04 April 2010

Behold Lala

I can't even remember how it happened, but a few months ago, I stumbled on a digital music vendor called Lala. Since then, I've mentioned it to several colleagues, a few of whom had heard of it, none of whom had used it. Here, then, is my totally unpaid and relatively uninformed endorsement for the site.

The primary difference between Lala and every other digital music vendor and internet radio outlet I'm familiar with is that registered users can listen to complete tracks once before purchasing. I'll say that again: you get to listen to the whole entire track without paying anything. This is very much unlike iTunes, for example, where you get lame 30 second tidbits that are useless for taking shots in the dark, and preclude forming even the seed of an opinion. It is also unlike Pandora, where one cannot choose to listen to anything in particular, but rather is at the mercy of their supposedly mind-reading algorithms (albeit ones that I found made the service both useful and effective for my purposes, and at the unbeatable price of free). In many ways, it even trumps YouTube, which I regularly extoll to my students as perhaps the most powerful and important listening resource available to them these days, yet which exists as such only to the extent that users are able to fool, hide from, litigate against, or publicly humiliate intellectual property rights holders who otherwise might (justly or unjustly) want the content they control to be removed.

Apparently, everything that is available for "web listening" on Lala has been licensed, how I can't imagine, but I'm not going to worry about it unless it suddenly goes up in smoke, in which case I'll wish I'd paid better attention, and also that I was a lawyer. There is also much listed which has apparently not (yet) been licensed as such and hence is not available for the one-shot free listen, as well as much that is simply indexed with no actual files available to purchase or listen to at all. And of course, there's plenty of stuff people like me consider interesting that is totally absent, but this time around, that's a small complaint; this site already offers instant free access to a lifetime's worth of music.

Why would I take the time to write about this? First off, don't you think it's just about fucking time that the customer should be able to listen to complete tracks before purchasing? Isn't it totally fucking annoying that enabling this would verge on a revolutionary act? Even 1 or 2 minute long samples are totally worthless when trying to choose a recording of an epic classical symphony movement, or in evaluating a piece of free improvisation that fills an entire disc. It's like trying to buy a bike but only being allowed to see the handlebars. Conversely, if what Lala has accomplished catches on (and why woudn't it?), no future site will be able to compete without offering at least the same perusal privileges to its users, or maybe even without upping the ante. That's huge.

The bike/handlebar analogy is a relatively objective and airtight way of arguing for the absolute necessity of what the good people at Lala have accomplished for music and musicians, but don't think that I, in my own totally subjective and perversely pseudo-academic crusade against shallow listening, don't also just love the fact that, if not only in theory, this is a system which privileges deep, engaging, radical music that simply demands repeated auditions in order to be fully absorbed over saccharine ear candy that one might not feel absolutely necessitates a second hearing. In practice, of course, I doubt that this will bring about a true flipping of the scales where abstract modern classical composers become rich and famous on account of their brisk MP3 sales while hustling pop musicians are forced to cobble together a living from studio teaching and session work because everyone can hear their songs once for free and simply decide it's not necessary to hear them again if that privilege is going to carry an 89¢ price tag. Even so, know that I'll be faithfully doing my part to see that plan through. From now on, when professional obligation or peer pressure begets perfunctory curiosity about something I know I won't be able to stand hearing more than once anyway, I can scratch that itch without having to pay for it. Meanwhile, I can also investigate things I suspect may be of deeper interest to me, hear the entire works, purchase only those which simply demand to be purchased, and know that I'm not just throwing money down the drain. And of course, true shots in the dark can and will be taken. That's probably the most exciting part, and something that desperately needs to be encouraged and enabled among occupants of the teetotalling modern day pop-cultural mainstream. How about it y'all? I'll show you mine if you show me yours...

As you can see, I can hardly contain my optimism about this state of affairs, but the downside to all of this (if there is one) is that it has swiftly brought about the inevitable conclusion of an otherwise very slowly evolving process in my listening habits, and I've been left just a bit shell-shocked as a result. When I first got serious about music towards the end of high school, I also got incredibly methodical about listening, perhaps even a bit too much so. Part of that was attributable to economics: CD's cost between $5 and $15 each back then, and I was earning $7.50 an hour working just a couple shifts a week in a bagel shop. Hence, I had to get the most out of my purchases, and would seldom acquire new discs until I simply could not stand to listen to the old ones any longer. This was not, however, entirely a money issue. I also decided that it was more useful to me as a developing composer and improvisor to know a little bit of music really well rather than to simply listen superficially to as much unique work as I could get my hands on. And as all of this threatened to severely limit breadth, I seldom allowed myself to purchase more than one disc by the same artist. Put into terms I did not possess at that time, what I sought to do was to assemble collection of major works, each of which was more of less representative of its creator's overall work, and to get to know each of them inside and out.

