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Falling out of love
A reflection on my own place in music in 2021
I sort of remember what listening to music was like when I was younger. At least I remember that I performed the practice of eagerly logging on to my (then new) Spotify profile, looking at the Pitchfork Spotify app, and reading whatever new reviews looked interesting. Before that, scouring mp3 blogs for some esotera yet unknown to me, downloading .zips from ZippyShare, or Mediafire, or Uploaded, or, or, or. I remember putting hours into Minecraft listening to my Grooveshark playlist and feeling like nothing could stop me (except maybe a monster in-game.)
I remember what songs I listened to when I first actively got into to music. The Killers’ indominable debut. Arctic Monkeys’ first couple albums. Franz Ferdinand’s peppy “Take Me Out.” Kasabian, maybe? Arcade Fire’s new, groundbreaking (lol) album The Suburbs. Vampire Weekend. Maybe a couple songs from The (International) Noise Conspiracy? I dunno. I was a baby then. I remember that I got excited about this stuff, I got excited to dig deeper into music. Getting into IDM by listening to Dntel via The Postal Service after my first breakup, and then discovering Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, and then discovering the most recent Matthew Dear album, and the new band Tycho which was sweeping blogs. Feeling cool because I liked songs from Horn of Plenty more than “Two Weeks.”
I don’t remember those feelings anymore, not the feelings themselves. And maybe this is a stupid, melodramatic thing to say – but I really don’t. It’s tiring to be excited about new things. It’s tiring to be involved in music on any level really. Maybe some of my very small readership can relate to this, but I often feel like I’m just here because I don’t know how to do anything else. Clinging to these old emotions, the memories of what used to be exciting. What seemed to represent a future of possibility. I don’t miss the pretense that came attached with it, not really, however much I joke about it on Twitter. I do miss feeling like anything meant anything.
Shows, too, used to feel like an escape for me. For as long as I have been involved in music – just over a decade now (wow) – I have been involved in organizing shows. Going to them, working door, managing them, and eventually playing them. They were spaces where I felt like I could really make a difference, make people’s lives better for just a few hours. Make my life better for a few hours. I remember feeling so self-righteous, writing a grant for the non-profit, all ages DIY space I was on the advisory council for in high school. A thing I probably said: “obviously people need basics met, but without something like music or art – what’s the point?” Obviously, this was incredibly naïve of me, but it’s cute to think back on.
Picking up guitar in high school was a big step for me too, I was so ready to be like all the people I saw at shows. I saved up for a Nick Valensi signature Epiphone Riviera (a beautiful guitar, still) because I thought that one riff in “Reptilia” was sick as hell. I still can’t play it, for the record. My grandmother several years earlier had paid for me to take piano lessons as a birthday present, which I had totally failed at, so it was definitely daunting to try an instrument again. I wanted to anyways though. I felt that strongly about music as an art form, and it’s power to change things. Marx might call this push the “innate creative drive,” the solution to alienation. Pure creation. Yearning to make art.
So, I started a band, and a little over five years after that here we all are. You probably know me from the extension of the network of people which dot the margins of this quick little autobiographical jaunt. I love them all, for the most part.
These days my outlook isn’t so rosy. Not to say that I’m special in that respect. (You signed up for my newsletter, need I remind you.) Regardless, it’s not a time for rosy outlooks. Rosy outlooks have diminishing returns. I divested a while back. This is not professional financial advice.
Music was something, though, before the pandemic which felt like it was going up for me. I was cranking it out. In 3 bands actively. Working on serious press connections. Writing about it in an internship. Planning big tours. I was caught up in the mechanics of it all, the moving pieces of doing music. Booking shows. Sending emails. Coordinating schedules. Writing bios. I was caught up in myself, really. The marketisation of my own contributions to something which, despite marginal, felt like the beginning of a future. My future. A truism in the “online left” right now is that “everyone wants a media career” – and music is certainly one of those. Faced with a future of possible microcelebrity? Who wouldn’t be excited?
I think my excitement obscured the deeper internal fractures already taking place. From a strictly quantitative standpoint, my Last.fm scrobbles? 📉📉📉 Just tanking, year after year. I listen to less music each year, compared to that prior. Not only do I listen to less music, but I listen to fewer unique artists, and fewer unique new (to me) artists. At my peak (on my new account, my high school Last.fm was far higher [I checked before I deleted it]), I listened to 23,075 songs in a year. Last year I didn’t even manage 5,000. Just anecdotally, I listen to far more podcasts today than music. When I wrote my favorite albums of 2020 list for this newsletter, I actually had a hard time thinking of enough to make it a worthwhile read. None of this is to say music is bad, or that I think it is worse today than in previous years.
Shows, too, are a source of confusion for me today more than they are a place of power. I’ve been to two real shows since we collectively decided it was no longer tenable to not do shows. Played one, attended (some of) one. Playing a set for the first time in two years was hard to process. Three of the screws which lock my tuners in place fell out. I think I cried during the last song. At the end, I didn’t know that I felt happy though, or really felt much of anything. I kept telling myself that I must have felt something from it, but I can’t tell. That unknowing, affective ambiguity was scary to me. It wasn’t until I was watching peers For Your Health’s recent Hate5six appearance that I realized I wasn’t having fun. Watching the playful glances from person to person, each navigating their way through the songs, feeding off of each other and the joyous watchers. Feeling the catharsis (I know that’s a little overplayed, especially for the genre, but it’s true).
