December 16, 2008

The Great iPod Indie Rock Challenge of 2008: A wrap-up.

My home music station, as seen from overhead

(UPDATE, DECEMBER 2008: All four essays in this series are now available as a free downloadable eBook, for those who are interested.)

Well, so here we finally are, at the end of the Great iPod Indie-Rock Challenge of 2008; for those who don't know, it's a twelve-month experiment in the arts I've been tracking at the website all year, to see how much work and time it might take me as a clueless middle-ager to get all my sad old '80s and '90s college rock off my little 1-gig iPod Shuffle (around 125 songs altogether), and replaced with brand-new songs by brand-new artists. I've been writing reports on the process every three months this year (here are part 1, part 2 and part 3, for those who need them); and now that we're here at the end of the Challenge, I finally have the chance to put together some year-long statistics and show rather objectively whether or not it was all a success. Because when all is said and done, a year after the Challenge started, I now have around 250 new "radio-single" style songs on my hard drive that I didn't have before, ones I liked enough to specifically download, install to iTunes and save copies of; then add the 21 new CDs I acquired this last year as well (all released within the last 18 months), at an average of 12 songs per CD, and that's a grand total of 500 decent songs I've added to my life in the last year, enough not just to fill my Shuffle but fill it four times over, fill it completely with new music once every three months in 2008.

In fact, before anything else, it might be useful to explain exactly how the Challenge itself unfolded, because it actually consisted of several different steps over the course of the year; right at the beginning, for example, was the only time I did anything smacking of illegal, when I downloaded simultaneously all 20 of's top albums of 2007, and uploaded them all at once to my iPod as a way of doing a simple initial sweeping of the cobwebs. I spent all of January, then, simply listening to these CDs, quickly pulling off songs or entire albums I didn't care for, and putting together the first of the couple dozen music podcasts and blogs I was to start paying attention to this year; by the beginning of February it left me with at least a couple of songs on my Shuffle from the following 14 artists, to constitute a "first round" of sorts for the Challenge:

The Field
Kanye West
LCD Soundsystem
Jens Lekman
Lil' Wayne
The National
Of Montreal

Like I said, though, I always considered these CDs a cheat, songs already a year old and all recommended from a single source, ones I gained illegally on top of everything else, when in fact I was more interested in gathering music from a variety of sources and with the full permission of the bands themselves. That's the grand promise the kids and Cory Doctorow are always making, right? That you can make your life artistically rich anymore merely from free legal stuff online, and that these artists all eventually benefit from it in the long term too? That was definitely part of the iPod Challenge, not just to fill my device up with new music but to see how much of it could be had for free from legal sources, all those endless "song of the day" blogs and label MySpace pages and radio station podcasts. And that's why I wanted to get the 14 CDs listed above off my system as quickly as possible, and why at the end of the year I have a grand total of only three of these songs left on my Shuffle, one each by Radiohead, Jens Lekman and Battles. (Oh, I love you all so much, ya freakin' nerds!)

As winter progressed into spring earlier this year, then, I got comfortable with my new regular musical habits: of spending about 20 minutes every morning, for example, downloading and listening to the latest songs being delivered by such blogs as Pitchfork, Discobelle and What To Wear During An Orange Alert; and then spending an hour each Saturday doing the same for the eight music podcasts I subscribe to, places like IndieFeed and Minnesota Public Radio. That's like skipping one dinnertime sitcom rerun a day to do this stuff instead, skipping one bad Canadian low-budget science-fiction television show each Saturday; and that's enough to lead to a whopping seven to ten new songs every week I've liked enough to keep, or 20 to 40 every month. If you consider the average CD to have twelve songs, for example, that's two to three entire CDs' worth of great new music for free every single month, all from 20 minutes of busywork a day and an hour each weekend. And this is indeed one of the first major things I learned by taking on the Challenge this year, something I've talked about in earlier reports too, of how the problem in a lot of our lives is not a lack of free time, but rather that we're spending the free time we already have badly. If you spend just a little of that time more actively and intelligently, you can add just a tremendous amount of new artistic material into your life, without taking on again the part-time job it was in college to go to all those shows and listen to all that college radio, and buy all those albums and read all those magazines and afford all those nights out and stay out so late each time. Ugh; leave all that stuff to the kids, I say, who just love all that stuff naturally anyway.

