Why I listen to music on YouTube and left my MP3 player behind

death_metal_unlocks_divinityLike most of you, I experience a prevalence of dual-use time in my life. That is, I have to be here at the computer doing something, but like most things in “mature” “adult” “responsible” society it takes half a brain at best, so I put on some tunes and shift most of my brain and mind that way.

Originally, back in the dire proto-technological days of the 1980s, we had to manually throw on an LP, CD or cassette to hear music. Otherwise, there was the radio, but there wasn’t as much choice there. Radio was both the last resort, and a way to hear new music. It served a sacred role in the latter and could be an event in its role as the former.

If the rare metal show in your area showed up only one night a week, that became party night while you and your buddies checked in for the weekly connection to the world of metal. Sometimes, it was just for fun. It was easier to let someone else DJ and pick the tunes, and if the price you had to pay was every third tune being a stinker, no big deal.

Then in the late 1990s, people started getting crazy with the multi-disc changers. Now you could have five or six discs in rotation and just let them roll. Put in what you wanted, throw it on repeat, and listen for three hours or longer. I used to put my Harmon-Kardon on shuffle repeat and bathe people in music of disparate form but similar content, which created an immersive wave of exploration in that topic.

But it all changed with broadband and the evolution of the MP3 codec. When we launched our radio station back in 1997, the Frauhnofer MP3 codec we used was really excellent. But since that time, innovations have occurred in variable bit rate, compression and sound dynamics that add on to that strong basis. Now MP3s are a better delivery mechanism than tape and, given adjustments for physical electronics degrading sound, almost as good as CD.

Listening to music via MP3 was different however. Generally, you saved a ton of MP3 files to some directory on your Winchester disk. Then you pitched those into a playlist and started somewhere. The player would, like a merciless harvester of ears, keep going until you told it to stop. So it was more like tuning into a radio station whose playlist you chose, but one which favored sequential albums. You could also randomize.

The problem with this style of listening — as you’ve guessed, doubtless, being the intelligent reader — is that it’s autopilot. Want to listen to Slayer? With two clicks you’ve launched everything beginning with “S,” and then the playlist begins again when it runs out of those. You can conceivably keep your entire record collection streaming in the background.

However that loss of choice can be disturbing. You’re no longer choosing to listen to something past the first choice. You get caught up in the playlist. If you randomize, it’s only a little bit better. In the end, it’s like radio without the human intervention of the DJ, and takes power away from you.

This is why I’ve come to enjoy YouTube. It’s like putting an LP on the record player more than anything else. I think of an album; I type the name and “full album” (LOL search engines) into YouTube, and up pops a version of it. I hit play, and sit back and listen to it. But then comes the magic: when it’s done, it’s done. I have to manually, physically and deliberately choose another piece of music or sit in silence.

In this, I get the best of both worlds. The (nostalgia aside) beauty of choice, where you have to walk to the shelves, think of an album, find it according to your filing system, and then manually put it on the player. And yet, the promise of digital technology and convenience of MP3s: no record you can scratch, no CD you can fumble, no cassette to entangle. The two are united by typing that search into the YouTube site.

There’s some ethical issues of course. I’d be happier if all bands posted official full albums so I could kick them the $0.02 per play that YouTube pays. In the end, that might pay more than traditional record contracts; I don’t know. Most bands don’t seem to care, as many of us using YouTube are doing so in places where we can’t bring our record collections, like work, friends’ houses, church, missile silo, etc.

But at the end of the day, what really matters about music is preserving the magic. That sense that behind the next corner, something amazing lurks. A buried treasure; an undiscovered secret. An explosion of imagination, or emotion, or even pure logical calculation. That life is ongoing, and infinite, and we’ll always find something new to quest after.

Ultimately, this is what makes YouTube compelling. It requires a choice. There is no constant rolling playlist. I must go to the site, type in the band name and album name, and start the process. This makes me the person in charge who then rapidly loses control as the music sweeps over me. This is the experience of listening, and in this sense, YouTube brings back the beauty of the LP with the convenience of the iPod.

