Both of the generations previous to me had the same understanding of portable media: you grabbed the records that you wanted to listen to, you took them to the place you were going, and if that place had a record player too, then you could listen to those records. The media itself was portable; the player was not. Humorously enough, my great-grandparents actually had it a little easier, in that the very first gramophones did not require electricity, and could be carried from place to place, and could even be used while on the go if you wanted. Most of them were very heavy and were not always worth the effort, but there were some companies that made very small players – with very small horns – which could fit in the palm of your hand and could deliver a three-minute song. If you had a huge bag that contained a number of these cylinders, you could realistically listen to about 20 of them outside of the house.
On the whole, people did not do this, and so the idea of portable media as we think of it – where the player and the media are in use while on the go – is a very recent development in our culture. For me, it began with my first walkman, and I would carry with me a handful of tapes in my backpack as I was skating, walking, or busing around town, content with the four or five albums, and the one or two mixtapes, I could carry. Culturally speaking, walkmen were disliked in droves when they were first introduced. A lot of people complained that they were making the listeners deaf, that the people using them were distracted, and that prolonged usage would create a world of Marty McFlys. (I can remember a number of sitcoms that employed the, “Huh?” joke as a listener would pull one side of their headphones off so they could try and hear the insult that was just lobbed in their direction.)
Not to be outdone, the introduction of .mp3 Players, and the dominance of the iPod / iPhone as a platform for portable media, has completely normalized the idea of portable media. Digital releases are expected by teenagers, and grandparents can be seen putting in their earbuds as they are power-walking. I’ve always been interested in all things audio, and I couldn’t wait to get my first iPod – a lime-green mini that I got free with my first laptop. For years it was at my side non-stop until it just stopped working just after the warrantee ran out. After that, I upgraded to a very fancy black iPod with a color screen that could carry 80 GB of music. (I decided not to get the iTouch, in spite of the clerk’s insistence that it was amazing, only because at the time I couldn’t fathom what I would do with something that did more than just play music.) Not too much later, the iPhone came out, and in the wake of a break-up, I bought one as an impulse purchase. Within a couple weeks, I sold my iPod and have stuck with the iPhone, and have had one ever since.
What initially attracted me to .mp3 players were the simple fact that I no longer had to limit myself to the handful of tapes that I could carry with me. Even at 3 GB, the idea that I could carry that much music music with me, and not have to bring anything other than the device on which I would listen to it, absolutely blew me away. Already attracted to CDs (and the random feature on CD Players) I loved the notion that I was programming a very small jukebox – or even a radio station specifically tailored to my tastes.
Time has continued to pass, and developments in portable media have almost completely eliminated the idea that there is even a limit to the music that you can “carry.” Devices have capacities that are unthinkable when compared to what I imagined as a teenager. Smart Playlists have created environments where we can algorithmically program the means through which we enjoy or music. (“Random” seems very quaint now by comparison.) Between YouTube, “Cloud” storage, the iTunes store, and a host of other means through which we can absorb media when the mood strikes us, we very literally have unlimited access to more content available than any of us could ever hear in our lifetimes, not to mention the new content that is continually being developed and created every day. Who could ask for anything more?
This desire to carry our entire music collections with us everywhere has eliminated something from our listening experience that used to be the driving force behind the act of listening to music: intention. Rather than selecting albums that we will listen to as pieces of art – or even as singles and EPs that we want to check out – we create listening environments that turn our devices into digital audio landscapes. To quote Negativland, “Too many choices is no choice at all,” and now that we have the ability to hear everything, we are no longer listening to anything. Rather, we amass huge collections, push play, hear the first few seconds of a track, get distracted, and start doing something else.
When considered reasonably, no one could ever listen to all the music they have collected in one day. For most people, you could not listen to it all in a month either. The notion that we need access to everything is more marketing than anything else. Look what you can do! We agree that yes, we could eat fast food every day of our lives, too. We can also drink a fifth of bourbon and pop any number of over the counter pills. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Anymore, I no longer believe that “music” has started to “suck” in recent years, but rather, the means through which we digest it has started to completely blow chunks.
I admit, I am guilty of consuming media in less-than-ideal means on a regular basis. I love random features, I have an unwieldy collection of digitized music, I am never more than a few feet away from my Borg Implant, and I see the world divided into times that I can listen to music, and times that I cannot. But I am trying to make improvements. I love music. I think listening to a song is one of the most sublime forms of entertainment a person can enjoy, and I want to make sure that I never develop a habit that reduces the value of this incredible human experience.
With this in mind, I’ve been working on reducing the amount of media I carry with me to no more than 12 hours. Even that amount is more than I can realistically “listen to” in one day (without reducing most of it to background music), and beyond that, I’m fooling myself anyway. During my recent trip up north, I brought with me 20 hours audio, and in a full week did not manage to listen to it all. Not only did this open my eyes to the ludicrousness of “instant access to everything all the time,” but it also made me realize that by being more selective I could maximize the enjoyment I can get out of music. Having to actually think about what music I bring with me creates and environment where I am selecting specific artistic expressions I want to enjoy, rather than just cramming as much as I can fit into the device of my choice.
It’s not perfect, of course. I’d like to get that amount down to 6 hours, or less even. And I know I will never win over listeners who grew up in a world where digital entertainment was already the norm. I’ve tried to bridge this subject with a few people within my own age-range, and even they are confused as to why I would want to limit the amount of music I have access to. But it is not a question of limitation. I still have access to everything I own at any point in the future. That isn’t going anywhere.
The question becomes: what do I want to listen to right now? I want to be able to answer that without activating the “shuffle” feature, and without resorting to, “I don’t know.” There’s enough green slime in our lives as it is.