So with all this being true, of course the next thing I realized was that about once a month, I was going to have to devote a Sunday afternoon as well to simply cleaning out 20 to 40 songs on my Shuffle, to make room for the 20 to 40 new songs I would be adding over the next thirty days. And this taught me a second really important thing by taking on the Challenge, which is exactly how much as Americans we've been subconsciously trained now to be unthinking consumers within an all-pervasive consumerist society, of how we've been so thoroughly trained to just keep taking in more and more and more and yet MORE crap all the time, not really even paying that much attention anymore to what we already have but instead obsessed with what we don't. Because if I haven't pointed it out yet, 125 songs works out neatly to around twelve CDs worth of music; and that's exactly how many CDs used to fit in my old disc caddy, back when I was running around with a portable CD player instead of an iPod, and had to physically carry around whatever music I was going to listen to that day. That's one of the big decisions I made when first getting my Shuffle, which felt really odd at the time precisely because it went against conventional consumerist wisdom so much; that I don't need an iPod that holds 50 CDs, 100 CDs, 250 CDs, damnit, I simply don't. For years and years, whenever I was out on most daily errands, I had a selection of twelve CDs at any given moment, which served me just fine; and that will still serve me just fine, damnit, especially considering that they're now not even grouped by album, but literally 125 different singles if I want them to be.

Having such a small hard drive while downloading so many new songs simply forces me every month to pay very close attention to what's going on and coming off my device, which finally broke me of the bad habit that so many other Americans have too, to just gorge on entire CDs without thinking of it and then dump the entire thing on one's iPod, overpaying for the couple of songs you actually wanted and creating an entire wasteland of semi-crappy songs on your device's playlist, simply so you can keep filling that unnecessarily massive 60-gig hard drive and stop feeling guilty over buying something that unnecessarily massive to begin with. As this economic meltdown has sadly proven all too well this autumn and winter, the entire thing I'm talking about is a vicious cycle, a massive shell game of buying and selling that kept our economy artificially inflated for so long, but is now starting to all fall apart; it's a cycle you can break, but only by standing up against it more and more, by saying, "No, I don't need a 60-gig music player, I don't need 400 cable television channels, I don't need 1,200 satellite radio stations. I shouldn't have to pay sixteen bucks for three decent songs and nine pieces of filler. I shouldn't have to pay ten bucks to see a movie in the theatre, then another four bucks to see it on pay-per-view, then another twenty bucks on basic DVD, then another forty bucks for a deluxe DVD, then another fifty bucks for the Blu-ray disc. THAT'S IT. NO MORE. And no more buying the deceptively cheap devices with massive hard drives that encourage such a lifestyle, inexpensive precisely because they so profoundly encourage the mindless accumulation of the expensive albums and movies and boxed sets to fill those massive hard drives."

And so all this has also woken up my inner college-radio DJ (which I actually was for four years, back at KCOU at the University of Missouri at Columbia), which has me among other things now doing a monthly college-radio-style show through the CCLaP Podcast, where I present around a dozen of these bands to you each month, cut together professionally and with DJ banter from me regarding each musician. I'll be the first to admit, I absolutely loved being a DJ back in school, and even had a few semesters in there where I took only one token class just so I could stay academically eligible for my radio show. It was something we talked about incessantly back then, of how cool it'd be to have some sort of professional set-up like the station but at home, or put together collectively piece by piece in the back of a record store, in order to run your own unlicensed signal out to a public audience; because that was the crucial element that made the idea so much fun, not just the ability to make mix tapes for friends, but to actually announce songs and send it out to a random public audience who listened to it in real time, whether you knew about them or not.