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9 thoughts on “Why I listen to music on YouTube and left my MP3 player behind”

  1. Dominating Fucker says:

    Funny thing is, I’ve been exploring early 70s rock music from the cosmic couriers to zeuhl masters, rio avantgardist or anything in between and I do the same “type full album”. I’m currently reading Piero Scaruffi’s History of Rock Music (http://www.scaruffi.com/history/long.html) and I listen to a sample on YouTube as I read the historic relevance of each album. Tangering Dream seemed like a distant mystery to me and it feels great to go album by album. It is an engaging journey.

  2. eachdawnidie says:

    Youtube gives you way less control than a CD player though. I don’t see where the problem is with simply ignoring features like shuffle or repeat and using your mp3 library as just another, extremely convenient way to listen to individually chosen albums with a beginning and an end. Because obviously that’s the correct way to listen to music, or at least that’s what a decade or so of doing just that taught me.

  3. AN says:

    Agreed, but iPods also perform as you described. You can play a playlist you create, shuffle, or select one single album. I use Foobar2000 for my computer to perform the same (rarely do I listen from my computer harddrive, it is usually MP3 or FLAC on my phone or ipod or youtube on phone or computer).

  4. Kingdomgone says:

    Youtube really is great. The choise is yours.

    Even when I have a certain album in my mp3 collection I still go Youtube and search for it. Weird? Maybe, but also a lot rewarding.

  5. Stormwinds says:

    A while ago I started using lossless (flac,wv,ape etc.) quality files. Seems counterproductive because if an album takes 50-100 mb of hd space in mp3, it takes 300-500 this way, but it actually forces you to delete tons of shitty mp3 music to save space. Also lossless is the only way for a proper archive of music worth preserving.
    Youtube is nice I guess, if one doesn’t want to bother with technicalities, saves time and it’s by far the best source for classical music. Also reading the comments (although most of the time there is e-fighting going on over petty things like genres etc.) can have a radio-like effect which is kinda nice.

  6. EDS says:

    Youtube is best for discovering new music and obtaining mp3 or lossless of an album long out of print. I never search and listen to an album on Youtube which I already own. And I use my computer alot for playing music. I’d rather play music off of the CD or plug in the mp3 player and listen that way. Guaranteed good quality and I achieve maximum control.

  7. fallot says:

    I have never been able to listen to music by just putting it on at long stretches at a time while I engage myself with something else. That doesnt seem like listening to me at all, but I suppose it may just be a personal quirk. It usually takes me about twice the running time of an album to get through it to my satisfaction, which is one reason I really appreciated MP3s. Youtube really has turned into an impressive chronicle of old school metal music. There are generally no issues with publishers or studios pushing for removal, full albums are very often available – sometimes even with lyrics – and the best level of quality is quite good. Youtube is where blogspot metal seems to have migrated to.

  8. basto says:

    The first paragraph describes my previous job to a T, except that I was trying to drown out my coworkers’ incessant gabbing. (We basically sat elbow to elbow; a retarded setup.) Instead of metal, though, I usually looked for traditional folk music from various cultures (a keen interest of late).

    This article is an example of a positive, convenient outcome of technology—the promise of the Internet, as it were—as opposed to the endless hours of human stupidity stored in YouTube’s servers.

    What puzzles me is why don’t bands just slap a PayPal button on their websites so that fans can show some love directly to the artists. The dying (but still dangerous) mammoth that it is, the record industry can kick and scream all the way to the grave, but there’s no turning back the Internet and file sharing.

  9. Belisario says:

    YouTube is indeed a very good and quick way to have access to a lot of music chosen in real time, but it is also home to stupid chatting, pointless music lists and sometimes can absorb your spare time when you get trapped in the game of clicking the side links once and once again (I speak out of personal experience).

    However, I would say that this thing about formats is actually more a matter of attitude. I personally have seldom clicked the shuffle/random button on any of my players, I always prefer to listen to full albums and concentrate individually on them, leaving some silence in between to let the mood fade away slowly for itself. In the same way, I would never listen to single songs (samples excepted) on YouTube of any album that I haven’t listened to before, it just doesn’t feel right to me.

    My point is that, be it CDs, cassettes, mp3 or YouTube albums, it is to me more a matter of perspective than anything else.

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