My ears are greedy; they always have been. When I was 4, I cried because I couldn’t listen to The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac at the same time. (Thirty years later: yes, still.) When I was about 10, my sister and I bought each other the Tupac and Biggie double albums for Christmas and traded one disc to each other, quid pro quo, so we’d both get a piece of the action. In my teenage years, I’d fantasize about ransacking the Tower Records with seven shopping carts daisy-chained together. I’d install extra ears on my head in my dreams, and finally be able to listen to two—maybe three—things at once. How else could it all be heard? My dream was to have all the music.
Part of the dream came true a few years later: streaming services cracked open my access to such a large quantity of music that it seemed silly to continue considering a record store heist. I’ve been a happy music streaming customer for over a decade (Lala, anyone?) and lived through what I consider to be the golden age of music discovery in that three-year halcyon period of Rdio’s full maturation. (RIP, good friend.)
The benefits of streaming services are obvious to a musical glutton like me, but, unfortunately, the costs are just as great. Streaming does worrying things to the financial lives of musicians and the cultural value placed on music by listeners. The atomization of music makes it more disposable, and even if one does care to pay attention to what they are hearing, the glut of music available can stun even the most mindful listener into submission. A music fan needs a system to manage the abundance and glue back together their listening experience. My hope is that a more robust and intentional listening experience can lead to more robust and intentional financial support for musicians outside of the streaming services.
Over the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve worked out a system which works well for me. I thought I’d take a few moments to document it in the hope that it will help others who wished for all the music and now find themselves buried in it.
My system has three parts:
- First, a “To Listen” playlist for dumping recommended songs and albums for later investigation
- Second, a monthly listening diary to keep track of the music I hear day-to-day as I get fixated on songs, discover new music, or get pleasantly surprised in public spaces by songs I haven’t heard in years
- Third, a couple of yearly playlists: one for songs on any new releases that catch my ear, and a second “shortlist” for the songs that are the cream of the crop.
I organize this system in Spotify with the “To Listen” playlist on the top level, then a folder for each year that contains 14 playlists: the yearly “long list”, the yearly “shortlist”, and then the 12 monthly playlists.
To listen playlist
This playlist is what it says on the tin: an unsorted bucket of intended listening. For extra convenience, keep this playlist downloaded to your phone so you can check things out anywhere. In the past, I’ve used this playlist to listen back through an artist’s back catalog, to capture recommended songs, albums, or artists from friends, or to fill-up on all those unheard albums on people’s year-end, best-of lists.
The “To-Listen” playlist also nicely side-steps any kind of frustrations one may have with Spotify’s or iTunes’ listening queue. Anything added to the playlist, of course, gets added to the end. I think that’s much closer to the expected behavior.
Monthly listening log
Anything not plucked out of the stream will be buried. The musical diary is the cornerstone of getting what we hear back together into comprehensible wholes. Monthly playlists (or quarterly if you don’t listen as much) become our tools for reconstructing our listening experience in a meaningful way by anchoring it in time. The sources can by anywhere: songs introduced by an algorithm that you’re feeling, good recommendations from friends, or music you hear out in public. Sometimes you hear a banger at the mechanic and want to remember. These playlists give you a place to file it away.
I’ve been keeping a music log for seven years. When I revisit old playlists, I can recall why certain songs are there. Each is a story.
- January 2018: Listened to “Ai No Corrida” by Quincy Jones ten times in a row on a late night walk home. Those two batshit interviews with Jones were published that month, and I realized I should introduce myself to his solo work.
- October 2017: Four Tom Petty deep cuts at the start of the playlist. Petty died at the beginning of the month. I re-listened to his full discography and decided that Highway Companion is a damn good album. It also inspired me to put together Pettyology, a playlist of my favorite Tom Petty deepcuts.
- September 2015: Moved into a new apartment. Needed to dust like hell. Put “Leaving Los Feliz” by Mark Ronson on loop. Do you know what song you were dusting to three years ago? I do! (But I guess it’s not really something to brag about.)
- August 2012: A cover of “White Rabbit” by Emiliana Torrini. One year in NYC. I’m bouncing around friends’ sofas for a few days after a lease falls through with a shady landlord.
- January 2011: “She Just Likes to Fight” by Four Tet. I was scrounging around looking for music that felt right while I was making a video for The Shape of Design Kickstarter campaign
Yearly new music playlists
As I said, there are two yearly playlists: a long one for anything new and appealing, then a shortlist created at the end of the year to sum up your listening. I typically choose one track from each album that I really like to turn into a 1- to 2-hour sequenced playlist. Here are links to all my shortlists on Spotify:
- 2017 Shortlist
- 2016 Shortlist
- 2015 Shortlist
- 2014 Shortlist (my favorite)
- 2013 Shortlist
- 2012 Shortlist
- 2011 Shortlist
So far, there are 72 songs in my 2018 long playlist. This is about average: 2014’s had 332 songs at year’s end; 2016 had 160; 2017’s playlist is a massive 450 songs, clocking in at almost 33 hours. But you don’t have to go this crazy. This playlist is meant to be an easy way to collect the sound of each year to you.
Lists of songs versus playlists
This is a good time to mention that streaming services’ massive selection allows us to make not just playlists for listening, but also playlists that act as comprehensive records. My system is about record-keeping and not necessarily mix-making—with the exception of the yearly shortlist. We’re really making unordered lists of songs to act as documentation that also serve as a springboard to albums and artists—it just so happens that the easiest way to do that is with a playlist. (Of course, you could also use it to dig through the past, put one of the playlists on shuffle, and remember what April 2013 sounded like to you. The current month’s playlist is also probably going to act as a better default “I don’t know what to listen to” playlist than anything an algorithm could serve up.)
If you’re going to invest the time to start and maintain a system like this, you should also take the time to back it up. (My playlist backups helped me transition from Rdio to Spotify in 2015.) There are a host of tools available to help you migrate playlists from one service to another. I like Playlist Converter, because it not only does these migrations, but also helps you backup your records in human-readable formats, like CSV. (I stick those CSV files in my Dropbox as a secondary record.)
Of course this is obsessive, but if you’re a nerd who cares about something, what other choice do you have but to do it?