I'm astounded that the rise of free radio singles with podcasting technology has given way to the exact situation my friends and I used to salivate over, of being able to do a college-radio show without needing the college radio station, for either the broadcasting technology or the rich library of available songs, and I for one love being able to take advantage of it; and that has me spending a Sunday afternoon once a month not just grudgingly going through old music and tossing some of it off my iPod, but also looking up bands' discographies and histories online, listening to their other songs, checking out bootleg videos from live shows, seeing which TV shows and commercials have used their music. It essentially turns the entire thing from work into play for me, yet another realization about the Challenge I made this year; that by doing all this stuff, I'm no longer just a passive music listener, but now an active DJ and music programmer myself, albeit an amateur one with just a few hundred listeners. That's exactly enough listeners for me to take it seriously, to have a lot of fun with it and feel that there really are complete strangers out there enjoying it too, to make me an intelligent and educated music fan to begin with, to accept compliments and requests; or in other words, exactly the reasons to love being a college-radio DJ.

And that of course leads us to the next big realization I made about the Challenge; that by utilizing the method I do for collecting new music, it's turned my little Shuffle not just into a storehouse for a bunch of CDs, but literally the same lineup of singles you'd hear on a typical adult-alternative-contemporary radio station, even played in the same kind of semi-random order. And in fact, just looking at the lineup of music on my iPod on a random day like today is good proof of what I'm talking about; for example, I have a rule not to delete any music off my Shuffle until it's at least three months old, because you know how some songs only sneak up on you after multiple listenings, which is why a whopping 70 out of the 110 singles currently on my iPod have all been released within the last quarter-year (25 in December, 20 in November, 25 in October). This essentially leaves me with 40 songs from the other nine months of the last year, ones that have stuck around literally because I liked them the most; and if my hard drive were just a little bigger, you could add 30 or 40 random old songs from my library as well, and have literally the same exact lineup of 150 or so songs making up the "rotation" of an adult contemporary radio station at any given moment. And since I can set my Shuffle to random-play mode, it'll even serve up these songs in a different order every time I listen, just like a real radio station. And with me adding and deleting new songs literally every week, again just like a real radio station.

That I think is perhaps the most astonishing realization of all about the Great iPod Indie-Rock Challenge, that this technology combined with a bit of personal effort can let me skip right over the usual middleman gatekeepers we used to need, people like radio programmers and rock critics; instead, these blogs and podcasts I follow are more like guides and peers, more like friends gently whispering to me, "Hey, check out this cool stuff I've recently been coming across." Just like in college, I have an active say over what specific artistic material is coming into my life at any given moment, and with me able to create a situation where I'm limiting this to just the most intelligent, unusual stuff out there; but unlike college, I'm not having to find all these artists from scratch, but rather have my "cloud of experts" providing me at first a narrowed yet still massive field of better-than-average material to choose from. By doing so, I'm essentially creating my own radio station (or newspaper, or art gallery, or literary magazine), and have no need anymore for the traditional radio stations and newspapers and art galleries and lit magazines that used to provide them.

That's ultimately why I thought it'd be interesting to track the off-subject Indie-Rock Challenge here at the website, because it's this kind of stuff I'm trying to do with CCLaP as well, only in that case regarding the subjects of literature and photography. Like these music blogs and podcasts, I hope for CCLaP to be a gentle guide to the underground arts, an opinion you add to a whole swarm of unrelated experts online you like and respect, to create a massive "cloud" of extra-good artists that you in particular then choose from for your own particular life. And just in case you're tempted to argue that this leads to lessened sales, that the emphasis on collecting free work released under liberal licenses is somehow going to cause the death of the arts as a profession, let's also note that I actually purchased a total of seven full CDs in 2008 as well, or over one every other month, including...

