At Amoeba Music in San Francisco (Credit: Hang Yin)

More Music, or More From Music

To me, music has always been more than just a form of entertainment. It’s the vehicle that takes me through time and space, to learn and experience the diverse cultures associated with it. From west coast gangsta rap in the 90s in California to glam rock in the 70s in the UK, the ideas in the music challenged and influenced me — some of them have already become part of who I am. The music I listen to evolves over time, reflecting changes of my aesthetics, situation, mood, attitude and beliefs. It creates a complex, intimate emotional space, where a particular piece of music is associated with a particular person, time period or location, and thus carries special meaning. It is the essential medium that encapsulates the important aspects of my life over time.

I used to buy cassettes, CDs and collect digital music online, before the existence of streaming music services. It was not easy to get music. I usually only had a few new albums each month. A lot of attention was paid to what I listened to, from picking to studying lyrics, to finding relevant background information. If it’s an album I liked, I would put it on repeat over and over, and eventually grow familiar with every song of it.

I was quite excited when I first tried streaming music. With a cheap monthly subscription, I can access as much music as I want, without any hassles of going to the record store, or waiting for downloads. However, soon I found myself not able to recall what I had listened recently, and what’s special about it. I was listening to a lot of different things, but only briefly as background music while working. The connection that once made me fall in love with certain music went missing. I derived less and less value and joy. It’s paradoxical that the more I listen to it, the less I get from it.

This is not just happening to me. The way we consume music is changing how we see music and what role it plays in our lives. To more and more people, music is the thing that they dance to in the club, the thing that helps them to focus at work. Indeed those are important utilities music offers. But fewer and fewer people would stop to get to know the artists and producers who made the music, in what context they made it, think about how they feel about it, what they like or dislike about it and why, or even just pay a little attention to the album art and lyrics.

The fast food consumption manner in turn encourages more fast food music to be made, and music services to be designed around it. It’s always about better recommendations for what to try next, better playlists for jogging and parties, aiming for eliminating all the burden of deciding what to play and never letting the music stop. It’s never about looking back on what I have played, learning more about the music as well as myself, or developing a meaningful connection with the music and the artist. I wonder if in the future, there will still be cases where an artist like David Bowie passed away, people would weep and talk about the influences on themselves with awe and gratitude.

I am not alone thinking about these issues:

Personally, I’ve been tracking my music intake both on and Douban, a Chinese interest-based social platform, similar to the Quantified Self movement. I read wikipedia pages and articles, find live music videos on Youtube as distractions from work. I watch documentaries about music scenes or musicians when I can’t think of a good movie. Recently I started writing to capture the transient thoughts while doing all of these. It has helped to bring back the value I get from listening to music.

Surely not everyone needs to be as dedicated. Everyone has their own way of enjoying it. What I hope is that there could be more tools or services, that encourage people to slow down, re-discover the magic world of music and benefit more from it.