With Aha, for example, I tried to imagine the band's catalog from two points of view: the catchy electro pop that they are best known for, and the deep, moody, Scandi melancholy. For The National, we went with a deep-cuts playlist of the lesser-known tracks, accompanied by a playlist of artists that might have influenced the band themselves. The latest addition is The Chic Organisation—worth re-discovering some of the music said to be worth over $3 billion in one form or another. Re-imaging music catalogs in new ways is critical to legacy artists, the industry, and to fans. Sometimes the best music to listen to, especially in times like these, is the music you know best.
New Ways to Listen
Now we are getting down to business a little more. The access-to-everything, binge culture does us no favors, and the tyranny of choice will not go away by itself—you have to choose to make it go away. A recent trend, I'm pleased to say, is that people are actually buying music again. They are buying records. They are buying cassettes. They are buying downloads. The emergent music brand in the space is the indie artist's friend, Bandcamp. After a decade grinding away on what looked like an outmoded business model, Bandcamp is looking like part of the sustainable music future every day.
Buying records is a much deeper transaction than streaming. It involves more commitment, risk and a sort of self-imposed scarcity, since if you buy a record, chances are you will spend more time listening to it than other stuff you haven't spent your cash on. For listening with true enjoyment, nothing quite reaches the giddy heights of staring at the vinyl cover or poring over the sleeve notes as the record spins. Am I nostalgic? Sure, but so are all those vinyl fans in their adolescence and early 20s. It's why a lot of Bandcamp's audience are young and why many of them don't bother with streaming.
Another alternative is a brand-new format—live streaming. By listening and watching, you are immersing yourself in the music and, in the current environment, doing your bit to support the artists performing the only meaningful way they can, since real shows are a long way off. The thing is, live streaming is different. I watched two performances recently, Biffy Clyro's "A Celebration Of Endings" (livestreamed from Barrowlands Glasgow) and Dermot Kennedy's "Some Summer Night" (livestreamed from London's Natural History Museum), and both offered something I've never experienced before—a close-up live experience with some high production theatrics and perfect sound (through a nice pair of studio-quality headphones). There really is something new happening in music here, and while it will never substitute the actual live show, it doesn't have to. You can now attend shows via any one of the new "noticeboard" services.
Finally, if, like me, you have spent a lifetime obsessed with "popular" music to the detriment of classical and you have never truly found a way into classical music, may I recommend the book Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton Hill. It takes you through 365 days of the year with a classical piece for every day, which is just the best idea ever. There are playlists for the book on Spotify, or of course you could dive into one of the classical streaming services such as IDAGIO if you are converted. For me, it's been a revelation.
Here are a few other ways to go back to basics and simply listen:
• Nominating your own "music night." I used to make Thursday nights music night, and set aside time to listen to a couple of new albums start to finish, on the sofa, no distractions.
• Tim Burgess is doing virtual album playbacks during the lockdown period. Great nostalgic fun with guest artists often tweeting throughout
• Your favorite radio show. Tune in and just listen (as in, just listen).
• Classic Album Sundays. Now doing live streaming sessions.