I have always had a theory about music. I believe that our musical taste, more than our taste in any art form, is shaped by people we know and aspire to be like. I think that musical taste is much more learned than we realize, much more formed than innate. The music that we like and the music that we hate are strongly associated with people in our lives.
Our parents give us our earliest foundation for music. My mother used to always listen to oldies in the car, and now I love doo-wop and early rock and roll from the 1960s. My father bought a huge stereo system so he could feel like he was at a Bruce Springsteen concert. I’ve always loved the Boss. In my adolescence, I had camp friends from Washington, D.C. who followed the local punk scene, and I like Black Flag and Henry Rollins. I can trace my love for musical theater, Tom Waits and Elliott Smith, Radiohead and Pink Floyd directly back to their roots, which is always some friend of other with whom those songs, those artists, have particular meaning.
I’ve had an eclectic group of friends, and I have eclectic taste. After spending five years living in Brooklyn and teaching High School, it was impossible not to love Hip-Hop. Too many people with whom I don’t get along are huge country music fans, and so I’ve never been able to relate.
Women have played a very strong role in my musical taste. A girl I had a crush on once mentioned Poi Dog Pondering. I hated them at first, but after a couple years of nostalgia creeping in, I found I kept coming back to their silly, whimsical first album. A long distance relationship used to send me mix tapes with U2 and Led Zeppelin in heavy rotation. My wife and I spent a summer seeing as many Dave Matthews Band shows as we could. Our wedding song was a Dave Matthews ballad.
Music is important to me, and not just in a general way. I like listening to music, but I love listening to the right song at the right moment. I like hearing a sequence of great songs in progression, like I’m casting a spell to remember my past and relive relationships that have long since faded. When my son was an infant, I used to sing James’ “Lullabye” to him every night, since it was the first song that came to mind when I wanted to sing him a lullabye. When I knew I was going to get laid off from my first Web job, I quelled my nervousness by listening to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of,” thinking it’s impossible to listen to Rage and feel nervous at the same time. The right song at the right moment is often more important to me than simply hearing good music.
I hate the song “Hallelujah.” I should qualify that. I love Leonard Cohen and I like his original version of the song, though it isn’t in my top ten favorite Leonard Cohen tunes. I hate cover versions. I think the song is dull and overdone. I’ve been to two weddings where “Hallelujah” was the bride and groom’s song. It’s a song that includes the lyric “all I ever learned from love is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya.” A quick search of iTunes reveals more than 30 different cover versions of the song.
I stopped listening to Pandora after the third cover version of “Hallelujah” that I heard in less than one hour. After the second, I changed to a different custom station, only to hear another version. Then I stopped. Every streaming music service I’ve used has burdened me with “Hallelujah.” It must be the greatest song of all time, because the Internet thinks I need to hear it over and over again. I’m tired of it, and I’d rather make my own playlist, anyway.
I fear cloud music services. I hear rumors about Apple’s plan to move all of our music into the cloud, and I take this to the next logical step. Why should I store all 64GB of my own music in the cloud? Why should I own any of my own music at all? If there was a streaming service that could serve me any song I wanted to hear, I wouldn’t need to own music. I wouldn’t need to worry about storage capacity, or making playlists. No DRM management, because all of the music would be handled somewhere else. Sounds like a musical utopia, right?
Wrong. See, in the thirty or so years I’ve been listening to music, I’ve picked up quite a few rarities and unique tracks, and many of these songs are more meaningful to me than a few dozen versions of “Hallelujah.” An old friend used to play trombone in a Ska trio, and I love the five song CD that he passed around in the summer of 1992. I don’t know if it’s great music, but it’s meaningful to me, and that’s much more important.
I used to sing A Cappella music in college with a couple of groups. We weren’t very good, but we made an album anyway. More importantly, though, we would trade our album with other groups, some of whom were very good. You can’t buy those CDs any more, the groups all graduated and stopped printing the old albums.
I have bootlegs of live shows that I attended, and some where I wished I was there. I have out of print albums, rare songs and versions that I just like better than the one you’ll hear most often. I have some music files where I’ve cut out a few seconds from the beginning or end, and albums that I like to listen to in a particular order. I think Phish’s “Billy Breathes” is a much better album if the second track starts the show, and the first track comes last.
Sometimes I want to hear new music. For this, the online services are better than any other options for matching my taste and finding tunes I might enjoy. I’m not saying that online music is worthless, but I worry that we’re on a slow, steady road to giving up our own music libraries in favor of a giant, democratized library that lives in the cloud. There’s value in owning our own music, in controlling our own files and tracks. There’s emotion and nostalgia, plus a certain level of control and serendipity. If we come to a point where we give this up and start to think of music as something ethereal that rains down on us from a cloud, I can tell you what I won’t be singing: