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Making Music Communal

My roommate and I both had laptops crash within two weeks of each other—and if I were a betting man, I would guess that downloading may have something to do with it. Now, don’t tell the FBI, but the two of us like to download music. And by “like,” I mean, it’s more or less all we do while we pretend to do homework and respond to emails.

If you know anything about downloading music, then you know finding it is as simple as a few keystrokes and mouse clicks via a Google search engine. Think of an artist. Now consider that virtually anything this artist has ever done is minutes (or seconds, depending on your Internet connection) away from your iTunes library and eventually your stereo.

Before you know it, you may find yourself with more music than you could ever listen to. The last time I checked my old iTunes library, I had 127,000 songs on my hard drive. To comprehend how many hours of music I actually had, well, “borrowed,” iTunes informed me that if I began listening to the first song in my library, (which, if you must know, was “Intro” by 50 Cent), it would take 72 days and eight hours of playback until the library’s end.

That’s a lot of music.

Often, I’ve heard arguments from my more minimalist friends that music is more meaningful if you narrow down your music library. I knew a guy once who kept his entire library in one CD wallet. He knew every beat and lyric in Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and Damien Rice’s 9. But I never really paid attention to his argument, because I was too busy reading up on the latest and greatest musicians I would download, preview and ultimately forget about.

What if we actually thought about what we are ingesting? The excellent documentary Food, Inc. suggested the growing obesity epidemic is most likely representative of a culture that gives little thought to what it consumes. Shine a few buzz words such as “diet,” “soy” and “value” before something and we’re all over it. In the West, we hungrily devour our food before we’ve even begun to think about what we’ve eaten.

Likewise, we adopt similar attitudes with the music we consume. Many of my peers hardly listen to the radio anymore; they’re too busy downloading the latest buzz band. Lyrics, album art and even song structures are dismissed. We’re preoccupied impressing each other with our “eclectic” or “ironic” tastes.

The only thing I regret about ignoring the radio in my teens was how out of the loop I would be when my friends would quote the latest Britney or Eminem song. And despite how my friends listened to the same songs every day on their local station’s Top 40, they thought about what they listened to. Everyone was on the same page, singing the same lyrics aloud.

When done right, music unifies. Of course, music can bring people together on a number of different worldviews and opinions, many of which probably wouldn’t make your parents too happy. Or encourage a record free of felonies. That said, music is something meant to be consumed communally; it isn’t something meant to be binged upon in a cubicle or dorm room desk. Music is culture is music; it is meant to be shared.

We’ve descended from street performances to indoor venues to televised sessions. We’ve gone from the record player to the car stereo to the Walkman. Earbuds tune out the world we once used our ears to tune into. Music isolates where it once unified.

Art becomes more vibrant when you’re sharing it with a friend. There’s a cold quality of indifference to the art one is consuming when it is ingested alone.

Now, I would be lying if I said there weren’t many a night where my roommate and I stood five feet away from each other in complete silence, downloading music. Eventually, I stopped listening to the music I downloaded, and the act of consumption slowly morphed into a mindless errand. I became stuck in a joyless cycle.

A miracle happened when my laptop crashed; not one song out of the 127,000 was backed up. So when my laptop went the way of the dodo, my entire library disappeared with it. Left with a clean slate, I’ve had to sit and think about the artists and recordings to which I will lend my time. To whom I will lend my ears.

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In two weeks’ time, I’ve consolidated my library from 127,000 songs to 493. And for once, I’m actually listening to my music.

Ironically, I’m waiting on a few Bob Dylan bootleg recordings to finish downloading as I write this. But this time, I’m thinking about what I’ve downloaded. About what I’m listening to. I’m not trying to impress my friends with an ironic taste in music, or vainly trying to be “in the know”, showing off an album through my car stereo three weeks before its release in stores.

Rather, I sit and reflect on my Otis Redding, Van Morrison and Jay-Z records as art with history, context and value behind them. Last night, I listened to The National’s latest, High Violet, from start to finish on the home stereo. Instead of listening with my “earplugs,” the songs resonated aloud throughout the house. As the album played in the background, I had the chance to talk to my roommates about it. About what they liked and didn’t like. And a strange thing happened:

Communication. 

If anything I’ve said here hits home, then I double-dog-dare you to join me. I dare you to stop  downloading for a moment and to think about what you’re listening to. I dare you to put your mind on a diet. I dare you to digest. To pause. To cherish. Halt, and you just might feel something the next time you hear a song. You may begin to experience a sensation known to a lucky but select few: “appreciation.”

John Taylor is a recent graduate of Taylor University, where he studied Psychology. He has written for RELEVANT and several other online publications. He tries to eat vegetarian whenever possible, and generally has difficulty describing himself in the third person. Follow him on Twitter at @johntaylortweet.

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