We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and tucked into the piles of new CDs is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. In this holiday-shortened week of over-indulgence, we answer questions about too much music and not enough time.
Doug Cutchins asks: "Given a finite amount of time to listen to music, how do I balance exploring music I haven't yet found with listening to already-beloved music?"
This is one of the central questions surrounding my entire day-to-day existence, so I barely know where to begin. At NPR Music, we're in the middle of prepping our year-end best-ofs — our favorite albums and singles and trends and whatnot — and it requires a considerable shift in mental resources to look backward even a few months. "This is all so six months ago. Shouldn't I be listening to the music of February 2013?"
As a result, I find that my year-end Top 10 lists frequently fall back on old standbys and comfort music — stuff by artists I already loved, whose new music I'm likely to have revisited as a palate-cleanser. The stuff that innovated and surprised will peek through, but it often gets consigned to my own personal margins, crowded out by a pursuit of the next surprising innovation.
All of which is one long, throat-clearing windup to my first point: I hear you, Doug Cutchins.
What I recommend, and what I've found most effective, is a bit of good old-fashioned time management. Most of us can break our days into more-or-less predictable chunks. Some people, bless their blockage-free hearts, jog while wearing headphones for 30 minutes a day. In lieu of exercise, I spend roughly 90 minutes in the car each day, commuting to and from work, picking up my kids, running to the store, and so on. Most of us have blocks of alone time, as well as blocks of more generalized time — free time after work, jobs in which we control the stereo, that sort of thing.
Try using your short, predictable blocks for one or the other — old music or new music, whichever feels more comfortable for you. For me, I hate listening to music I've never heard before while others are around; I find myself worrying too much about what they think and not enough time forming my own unclouded, unbiased opinion. That makes solo car trips key for music discovery; same goes for work time spent under headphones. Then, the freeform time — cooking dinner, decompressing, that sort of thing — is where the comfort food comes in.
Susan Crook asks: "How can I get friends to listen to music that I know they'll like without being pushy?"
It's easy to say that you've answered your own question — don't be pushy! — but the full answer is more nuanced. Music fans generally fall into two camps: those who don't have time to explore and instead ask to be led to the good stuff, and those who don't feel right unless they've got some claim to having "discovered" their favorite music on their own.
Even among people who ask for recommendations, there's etiquette involved in playing matchmaker with music. In general, but particularly in romantic relationships, step very lightly through the minefield of, "Sit down at my knee and I will educate you as to the philistine nature of your adorable tastes." The absolute last thing you want to project when recommending music — to anyone, really — is judginess or condescension.
The model to follow when recommending music — or books, or anything — is your friendly local librarian. "Hey, I noticed you checked out [Item X]. I bet you'll also like [Item Y]!" Be conspiratorial; stay on the person's side at all times.
Barring that, simply try exerting subtle control over shared playlists. Give rides. Throw parties. Sneak your favorite CDs into the car stereo. Tuck your iPod into the dock. The dream is to be able to say, "Oh, this?" instead of "Try this."
Caleb Keller asks: "There are many artists I want to explore — The Frames, for example — but I find their extensive catalogs so overwhelming that I just don't know where to start. Any advice?"
First of all: Eeeeeee! The Frames! Start with Set List, an amazing live album full of career highlights, performed with wit and intensity. That album is a perfect introduction to Glen Hansard's more explosive rock side — an excellent companion to the softer, folkier stuff he's done later in his career with Marketa Irglova.
Wait — there's your answer! The best way to go is to simply ask a superfan, "Where should I start?" If you get "It's all great" or "Start with these six albums," ask another superfan. I'm a big fan of simple, accessible entry points. Don't be afraid to play dumb, ask to be led gently, and get cracking on starting somewhere. Even if you're going to iTunes and plunking down $1.29 for the song ranked "Most Popular," you're doing more than you were doing before you dug in.