Wait, Wait, Don’t Give It to Me: The Trade-offs of Music Convenience

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal posted this profile on how David Letterman and his Late Night Show has increased exposure to Americana artists for the last few decades.

TV variety shows no longer have the power to mint megastars from musicians as they did in the ’50s and ’60s, when Elvis Presley and the Beatles made historic appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” But Mr. Letterman’s support of country and Americana acts suggests that late-night television can pack a punch for such artists by providing a national stage in an age of fragmented media.

After reading the article, I found myself nostalgic about those halcyon days not so long ago when television programs played a huge part in my musical consumption. I remember what a big deal it was to see musicians on Saturday Night Live back in the day, using an old-school antenna from the roof of our home nestled in the hollow. We could barely pick up NBC most nights – often all we got was colorful snow. But what excitement that was. One that sticks out to me in particular was the 1997 appearance by The Spice Girls. When I huddled in my friend’s basement with her sisters and watched the semi-clear version of our beloved Spice Girls LIVE for the first time, we were entranced. I mean Ginger’s dress!!!! There they are!!!!!!

Listening to music and seeing music performed required so much more effort, and I think maybe that made it more special. I had to rush to my room after church on Sunday to listen to the top 40 countdowns. I had to do my chores during TRL commercials as a pre-condition to even get to see it. I had to be near some device that I could put music INTO to play. Now my music is always in my pocket, and I think I just take it for granted. Now, we don’t even have to stay awake for performances on SNL or late night talk shows; we don’t have to watch full awards shows if we don’t want to. We can stream them the next day, or next week, or WHENEVER we want.

I wonder if this has lessened our experience while also increasing our expectations. Sometimes I pull up a performance video by a band I like, but I close it out before I finish if I’m just not feeling it. Or I just click on another video and keep jumping till I find one that suits my mood.

It’s impossible to quantify how much time and memory have romanticized the past, and I know to some extent it definitely has. I don’t think I would trade it – increased control and access opens up so much more of the world to me. But just like with food or money – having an opportunity for it does not ensure we will act responsibly. We still have to be discerning and make wise decisions. We have so much in front of us, it’s easy to glut on it, easy to half-eat and spit out before taking the time to taste it.

And to circle back to the WSJ article —

Mr. Letterman often makes special requests of Americana performers, such as asking country singer Elizabeth Cook if she could learn “Pale Blue Eyes,” which was written by Lou Reed and performed by the Velvet Underground. “He’s quite the curator,” says Ms. Cook, whose SiriusXM radio show, “Apron Strings,” counts Mr. Letterman among its listeners. “He should probably be a record producer in his next career.”

— I have to wonder if, as we gain access and freedom and independence – do we lose something by no longer getting the touch of the curator? And the thing is – there’s actually more ability for people to curate and suggest than ever before (see Tunesday and Fresh Music Friday!). But it’s also easy to get overwhelmed, and I tend to often just retreat into what I know. I’m also just short on time and energy. I never listen to radio stations, I am pretty bad at seeking out playlists on Spotify, and I rarely even remember that I can access iTunes radio whenever I want. And with new services like Tidal hitting the ground, it seems like the sources of streaming music are so vast and changing, I don’t even know where to start some days – which is easy and affordable and ethical? Ugh, I have to weigh all these things just to listen to music?? Fine – I’m just going to listen to what I already own, dang it, and rely on my friends’ suggestions.

Old Faithful

Old Faithful

So while I wouldn’t trade it, I do miss the days of having go-to programs to see music. “Who’s on SNL this week?” and “Oh, look, so and so will be on Letterman tonight – I must tune in!” – these are things I personally never say anymore. Reflecting on this, I developed a mini-challenge for myself. For the next week, I will not listen to any of the music I currently own. I will not listen to any artists or songs I’ve heard before. I will not use YouTube (something I rely on for music all the time) with the exception of songs my fellow writers here recommend. I will seek out alternative ways to find new music. I will do as much as I can to avoid my go-to genres of Americana, folk, rock, and bluegrass. I will find new things! And I will report back next Thursday on my adventure. 🙂