A couple of weeks ago, I said I might take a blogging break. Originally, I said that because the rise of the “regressive left” has left me in something of a quandary politically. But while I was writing that post, I got a phone call from a bill collector, which sent me into a tizzy. As I mentioned at the time, it wasn’t a money issue, but a disorganization problem.
My disorganization problem is one of long standing. There’s a few levels to it. One is putting things away. However, if you recall the saying, “A place for everything and everything in its place,” part of my problem is that there isn’t a place to put everything. It’s a two pronged problem. One is organization and the other is being neat. Normally, if I think I’m likely to have a visitor, I “tidy up.” Basically, I hide the mess. Have you ever seen a cartoon or a comic bit in a tv show or a movie where someone opens up a closet that’s packed to the gills and everything falls on an unsuspecting person’s head. Well, my entire life has gotten to be something like that. I would keep making everything “okay” for the moment. Then the day would come where I’d need something and in order to find it, I’d have to empty the closet, looking in box after box. Then there were other things, like the big box of disorganized photos. (That job, I can now say has been completed.)
One of the many things I’ve been meaning to do but have been putting off is addressing the matter of how I listen to music. At this juncture, I have vinyl LPs, compact cassettes, CDs, and some digital formats, mostly from Apple’s iTunes. I haven’t yet subscribed to any of the streaming services. I tried the free version of Pandora on three separate occasions, at least year apart, and I hated it each time. I don’t know how their algorithm works, but I’ve never been much of a genre person and my taste is pretty eclectic, so maybe I’m not a good match for that type of service. In any case, my music situation is a mess. About a year ago, in an effort to get my music situation, for lack of a better word, rationalized, I made an HTPC, a “home theater personal computer.” I have little interest in the movie or gaming aspect of the device. Mostly, I wanted an easy way to listen to music. The good news is that since you don’t need a lot of processing power, it’s not a particularly expensive type of computer to build. Further more, you can install Linux as an operating system and I installed a media center program called Kodi. Both of those are free. There are a few other free options. (Considering a post I saw recently, I’ll add that the Kodi software is free. You can use it to listen to some of the streaming services, but you have to pay for the subscriptions for that.) Then I ripped my CDs. Then I looked at my vinyl. I sighed. I put it off for another day.
Meanwhile, the old stereo set up gave up the ghost, so I couldn’t listen to the vinyl or the cassettes anymore at all. I unplugged it. I wheeled it into a corner, with honest intentions of getting to it a soon as I had a little time. There, it gathered dust for almost a year.
I’ve rarely listened to the music purchased from Apple except when I’ve been exercising. That has to do with the iPod device. For a while, I had an iPod doc, but it was too inconvenient and I rarely used it. My brother in law had given me his because he didn’t get much use out of it and thought I might use it more. It was a nice gesture. He now has it back.
Years ago, during the late seventies and early eighties when I was a teenager, my high school boyfriend’s father had a stereo system we weren’t allowed to touch. It was top of the line equipment and even had a reel-to-reel tape deck. Ironically, I never remember his father expressing any real interest in music. He seemed more interested in the equipment. My boyfriend and his brother had a less expensive stereo system of their own. Perhaps he was influenced by his father, but every time he would play a record, he’d put the LP on the turntable, and turn it on. Before setting down the needle, he’d take out a tool, which looked like a block of wood with a velvet pad on the end. He’d squirt a bit of liquid from the bottle and, ever so gently wipe the surface of the record with the pad by holding the pad over it while the turntable spun. Meanwhile, I’d be lying on his bed saying, “Fer chrissakes, just play the damn thing.”
My boyfriend and a few other people gave me the distinct impression that I was not an “audiophile.” I cared enough to handle the records by their edges and put them back in their sleeves when they were done. I had good enough ears to know that my own cheap turntable with an integrated amplifier which hooked directly to the speakers sounded pretty bad. Still, it was a million times better than the quality of listening to music using an iPod.
An article discussing “high resolution” audio, reported the following thoughts from mastering engineer Alan Silverman:
he described a “feedback loop” where producers, artists and engineers make their way through the studio process to release an album, and how they later hear it in the real world influences the way they’ll make their next album. That’s the way it worked in the 1950s, with LPs and singles, which were heard at home on a hi-fi and on the radio, so the engineers made recordings that sounded best at home and on the radio. That initially held true with CDs, but now that most people experience music away from home, in noisy environments, on lossy streaming services like Spotify, all of that informs the way producers, artists, and engineers approach their next recording. Silverman believes that the way today’s pop music is arranged, designed and performed is strongly influenced by the quest for extreme loudness and limited dynamic range required for music listened to on-the-go with tablets, ear buds and phones. It’s one thing to hear the sound in the studio, but the music will mostly be “consumed” as background filler. It’s rarely the prime focus anymore.
The last sentence jumped out at me. I’ve never really enjoyed music as “background filler,” it’s too distracting for anything except activities that are boring due to their lack of cognitive stimulation, like exercising or cleaning.
