Episode #89 – Too Much Music; James Jackson Toth’s Failed Experiment

By Kirk on January 26, 2018

Musician and journalist James Jackson Toth launched an experiment in dedicated listening; sitting and listening attentively to just one album a week. He failed. He tells us why, and how we may have too much music to listen to.

You stop hearing music at a certain point and you start hearing decisions.

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  • Maybe the problem is that Mr Toth is listening to music that doesn’t justify close attention. Haydn symphonies, perhaps?

    “Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, though I die of shame-a.
    Please you, that’s the kind of maid sets my heart aflame-a.”

  • Good episode! Really resonated with me, and I noted several examples where I’d experienced similar conclusions regarding how music is experienced over the years.

    One aspect that could have been mentioned about not giving songs (let alone albums) a chance is the prevalence of the 30 second preview. It’s conditioned us not to engage, and it’s the music label’s own fault due to their fear of “piracy” and immediate ability to stream whatever/whenever. They chose their solution and its consequences.

    Years ago AOL offered a few full album previews. There was even a dedicated desktop application for it (or their “radio” service I suppose?)

    We still occasionally get a few full previews from NPR and music review webzines.

    Bandcamp is great for this also.

    But the sole outlet for auditioning prior to financial commitment remains the free Spotify account. If you can put up with commercials, you can “evaluate” if something could be worth purchasing. That’s not how Spotify wants you to use their service … notice that the “buy this track” links are gone … but for now it remains an option.

    • Good point about previews. If you’ve noticed, song introductions have gotten shorter, most likely because of the short previews and short attention spans. Could we even have a song like Won’t Get Fooled Again today?

  • I haven’t listened to the episode yet but I read his article. My initial interpretation reading your description was that once a week he would sit and listen attentively to an album. The actual experiment of listening to nothing but a single album each week was impractical. I’m not surprised it didn’t last a week. For anyone who’s passionate about music, which I’m sure includes everyone who listens to or appears on The Next Track, that would be downright impossible.

    Listening attentively to an album once a week, however, is something I’d like to be able to do. I do normally listen to albums but it’s always while I’m doing something else: programming, cooking, getting ready in the morning. (These past few years it’s always podcasts while driving but my commute is only fifteen minutes so it’s hard to keep up even with those.) The last album I listened to with undivided attention was when we got together at my bandmate’s studio to listen to the 5.1 mix of Sgt. Pepper when it came out. I couldn’t tell you when the time before that was.

    Of course the desire to sit and listen to an album is probably as much about the music as it is about missing that era of my life when I had few enough responsibilities and commitments to be able to have the time to just put on my headphones, lie on the bed, and listen to A Night at the Opera after my dad drove me to the record store to buy it.

  • I have made a commitment to listening to classical music with undivided attention every evening. Minimum 2 hours up to 3 hours per night. It is a form of meditation for me. The genre matters. It works for me with Jazz as well.

    When my mind cannot concentrate, I have found sitting with a notebook and pen and jotting down ideas of the composer’s intent helps me focus. It ends up reading back like gibberish, but that’s ok because the process of listening and concentrating is the point.

    Sometimes after listening like that, I’ll go back and summarize the piece so that it is intelligible. It becomes sort of like a music diary, intended solely for me, but containing surprising insights when I reread them months later.

  • I would but most of my CDs are in boxes in storage. Certain special CDs (like Dick’s Picks and Dave’s Picks) are on the shelf downstairs.

    I just finished listening to the episode. A lot of your episodes resonate with me, but this one especially. My life has always revolved around music. I played bass in a couple originals bands in the 90’s and 00’s. Now I’m in a cover band, play in musicals, sing in a community choir with my wife, volunteer for a classical concert association, and have played in a big band and some jazz combos. When I was growing up through early adulthood, my record collection and the bands I liked were a central part of my identity. I still have trouble being civil to someone who doesn’t at least appreciate The Beatles. I didn’t hang out in record stores but I did a stint as a college DJ in the late ’80s at KUSF. (I was just past college age but they allowed non-students to DJ.)

    When you, Doug, and James agreed that streaming is changing the way people are listening to music do you mean individual people or the general public? Personally, my music listening habits haven’t changed for the most part. The biggest differences are that I mostly listen to podcasts in the car and I no longer carry around an iPod with my entire music library.

    I can’t embrace streaming. It’s too ethereal for me. I want to listen to An Album even if it is now just a collection of files in the iTunes database instead of a physical artifact. But society has been through this many times. I’m sure many older people refused to listen to recorded music and would only listen to live music when that transition happened. And they lamented that younger people would no longer have the same relationship with music that they did. And then we older people die and society moves on.

    As far as back in the day when we’d judge people by their record collection, I was harshly judgmental. If someone had a bunch of crappy music in their library they’d have a serious uphill battle in front of them before I’d befriend them.

    Thanks for the fabulous podcast. It has worked its way into my top three. (Uh oh, a list!)