In late 2007 Alec Duffy, artistic director of the New York theater company Hoi Polloi, won a songwriting contest held by Sufjan Stevens and was awarded exclusive rights to a Sufjan tune, “The Lonely Man of Winter,” that had never been released or publicly performed. Duffy was entitled to do whatever he wanted with the song—press it as a single, upload it to the Internet, even license it to the highest bidder.
But what he and Hoi Polloi’s music director, Dave Malloy, eventually decided to do was invite anyone who wanted to hear the song to listen to it for free at one of their Brooklyn apartments. They began hosting cozy gatherings—usually no more than four guests—intended to keep the experience of the song, in Malloy’s words, “special, and memorable, and dear, and fuzzy.” This decision provoked startling anger—Duffy and Malloy were called hoarders, elitists, and worse for what one commenter at the Sufjan fan site All Good Naysayers dismissed as their “little asshat teaparties.”
Technological innovations that affect the average person’s daily life—cell phones, CDs, social networking sites—often meet with reactionary, even defiantly Luddite opposition, and the rise of the sound file as a music format finally seems to be triggering that sort of resistance. Nobody’s complaining about the fact that most musically inclined computer users can easily and affordably compile a collection thousands of albums deep, studded with material that’s hard or impossible to find in a physical format. What is drawing fire, aside from no-brainers like illicit file sharing and the poor audio quality of the ubiquitous MP3 and AAC formats, is a cluster of habits often called “digital listening.” Those afflicted tend to accumulate music faster than they can listen to it and skip restlessly from track to track, often without getting through more than a fraction of any one song.
My iTunes library, with its 28 solid days of music, is modest as such things go—it would only half fill a 120 GB iPod Classic. But the way I experience this collection is very different from how I experience a wall of LPs. I add a couple albums’ worth of material a day, and that’s not counting digital promos, streaming audio, or stuff I download but delete after one listen—and even harder to get my head around than this constant influx and turnover is my instant access to the entire thing (plus anything else I might decide to hunt for online). I can feel my attention span disintegrate just thinking about it.
“You don’t have to be a music critic,” says Seattle music critic and former Reader contributor Michaelangelo Matos, “to be breathing in more music than you can breathe out.” Matos, whose other credits include writing for Idolator, eMusic, the Stranger, and Seattle Weekly (where he was music editor for a time), loves that so much music is so easily available, but he admits that it’s harder now for him to have a dear and fuzzy connection to any of it. So he announced via a blog post in late December that he was going on a musical diet, which he calls Slow Listening in a nod to the Slow Food movement. For the first 11 months of 2009 he’s holding himself to strict rules: “I’m only allowing myself to download one MP3 at a time,” he writes at slowlisteningmovement.blogspot.com. The next MP3 can only be downloaded once he’s listened to the current one. If he buys a CD, he must listen to it all the way through before he buys another. His one-terabyte hard drive—that’s 1,000 GB—still has about 250GB of music on it, but his laptop library is already slimmed way down to 19 GB.
“Music exploded over the past 20 years,” Matos says. “The figure Robert Christgau likes to put out there is, ‘There’s twice as much music made per year than there are hours to listen to it.’ This is pure conjecture on my part, but I would say that now it’s actually more music made per month than you can listen to in a year.” One thing’s clear: if your music-consumption habits are dictated primarily by the amount of space left on your hard drive, your ears will never catch up with your collection.
Members of the Italian design collective Space NVDRS have kept those habits in mind as they’ve developed the NVDRS Tape, an MP3 player that will double as a behavior-modification device. Its aluminum housing is shaped like a cassette tape, and instead of an iPod’s info-rich display you get only an LCD progress meter that looks like that little window on a cassette that shows how much tape is on each reel. You can’t skip from song to song, and to fast forward or rewind at all you have to stick your finger in one of the spindle holes and turn the imaginary reel. Perhaps most important, the players hold just 45, 60, or 90 minutes of music at a time.
I e-mailed the collective, asking them to elaborate on their claim that these were the “right” amounts of time. “The evolution of MP3 players is all around quantity,” they replied, “with no attention to the experience or to the feelings a song can evocate into who listen to it: having plenty of space on your microscopic player lets you manage entire discographies but at the price of erasing any value inside them.... Real creativity comes out from limits.”
This argument sounds a lot like arguments against supermarkets and other consumerist expressions of “freedom of choice.” And in light of the existence of download blogs that post a dozen or more complete albums every day, to say nothing of pocket-size players that can hold 30,000 songs, it probably is worth asking whether this freedom is encouraging otherwise sensible listeners to treat the world of music like an Old Country Buffet, with all the lapses in healthy good judgment that implies. That’s the point Duffy and Malloy say they’re making with their decision not to distribute “The Lonely Man of Winter”—despite the fulminating about manufactured scarcity from fanboys used to being able to download anything they want, it’s really just a way of reminding us how wonderful it can be to immerse ourselves completely and reverently in a piece of music.
That’s not to say I expect Slow Listening to triumph. Slow Food’s incremental progress in popularizing local, organic, and small-scale food production notwithstanding, McDonald’s is still everywhere. Apple is hardly going to ditch the iPod Classic (which it bills as the “take-everything-everywhere” player) for its own version of the NVDRS Tape; even the smallest Shuffle holds about 12 hours of music. And hard-core music hoarders aren’t going to wake up one morning to find that the Pirate Bay has closed up shop out of a newfound sense of self-restraint (though of course it might get shut down for other reasons).
Only the occasional freak will adhere to Matos’s regimen, but at least the idea’s out there, where it might influence lots of listeners in less dramatic ways. If more people turned off shuffle and really paid attention, maybe there wouldn’t be so many of them complaining about how crappy new music is, even as the Web continues to facilitate an unprecedented outpouring of creativity. Seriously—anyone who can be bored with music today is projecting his own shallowness onto the world. I’ll be thinking about that while I transfer my iTunes library to the bigger hard drive I just bought.