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Music has never been so accessible. But why does it also feel so empty?

For the first time in years, I did it: I bought an album. It was Throwing Muses’ 1990 classic, The Real Ramona. This may not seem like much, but it’s a big deal to me. 

I had spent my teens spending whatever money I had actively seeking out records. It was my life. When I wasn’t developing my own tastes in music, I inherited the record collections of my mom, my older sisters, and my uncle. My love for music was defined by the depth of my growing record collection. For a long time, it defined who I was as a person.

But things changed. By 2010, there weren’t a lot of record stores in Manila. And the introduction of the once-ubiquitous iPod completely changed the way we consumed music. 

We don’t think a lot about it today, but there was a time when listeners had to agonize over what they wanted to listen to when they were out of the house. The problem of carefully choosing the right combination of albums or mixtapes was eliminated with the option to carry all those songs in a device that could fit in your pocket. 

And now, here we are at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. Streaming services have given us access to countless albums of the past and present. Any single song you could ever want is just a flick away. There are festivals every weekend. And anyone can get a Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt at the mall. Music has never been so accessible. But why does it also feel so empty?

How Are We Listening to Music Today?
Last September, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry–a global organization that looks after the interests of the record industry–released their annual Music Consumer Insight Report. According to the IFPI’s 2019 report, 89% of listeners in over a dozen countries consume music through on-demand, digital services at an estimated 2.6 hours a day. And while the figure is high among listeners between the ages of 16 to 24, the number is steadily rising among older listeners. In the United States, the record industry saw total revenues amounting to $9.8 billion in 2018. In comparison, listeners spent $20.6 billion (inflation adjusted) for music in 1998. 

While there are regional differences in music consumption, it’s fair to say that even though less money is being spent on purchasing music, people are spending more time listening to it. 

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I can remember paying up to PHP 700.00 for a CD, only to like maybe two songs on it. There was a huge financial gamble to buying an entire album, which is what led many to start illegally downloading music. 

For longtime listeners, digital steaming is what we all wanted: unlimited access to almost every album in the world, at less than the price of a single album, per month. 

This Album Could Be Your Life: Me, MTV, and Record Stores in the Final Years of the Industry
The first album I ever bought with my own allowance was *NSYNC’s last album, Celebrity, in August 2001. I was so excited that I had the Radio City in Alabang Town Center reserve a copy for me! 

As I grew into my teens, I discovered grunge acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and suddenly, my soul had a voice. And those bands, and their eagerness to share the songs they loved, opened my ears and my soul to a generation of artists from virtually countless genres. 

Suffice to say, I ended up spending my teen years actively seeking music. This was in the early-to-mid 2000s, when the record industry was still a thing and I was eager to spend what little money I had. MTV Philippines had a late night VH1 block that exposed me to 90’s alternative and classic rock, and record stores were still an active destination for people in the mall.

Whenever I had the money to spare, I’d head on over to Tower Records and Music One, and spend an entire afternoon thinking about what new piece of music I was going to spend my money on. It’s been romanticized to death, and for good reason, but going to a record store was such a beautiful thing! It was an experience that overwhelmed your entire being with a plethora of options, all held down by the act of a purchase.

If I was familiar with an act and I knew there were a couple of songs I’d like on an album, I’d probably buy it. If not, I’d probably give the album a listen to see if it was something I could potentially fall in love with. If I couldn’t find an album I wanted, I’d stream it on Yahoo! Launch whenever I’d visit an internet café, knowing full well that it would be mine when the chance came. And that was a very tall order for a young person whose wishlist consisted of albums that were already out of print and circulation. 

And when I wasn’t looking for music, I was given music. I raided the record collections of my mom, uncle, and older sisters. I was eager to build my own relationship with the songs I had heard growing up. 

Listening to music, it wasn’t something I did to pass the time: It was a ritual. Whether or not I had a new album, at eight o’clock every night, I would adjust the settings on my mom’s old sound system to my liking, sit down with my albums, and just get lost in the music. 

Owning an album, it was like having a book. You would sit down, put the album on, liner notes in hand, and you were immediately transported to this rich and deeply personal world constructed by this sonic collage of sounds and words. And it would leave such a profound and lasting impression on your being that you would come back to it again and again. It was beyond cathartic. 

The Beginnings of the Digital Years: How Blogs & RAR Files Dictated My Consumption
I’ll admit that I was easily swayed when the iPod came along. I didn’t have to worry about losing my CDs, or the albums I couldn’t immediately find. I could get them all online with a simple online search! To say that the iPod was a game changer is a total understatement. 

My behavior adapted to my consumption of digital music. I’d spend hours upon hours manually editing the meta-data of every song in my iTunes library. From songwriter credits, to genre and album art, my old iTunes library was indeed a sight to behold. And I took pride in organizing it the way I had organized my record collection.

But it wasn’t like I had completely abandoned buying albums yet. Early in the 2000s, record stores were shrinking to obscurity. Sure, I’d pick up an album at a second-hand store or a garage sale, but it was just an addition to my library of albums. I had my iPod and for better or worse, out of convenience, it became my be-all-end-all. As the decade progressed, and with little interest in the music that moved my soul available to me in the mainstream, I began to look for music online.

