Listening to Music: A Random Sample

Kevin Nguyen uncovers the idiosyncratic habits of modern music lovers.

Photo by Daniel Adler.

Photo by Daniel Adler.

iTunes play counts have a strange effect on people, even though the user is the only one who sees them.

Daniel is compulsive about making sure his iTunes play counts reflect what he’s actually listened to and not just what he lets play while he’s away. So whenever he leaves the room, Daniel pauses the song, even if it’s just for a minute or two. As a result, his most played song, according to iTunes, is the Michael McDonald cover of Grizzly Bear’s “While You Wait for the Others,” with a total of thirteen plays.

On the other hand, Magan (like Megan with an a) feels compelled to listen to albums in their entirety, or at least to trick iTunes into thinking that she did. If she’s only partway through an album when she has to go, Magan will let the album play out, or go back later and listen to the last few seconds of the remaining songs to make sure that the play counts of each track on the album are exactly the same.

Kevin: Totally listening to “Telephone” right now.
Kevin: It’s one of those songs I never make the effort to download, so I have to open YouTube and search for it every time I want to hear it.
Nick: yep, I am in the same boat
Nick: but you always have to browse around to find it because all the hits are to the music video

Kayla Morrison is the alternative music director at KUPS 90.1 FM, the campus radio station of my alma matter. Her job is to listen to albums sent to the station by promoters and to choose what goes up on rotation at the station. She receives an overwhelming number of CDs — 40 to 60 a week — most of which are terrible.

Sometimes, Kayla receives promotional materials sent along with the albums. Last year, she got a Valentine made of construction paper, crayons, and staples from the band Pretty and Nice. It was cute, and she liked the band.

But more often than not, the promotional gags are dumb, even bizarre. “I get lots of size XXXXXL t-shirts and way too many ill-conceived, half-naked pictures of very unattractive old people,” she says. Hence:

Kayla’s Top 5 Stupidest Promotional Materials

  1. Fake poop
  2. A lock of human hair
  3. Space ice cream (disgusting)
  4. A tiny tambourine with the band name spray painted on it
  5. A DVD with the band’s (terrible) songs and a video tour of someone’s bedroom. Imagine if you put (really bad) music to the tape you made of all of your possessions for the insurance company.

Megan (like Magan but spelled normally) works in a suit-and-tie kind of place. She has her own office with a nice view. But because the work environment is formal, and so she can hear her assistant, Megan has to listen to music with only the right earbud in. So the music she enjoys most during the day she has dubbed right-ear music.

“Good right-ear music is something that is not being heard for the first time,” she says. ”Also, something sort of one dimensional. Magnetic Fields, Mountain Goats, etc. You don’t want to feel like you are missing out on half the sound.”

Nick: got LCD Soundsystem and Broken Social Scene yet?
Kevin: Downloading LCD now.
Kevin: Good day for leaks.
Kevin: Now you just need the new Pavement album that doesn’t exist to leak.
Nick: yeah, that would really seal the deal
Nick: and maybe My Bloody Valentine for good measure

Ryan Catbird has been writing his semi-eponymous music blog The Catbirdseat since the prehistoric days of music blogging (a.k.a. 2002). As a venerable music advocate on the web, Catbird gets sent a lot of music. I asked him if he listened to everything.

“ARE YOU CRAZY?” he responded by email.

In 2006, he had to institute a digital-only submissions policy to deal with the amount of mail he was getting.

“I looked into the backseat of my car and noticed that it was just about stacked to the ceiling with promo CDs that had piled up from my PO box over the course of a month or two — promo CDs that I knew I’d never be able to listen to,” Catbird says.

Today, he gets somewhere in the vicinity of 300 to 500 emails a week asking him to “check something out.” So on the low end, Catbird is looking at over 15,000 requests a year. Somewhere in that bunch, I figured he must’ve come across some strange promotional material like Kayla.

“I honestly can’t recall ever receiving anything in the mail that was just totally outlandish. I never got any nudie shots or anything ‘good’ like that; just more often than not, some really bad music with equally bad copy,” he says.

I think this is the only instance when marketing on the internet has been less obnoxious than in real life. But surely there must be an internet equivalent of fake poop?

Nick: have you noticed that any sort of remix or mashup will get tagged with “aphex twin” even if it doesn’t seem to be the case at all?
Kevin: Haha
Kevin: It’s like how people used to promote music on Napster by mislabeling bands.*

* The first time I heard Modest Mouse was in middle school when I downloaded an mp3 that was deliberately mistagged as “Tool.” (Please pretend I didn’t just admit to ever liking Tool.)

Here are some examples.

I think everyone has a friend who is obsessive-compulsive about organizing their digital music library. For me, Shannon is that friend. She’s constantly renaming files and folders to fit her categorization system; she also gets in disagreements with default genre recommendations from Gracenote, the database that assigns song metadata in iTunes.

“If [Nine Inch Nails's] Pretty Hate Machine gets called ‘alternative rock,’ and is not properly named ‘industrial dance,’ I get twitchy,” she says.

As a gift, her boyfriend gave her a 16GB jump drive full of his favorite music. Shannon didn’t like it.

“I was shocked and dissatisfied with his unacceptable lack of proper organization and the fact that it made his gift a chore I had to do!” she says. “Don’t worry, it didn’t actually start a fight. I just left his gift in a folder on my desktop called ‘Jamie’s Music’ until I had time to rename everything and create folders. Hooray unemployment!”

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.