I love all kinds of music. Unless I am listening to a podcast or have conceded to have a conversation, chances are I’m listening to rock, electronica, classical, jazz, world music, or occasionally folk, hip hop, or funk. I enjoy soundtracks and concept albums. I follow the careers of many singer-songwriters, even the ones who basically release the same album over and over again. I dig digging into a song, to figure out how it’s put together; but I’m also content to have tunes in the background, making dull activities more dramatic. I can scrutinize lyrics endlessly, but some of my favourite vocalists are incomprehensible or nonsensical. I enjoy learning facts about styles, songs and musicians, in the way some weirdoes crave sports trivia.
I have plenty of reasons why I listen to music. But as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with the how. One thing I’m sure of, though I keep resisting the inevitable truth: I can’t stand concerts. Nietzsche wrote, “Without music, life would be a mistake,” but the real mistake is confusing music with musicians. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are musicians. But I also know some awesome computer programmers, yet I’ll wait and the download the app when it’s all finished, thanks.
S and X and I went to a free family-friendly concert in Lille this weekend. To find the venue, we crossed through a mall which, according to X, “smells like armpits”; then up four flights of corrugated metal stairs, across a beer-bottle apocalypse, through a security checkpoint where I got frisked by a biker, and across a raincatcher grille containing 10,000 drowned cigarette butts before finally gaining access to the venue. The concert was in session: a Moe Berg lookalike, wearing wings and an LED halo, was playing the guitar and belting out French. I lasted literally five minutes, long enough to ensure that X was content; then I escaped back into the relative paradise of the armpit mall.
The music wasn’t bad, but I found it impossible to tell if it was any good because, as soon as I was in the venue, I lost all basis of comparison. It was loud and pushy; the auditorium was dark and crowded; I wasn’t allowed to think about anything except the song. If I’d had the opportunity to let my mind start to wander, then maybe I’d have been able to say, “Wow, this shaggy bespectacled angel really pulls me right back to him!” The moment I become a captive audience, I resist any attempts at Stockholm Syndrome and start scouting out the exits.
It’s always been this way. I can only recall voluntarily buying tickets for one concert in my entire life: the Division Bell tour in 1994. But I was mostly going in the hopes of hooking up again with my recent ex-girlfriend. That was a mistake – we both loved Pink Floyd, but prog-rock doesn’t make anybody horny. And that’s the other problem I have with live concerts: I don’t know how I’m expected to feel most of the time. Around 2005, my friends took me to see Metric in concert, and I spent the whole time wondering if I was expected to appreciate the emotional complexity of their lyrics or if I was allowed to enjoy the shortness of Emily Haines’s skirt (Canadian alt-rock, apparently, can make people horny).
I came to peace with my dislike of concerts by studying the Beatles. In 1966, at the height of their popularity, the Fab Four stopped touring, and threw all their creative efforts into their studio work – you know, actually making music. When I learned that fact, I knew: if they could become a studio band, I could rest easy being an armchair listener. In fact, I’m rather proud to point out that, whereas the Beatles broke up four years later over irreconcilable creative differences, I’m still here, in my armchair, harmoniously soaking up their harmonies.
My collecting methods have evolved fitfully. Before digital, I made mixtapes from radio songs captured on cassette. My CD collection began somewhat haphazardly in 1989 with Hooked on Classics, the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack, and a shameful 50s medley album by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers. In the 90s, I reviewed new music for a few local papers, so my CD collection haemorrhaged with one-and-done indie bands – along with a few diamonds in the rough, groups with forgettable handles like Swell, Sprawl, Eels, and the awesome but aptly named Failure. Despite having access to the latest music, I was never on the bleeding edge of any musical revolution. While Nirvana was ceding college airplay time to Radiohead, I was blithely listening to R.E.M.’s ninth album, thinking, “These guys might really have something.”
In the 00s, maintaining a music collection got complicated. I sealed up my cassette mixtapes in a water-permeable box and uploaded all my CDs to iTunes, so I could listen to maybe five of them at time on an early iPod knockoff. I always loved “shuffle” functions, yet something in me mourned the integrity of a complete album, especially once it became easier to buy them digitally and drop them immediately into the soupy shuffle stew of my digital collection. Now, I go back and forth between “shuffle all” and “today, let’s listen to a whole Paul Simon album.”
But I’m always hungry, and ever since I left journalism, discovering new music has been tough for a shut-in. I’ve gone through many online music services with even worse names than the indie bands: Pandora, 8track, Songza, Spotify. Most are poorly designed – like walking into a record store equipped with buttons for sampling every single album available, they overwhelm me with choice – which I realize is the ironic opposite of my live-concert, sensory-deprivation problem. But I’m officially an aficionado now, so I feel I’ve earned the right to be ornery.
The most stress-free online listening device I’ve ever found is Radio Paradise, a site I’d recommend to anyone with half an ear. Its secret is its simplicity: it’s a radio station that plays eclectic but uniformly great music. And if you like analysing lyrics, you can do much worse than genius.com. Neither site will ever try to frisk you when you log in.