A simple Google search took me to thousands of blogs that were dedicated to particular genres that were connected to the music I already loved. Each blog entry had a Mediafire link to a RAR file that held the album I had read about. Music blogs, as elitist as they were, replaced what MTV, radio, and record stores did for me. In one afternoon, I could get a crash course on the history of a particular sound and all the geographical and social influences that played a part in its development. It was a place where I could really learn about the music I was consuming and form my own opinions, not just as a listener, but as a fan of music. 

The Beauty of Musical Connections
There is something that appeals to my introverted nature about being the only person in the world to know a song that nobody seems to know. But there’s also an undeniable loneliness to it. I had spent most of my conscious life having that kind of relationship with music. 

There is something very sacred about wearing band t-shirts, for instance, that very few people seem to understand. Band shirts, at their core, are tangible symbols of shared, often unspoken emotions between strangers expressed through clothing. So, whenever I meet someone who shared that passion for a particular artist, whether online or in real life, I can’t help but feel drawn to them. 

Some of the most intense relationships I have ever shared with other human beings were forged through a shared love of music. When I’m with these people, we don’t even need to talk. We just share our favorite songs for hours, often accompanied by a pack of cigarettes and a drink. This was my early twenties in a nutshell. Sure, life sucked. But having a few people to share these things with made the world seem a little brighter. 

The Age of Streaming: My Inevitable Reliance to Listening to Music on My Phone
For better or worse, I am now completely reliant on my phone for my music. With the ubiquity of smartphones, combined with a growing need to travel light, having music on my phone is now a necessity. 

The behaviors I developed with an iPod carried over, but to a limit. I couldn’t carry 100GB of music everywhere I went anymore, and with that came the need to cut down on the number of songs I took with me. And that was a tall order, because no matter how I struggled to keep the essentials on my phone, there was always something left out.

I was introduced to Spotify in late 2014. I will admit that I was impressed. As a teenager of the 2000s, I thought of it as Yahoo! Launch on steroids. And because enough, though not all, of what I loved was available there, it slowly became my primary means of music consumption. I had gotten fed up with the task of manually arranging metadata on MP4 files, and I was swayed by convenience. 

As I grew into a functional adult, I became more passive in the way I listened to music. Sure, there was an album or artist I’d find myself drawn to. But for better or worse, music became something to keep on to pass the time while I worked. I just didn’t have the time to pour myself into an album anymore. And it was depressing. 

For the first time in my life, I felt like I had lost something that was so connected to my identity. Most of my friends seemed to move with their lives, some of them developed musical tastes that I just couldn’t get myself to appreciate no matter how hard I tried. And I felt empty. 

The Real Ramona and How I Found Sound Again
Earlier this year, I finally came around to listening to Throwing Muses. I was always familiar with them by name and association, but I didn’t come around to listening to them until earlier this year. I wasn’t expecting to fall for them the way I did. It just happened that I had a lot of work to get through and I needed something pleasant enough to keep my subconscious occupied. And without realizing it, their 1990 album, The Real Ramona, struck a chord. For the first time in a few years, in the middle of work, I found myself profoundly moved by a song called “Two Step”. And suddenly, it all came rushing in: the goosebumps, the utter surrender to a tapestry of voices and guitars, and the connection to considerably esoteric lyrics that manage to capture the way I felt about myself in that particular time and place. 

Before long, I began doing what I had done all those years ago the moment I’d find a band I liked: I was getting lost in the music, learning everything I could about the members of the band, and I was finding people who liked them, strangers from every corner of the world who, at one point in their lives, felt the same way had felt in the middle of work.

Now, this isn’t to say that I spent my late 20s devoid of music. I discovered a handful of artists, both past and present, that I fell in love with. But it was “Two Step” that enabled me to remember all the things that made me fall in love with music as a teenager. And before I knew it, I started seeking out music and celebrating music again. 

Listening in the 2020s

So where are we today? We have a number of streaming platforms to choose from. Vinyl, along with cassette tapes, have made a comeback. CDs are still a thing for whoever still wants to buy them.

We are surrounded by so many ways to consume music. It has never been so accessible, yet it’s still hard to really grasp the tangibility associated with music all those years ago. However, that can provide us with a challenge that enables us to really savor the sounds that fill our ears each and every day.

There is so much amazing music, from the past and present, just begging to be discovered. This decade, maybe it’s time we slowed down to appreciate what’s around us, and take part in the journey of discovering music together. Find something new to fall in love with and share it with the world, proudly. Find people who love the music you love, make a connection, and discover a song you’ve never heard before. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the years I’ve been consuming music, it’s that if there’s a song your favorite artists treasure, there’s a good chance you’re going to love it too. Find out what they listen to, and use the internet to forge your own path and make it an active part of your life. Buy the music, if you have the option.

And above all, just listen. Listen loud. Listen deep. And just allow yourself to get lost into the collision of rhythm and beats strung together by melody you can sing along to. There’s so much about yourself and the world around you to learn, if you just slow down and listen.