A couple of weeks earlier, I’d gone to a big box store selling consumer electronics just to check to see if there was an off-the-shelf solution to my music playback dilemma. I must confess that I’m unsure of what half the items they had displayed are intended to do. “The Pill,” for instance. What the heck is it? My sister tells me it’s a Bluetooth speaker. There were other Bluetooth speakers on display. Interestingly, they are in a different category than the “home audio” speakers. Certainly, they seem to be more focused on visual design than on sound, although that’s hard to confirm since I didn’t hear them. I couldn’t help noticing that one of them had, as part of the advertising in its display, the slogan “make music social.” To be honest, I’m not one hundred percent sure exactly what they’re selling, but I think they’re wireless speakers again. (Advertisements that don’t make clear what the product is could be a post all its own. Since Amazon sells a similar looking thing that isn’t just a speaker but also records everything you say and sends it back to Amazon, a speaker might be more than just a speaker these days. I tracked down a video advertizement for the social thing and I’m still unsure what the product does, although the video apparently won an advertising award.)
Still, the slogan, like the comment that music is no longer the prime focus, said something about how things had changed. I don’t want to fall into the trap of nostalgia. I like technology and would be perfectly happy for a newer and better way of doing things. I don’t yearn for the “warm” sound of analog or think that the pops on a vinyl record add character. Yet there’s something odd about “making” music social. As an art form, music predates recorded history and it has always been social. It’s only been a little over a decade, with the emergence of the iPod as the dominant form of music playback, that music has ceased to be social. It’s strange to think that the very young adults of today have had a significantly different experience of music than almost everyone else, lets say people over thirty or thirty-five.
When the Sony Walkman portable cassette player first came out, older people complained that people who used them were anti-social. However, although they became very common over time, they never became the dominant form of playback. They were always ancillary to other methods. This was probably due to the fact that the media, the compact cassette, could be used in both home stereos, since those usually included a cassette deck, and car stereos, which is why I own so many cassettes.
Going back to my teenage years, I mostly found out about new music from two sources, the radio and my peers. For those young enough to not know, radio stations at the time were intensely local. The individual deejays had a fair amount of discretion about what they played. When someone would by a new record album, it wouldn’t be at all unusual to invite friends over with the very specific intent of listening to it. Now, I don’t want to make it sound as if you couldn’t say a word while the record was playing, but the recording remained the focus. My taste in music expanded as I got to know other people who had been exposed to other things.
Which brings me the reasons I’m going to all the trouble to rip my vinyl. My sister suggested that I just repurchase much of it. One reason is simply that some songs that I listen to only occasionally will be budgeted out. I have two Johnny Cash records. I’m pretty sure if I were to repurchase any Johnny Cash songs, it will be only two or three. Same for Joe Cocker, Sonic Youth, Al Green, The Supremes, Santana, really just about every record except the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls.” Some of these, especially in cases where my favorite song has too many pops and scratches to be listenable, I will in all likelihood do just that.
Another reason has to do with my own sense of personal history. Years ago, record albums were a fairly common gift. Their size and shape were a dead give-away under the Christmas tree. I can remember who gave me what and when. Furthermore, I have records that I inherited from my grandfather when he died and others that had belonged to my father. I probably wouldn’t buy many of those again, although I do occasionally listen to them. They just wouldn’t be prioritized. In fact, if I got rid of the physical records, I might literally forget them. Even when I bought the record myself, I can remember sometimes who introduced me to it. I remember going with my mother when she visited a friend who had a daughter my age. We went down to the basement where she had a stereo and that was the first time I heard Steely Dan’s “Aja,” which had only just come out and hadn’t yet gotten much airplay.
Then there are also the things that can’t be purchased again. A flexidisc from a comic book. A few things from unsigned bands, though most of those are either on cassettes or CDs. Hawking cassettes with four songs was a really common thing after performances. Do bands still do anything like that? Download from our website when you get home? I’d probably forget.
All of these things make up, for lack of a better word, what I think of as my “taste.” I might supplement this with a music streaming service that has a larger library than one person could ever own, yet there is something impersonal about that. The fact that you can’t personally own everything forces you to make a judgment.
I finally seem to have everything set up, and am having the interesting experience of listening to every record album I own while making a digital copy. If I understand the laws correctly, I’m allowed to make a copy for my own use. Still, it’s been quite an effort, especially if you consider the searching the internet for possible ways of doing it. My sister tells me that my brother-in-law these days mainly listens to music with his laptop on his lap from the built-in speakers. It’s hard to blame him.
The other day, while I was trying to put my current set-up together and was running into some serious snags. The first was simply being unable to update the Kodi program because I had forgotten the password. My serious disorganization meant that I had no clue where I might have put it. Surely it was lying on a slip of paper somewhere. There’s a pile of slips of papers with cryptic writings on them which appear to be passwords to unknown things. I tried all of them and none worked. Finally, I decided the only remedy was to reinstall the entire thing. The initial install a year ago went very smoothly. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case this time. I won’t bore you with all the things that didn’t work. All small. All solvable. However, the sheer number, as well as the sore feet I was getting from standing in front of the HTPC and the annoyance of walking back and forth between computers, well, I sort of wound up in a ball on the floor crying. I couldn’t help feeling that what I wanted was so simple. I just wanted to listen to music in a way similar to the way I had for most of my life before iTunes. Why did it have to be so hard?
My mother called my sister and asked her if she had heard from me. “Oh, don’t call her right now. She’s really upset. She’s trying to burn her records and CDs.”
My mother said, “Burning?”
“No, no,” my sister said. “I meant ripping.”
“What! She’s burning and ripping things!”
How ironic, just as I was writing that, I smelled my potato and chicken soup burning on the stove. A sign to wrap this up.
I’m not trying to say that one way of listening to music is inherently better than others. I’m just looking at the pros and cons. To quote a song, “something’s lost but something’s gained.”