Before this realization, I tried to go to a show in nearby Richmond – Black Matter Device and Terror Cell – at a house, Crystal Palace, I’ve been to and played many times. It’s a space which I’d been looking forward to seeing again. I met up with a couple friends and we walked the block and a half over. In typical fashion the show was running late after the opening noise act dropped, but that was to be expected. So we left and returned 45 minutes later. Upon arriving (again), the place was swarmed with college freshmen (I assume), many of whom seemed to have never been to a house show before. We walked in to the front room, where bands play, and watched Terror Cell, who’s guitarist I know personally. The set was good, something between Converge and another band I can’t put my finger on. A little out of practice on the performance aspect after a pandemic’s worth of time off, but undoubtedly tight musically. It should have been fun. Kids were trying to mosh. I tried to mosh. Someone stepped on my toe. I stepped aside, and stood with my arms crossed. When I looked around, I didn’t see any friends outside of the two I arrived with, and the people I knew in the two bands I came to see. Just a fray of pimpled faces, many unmasked, experiencing what I used to love and expressing just how much fun they were having on their bare faces. I was uncomfortable. My friends were uncomfortable. We left before seeing anyone else.
While the mask issue may have played a role in the discomfort we felt at that show, I was just more shaken by how little I felt about, well, the show. How un-escapist the whole ordeal felt. I asked Kyle, who I’d gone with, “did you feel as alien in there as I did?” To which he replied “no,” to my surprise. Maybe I’m just misplacing my discomfort, and it’s a symptom of growing older – especially with respect to the number of years I’ve been doing the whole DIY thing – but I don’t think I am. I think music might just not be something I love anymore.
I love my bandmates. I love my band. I love the friends that I’ve met through music. I love the spaces I’ve played, and will play. The places I’ve been, and will go, through it. But the thing itself just has slowly lost it’s color to me, so to speak.
In Marxist mythos there’s an idea, previously alluded to, that art is the antithesis of alienation – the perfect union of workers and their labor (paraphrasing here). Phenomenologists, Henri Lefebvre notably, even posit that any work can be “creative,” people can make art of their everyday and claim power over it. I have never understood philosophical explanations of art. To make philosophy about art, you must presume that art follows certain logics – pure art, in my view, is illogical. While we can track patterns in the elements of it, we cannot track logics of artistic creation. Perhaps that’s the capitalist realist speaking. Capitalism imposes order on “art.” It systematizes it. It categorizes it. It makes sense out of the nonsensical.
In becoming a musician. In booking/working shows. In managing my own band. In critically consuming music. In consuming the paratexts around music. In following the extra-artifactual elements of the music industry. In all of these ways I think I have successfully alienated myself from my own art, and indeed even the leisurely consumption of others’ art. When you are an artist under capitalism, consuming art no longer is leisure I suppose? It’s all a comparison – an A/B of you versus them. Opposition research. And what a feat it is. To become a guy who sort of pretends to listen to lots of music, but in reality is “more of podcast guy.” Think: Keeping Up Appearances but it’s just a guy in his room with a bunch of music gear.
Internalizing capitalist logics about art – marketised ideals of success, timeframes, etc – these not-very-punk qualifications has fully changed my perception of my own creative output, and others’. Attempting a media studies graduate degree probably hasn’t helped either, but this anxiety predates that. I can’t listen to something or read an article without thinking about the political-economic forces which surround it. The shrewd, realist cynicism which accompanies even a cursory knowledge of inside baseball, combined with the instability of future imaginaries makes for a nasty involuntary ascetic tendency.
It might be one thing if things were panning out on my end, distracting from the underlying tension, but coming up on 8 months after recording my band’s next LP with early 2023 seeming like the most reasonable serious release timeframe, it’s hard to argue that things are, in-fact, going well. COVID is largely to blame for this: 12 month record lead times, release schedule delays, lack of touring options. I don’t think any of us will ever really heal from the pandemic all the way though, in a musical sense. I’m in my room for probably 18 hours a day with pedals, guitars and amp ready-to-hand, but I don’t touch them until I’m at practice. I have barely played guitar outside of a band setting directly in months. The physical atrophy has already set in, in this regard. The last writing I did seriously, too, had to be puzzle-pieced together from a collection of random passages (although, I am proud of the output). In an inter-personal, romantic (or platonic) relationship, when things aren’t going well – you usually just end things. The problem is that music is all I know. Almost all of my friends are people I know and connect with through music.
Is this codependence? How toxic.
In love you are willing to put your life on standby for someone. For something. But every passing minute makes it harder for me to imagine a future for myself in music – not just in that market realist ideology, but also in the more abstract sense. Every aspect of my own interaction with it is diminishing. Maybe some of you can relate. I see more and more people on Twitter “taking a step back” from music, so I know I’m not the only one.
I don’t want to take a step back. I want to continue living that thing which started to feel exciting to me over a decade ago now. I have plans. We have plans. I’m going to keep carrying them out until I can’t anymore. I just feel like that anymore is drawing ever closer. I’m in too deep to stop associating with music. It’s an obsession, even if I don’t love it. It’s something which fills the flash storage of my HDD and my synapses. It’s defined the last decade of my life. I’ll keep doing it, because it’s all I know. I just don’t think it’s tenable to continue on like this forever. I don’t even know if it’s tenable to go on like this until 2023. Assuming there will be a 2023, no longer a given. An un-assumption itself which has managed to sap the joy out of most things.
For now though, I cherish the people in my life more than anything, because they, we, might not be here tomorrow – but today, the music we make together, the music we share with each other, feels more like an afterthought in a sea of connectivity.