The New Pornographers, Challengers
Kaki King, Dreaming of Revenge
Stereolab, Chemical Chords
Ken Kase, Five Songs About Chicago
Bebel Gilberto, Memento
Laura Viers, Saltbreakers
Twin Cities Electropunk, Volume 4

Let's not ever overlook this, that this was a big reason I came up with the Great iPod Indie-Rock Challenge to begin with; because this is seven CDs more than I purchased in 2004, 2005 and 2006 combined, sucker. And in fact this fairly profoundly proves what all those advocates of Creative Commons and liberal licenses are always arguing: that those who download a lot of music, even steal a lot of music, are also the ones who buy the majority of music, that it's all either one or the other with a person, that they either heavily support that form of the arts in all kinds of different ways or they don't. These advocates claim that when record labels sue music pirates, they're actually antagonizing and alienating their most loyal, highest-spending customers; and based on the factual, indisputable details of my own Indie-Rock Challenge, this does indeed seem to be the case, with me not having a single year recently in my life where I actually wanted to buy seven brand-new CDs, until it was the same year I downloaded 14 others illegally, and another 21 CDs' worth of music with the bands' permissions.

Anyway, needless to say that I highly consider the Challenge to be an overwhelming success, now that it's officially over, and that I fully plan on keeping up such a schedule, and continuing to do the monthly music specials I have grown to love producing so much. And needless to say, I highly encourage you as well to take on such a similar Indie-Rock Challenge, or to maybe make it a poetry-reading challenge or film-festival one, or live-theatre challenge or dance-recital one. As my own adventures this year have hopefully proven, one can have a fantastic time in this modern age being not only a passive fan of such material, but also a semi-pro editor/curator and amateur expert, with it now possible to fulfill all your pirate broadcasting or publishing dreams right from home now with just a minimum of consumer-level equipment. And finally, should I end in proper snotty indie-rock style with my own best-of list for 2008? Remember of course that my music decisions are completely divorced from the real world where these songs exist; I never listen to the radio, rarely watch the television shows that feature these songs on their soundtracks, rarely go to the clubs where these bands tour. But if you take all 250 of the non-CD songs I've collected this year, and sort them by how many times I've listened to them, you get this list of 40 musicians, the 20 most popular from the first half of the year and the 20 from the second half, mixed back together alphabetically:

Afefe Iku
Beckers and D-Nose
Boat People
Matt Duke
Guards of Metropolis
Jeff Hanson
The Heavy Circles
Horse Feathers
Jamtech Foundation
Johann Johannsson
Kaki King
Wendel Kos
Los Campesinos!
Simone Mencarelli
Jeremy Messersmith
Mexican Institute of Sound
Mocha Lab
The OaKs
Pablo Sciuto
She and Him
Sukshinder Shinda
The Sight Below
The Tings Tings

How does this compare to other 2008 best-of lists? I don't know; literally, I haven't read any of those other lists. If anyone would like to make any comparisons, seriously, I'd love for you to mention the results in the comments. In any case, this is yet one more way you can judge in objective terms exactly how my one-year experiment in getting involved again with the underground arts went; simply compare this to Pitchfork's best-of list this year, or Rolling Stone's, or the Gallup college chart, and see whether I ended up finding some "cool" bands according to them or not.

*Oh, and one more thing to briefly mention before finishing up this final report, yet something else I was astounded by -- of how an additional 17 songs in my life this year, apart from the 500 just mentioned, came specifically from that Starbucks/iTunes cross-promotional campaign that happened all during 2008 as well, where every week they handed out millions of paper cards at their stores with codes for downloading a free song, around 40 titles over the course of a year when you subtract the weeks they offered videos instead. I was amazed by how many of these songs were ones I ended up really loving -- almost half, according to my device's statistics -- and thought it deserved at least a special mention here. It's a pity the partnership will likely be drying up in 2009; Starbucks is having massive financial troubles right now, and is hacking off the dead weight of cool expensive experimental promotional projects like a hot-air balloon that is minutes from crashing. Goodbye, viral marketing industry!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:53 PM, December 16, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Music |