The Audio Cynic

An Embarrassment of Riches

Leave it to an indy hipster musician with several different noms de scène de musicien (stage names) to angst over having too much music.

Funny thing is—I agree with him.

James Jackson Toth is a musician who has worked in a number of genres under a number of names. As an alt-country/freak folk/whatever musician, Toth is best-known by the name Wooden Wand, for some reason. Leaving that aside, he’s written a thoughtful piece for the NPR website entitled, “Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment in Dedicated Listening”. Think of it as Future Shock for the streaming world.

As well as being a musician, Toth started writing record reviews and working in a record store as a teenager in the ’90s. Soon, he felt as though he’d hit the mother lode: free promo copies of new releases started arriving, in abundance.

Toth: “By the end of any given week, I had more music on my desk than someone only a century ago was able to hear in five lifetimes, and all without spending so much as a dollar.

“Then came the Internet.”

With the introduction of file-sharing came the rush: “It was incredible. I missed a few shifts at the record store and definitely lost a few nights of sleep. I remained indoors and had to be reminded to take regular meals. Only in retrospect can I see that my obsession with music — once the proud badge of the misfit, the precocious autodidact — was beginning to resemble something prosaic and common, like an addiction to World of Warcraft or Internet porn.”

Toth notes that ” When you’re young, few things keep you caring about a thing more than feeling like you’re the only one who really cares about it. [My emphasis—Ed.]  I know far more today about albums I hated in 1990 than I do about my favorite albums released last year.”

And then—the resultant flow of new stuff became overwhelming, and induced in Toth a strange panic, a sense of being overwhelmed, besieged. He found that he stopped remembering or caring as much, and not only was it all too much, but there was no cessation of the too-muchedness. The pace of accumulation didn’t just stay the same—it kept increasing: “My collection was starting to feel like an albatross, and, ironically, was cutting into my recreational listening time. On New Year’s Eve 2013, I made a resolution: ‘Less stockpiling; more listening.’ Like most resolutions, this one was mostly forgotten by the first week of February.

“And then one day, a revelation: It occurred to me that it was no longer just difficult to hear all the music I’d amassed, but impossible. I mean literally, mathematically impossible: I calculated that if I lived another, say, 40 years, and spent every minute of those next 40 years — that’s no sleeping, no eating — listening to my collection of music, I would be dead before I could make it all the way through. That means there are records I own today that I will definitely never hear again. It was a sobering thought.”

Toth had crossed over from being a collector, to being a hoarder. I’m sure many of us have reached that point; in my own life there came a time when the thousands of records and thousands of books ceased to be a joy, a constant source of assurance of a warm, enriching presence in my life. Instead, they were a burden, a challenge just to maintain a reasonable living space with so much stuff. I was no longer keeping my prettiesthey were keeping me.

Like Toth, the upkeep, movement, and shuffling about diminished the amount of time spent actually enjoying those treasures—and indeed, what time was spent with them was no longer an uninhibited joy, but was overshadowed by the everpresent specter of the need to do something.

Let’s assume you’re a music fan of the new school, and don’t have any LPs, CDs, or whatever: you have files on a portable device, or computer. Or…if you’re a music fan of the newest new school, you don’t even have that. With almost everything conceivable from some streaming service somewhere, why even bother with downloads?

If that’s the case, the Jenga piles of CDs, the slip-sliding stacks of LPs are all gone. Are the panic attacks gone?

Probably not. For one prone to anxiety anyway, one of the hardest things to do is to simply choose. Given unlimited choices, the result for the neurotic amongst us may not be a sense of joy, but…paralysis.

After the initial rush created by unlimited horizons upon the internet, don’t most of us stick to a few familiar refuges?

I welcome the opportunity to freely explore more types of music, more performances, than ever before.

But still: some days I stare blankly at the screen and end up choosing something familiar. It’s just another example of the Kinda Blue syndrome.

I sometimes wonder what the late Alvin Toffler would say about our world today. The rate of change has skyrocketed since he wrote Future Shock way, way back in 1970. Just think: cable TV was a nascent industry in most of our country; newspapers and magazines were king; cassettes were just becoming popular; V8s were the motive force of choice.

We’re well beyond any form of shock, much less one related to the future; the here and now is enough of a challenge.

Think there’s a market for a book called Present Paralysis?