While colleagues and teachers have gently taken me to task since on each of these counts, I wouldn't do anything differently if I had it to do over again. No amount of stylistic breadth was truly feasible in that timeframe that would have satisfied everyone around me, nor myself, but I made surprisingly good decisions for my age, as well as some curious ones the lasting impact of which I'm only now beginning to understand, but which I don't regret one bit, since if anything, they've made me more unique (and I can say with a straight face that it was on purpose). The fact that I dwelled forever on a disc before moving on to the next one sometimes made me feel uncool, since others my age began to significantly outpace me in terms of breadth, and yet the fact that I could hum my way through a dozen complete Eric Dolphy solos before I had so much as smelled the level of technical proficiency required to execute them on tuba allowed me to reach that level sooner than I would have otherwise, dare I say sooner also than many who spent more of their practice time listening to records than actually practicing.

As my collection grew and I became aware of more and more music, my listening patterns gradually started to shift. As I've written before, this is part of the reason my overall listening decreased quite markedly between about 2004 and 2007 (late in college and immediately after graduation): because there was now so much more to get to, I spent less time on everything, and because I spent less time on everything, I developed shallower relationships with that music, both emotionally and technically. I went through a withdrawal of sorts, having become addicted to the naive and single-minded excitement that accompanied my initial exposure to so many of my early purchases. This sort of intense attachment developed less and less from my newer acquisitions either because I chose them out of mere professional obligation, or because the overall thrill of listening records was lessened by the fact that it was no longer a new discovery, but rather an addiction of sorts that cost money and begot plenty of interpersonal conflict, just like real drugs do.

Long story longer, Lala has rousted me from these doldrums and thrown me headlong into shallower, "survey" listening that is intensely exciting simply because it's a new way of doing things, but also because I sense the opportunity to finally start balancing out those several years where I embraced depth over breadth. I now spend most all of my listening time on Lala investigating things I'm curious about for some reason or another, knowing from the start that I have only one chance to listen for free. Ultimately, I know from experience that without returning at some point to the kind of deeper, repeated listening that begets memorization and occasionally even obsession, my true "knowledge" of music will stagnate and my creative well will begin to run dry. However, as you could have guessed from the story I just told, there are some fairly significant holes not just in my pantheon of favorites, but indeed in my overall experience as well. Lala is giving me a chance to remedy that, a chance that I never anticipated having, or, in some ways, even wanting. However, now that something has restored the naive, child-like excitement of my earliest days of "serious" musicianship, I'm inclined to ride that wave of excitement, hopefully all the way to the kind of comprehensive bird's eye view of recorded music history that I haven't allowed myself to develop previously. That can't possibly be a bad thing.

There's a social networking component to Lala, which is equal parts annoying and seductive. You can officially "follow" other listeners Twitter-style, or just visit their home pages where their supposed listening habits are on display. Every album is categorized according to genre, and your home page generates a bar graph to represent your tendencies. The assumption that the total quantity of tracks heard from an arbitrarily assigned (and often flat out misapplied) genre equates directly to a preference for that genre is an unfortunate pop culture holdover; making the same assumption about repeated listening is a bit safer, but not safe enough. Everything on the Tzadik label is considered "Rock," including some recent Wadada Leo Smith records that belie that categorization just a bit. Meanwhile, Univers Zero is egregiously labeled "Pop," Elmo Hope "Classical," and Monk's records seem to move up the food chain from "Jazz" to "Rock" to "Pop" based on how well they've sold.

In light of all of this, and also fearing that my, ahem, purely investigative forays into much music I can't stand could possibly reflect badly on my reputation among like minded colleagues (yes, both of them), I've forgone linking my Facebook account with Lala, which is an option that would have saved me the trouble of registering with yet another site, but which ultimately was less attractive for its potential to blow my cover. Hence, in order to find out what I'm up to, you'll have to know where to look, and I'm not going to tell you, though I'll give you a hint and say that if you don't recognize both the pseudonym and the photo, then you really ought to hang out here more often. I'm disappointed to find that the listening history apparently begins to purge itself after a couple of months. That's the one feature of the home page that I found essential, not to mention intriguing from a "digital remains" standpoint; imagine 22nd century musicologists settling the issue of whether a dead composer knew this or that piece by an obscure contemporary only after convincing his widow to log them into his Lala account. Of course, in enforcement of the "One Free Listen" policy, the complete history is indeed stored somewhere, even if it's not publicly visible, and this further begs the question of why it would be too much trouble to display it on the home page.

I'm too enamored with the product as well as with my newfound freedom to attempt to circumvent the limitations on free listening by simply creating a million accounts. In fact, taking into account the multiple recordings of major classical works that are available, as well as a few jazz albums which have been reissued and repackaged over the years, there are actually plenty of opportunities to hear a piece multiple times while remaining firmly within the confines of ethical behavior (I managed to find 10 versions of Stravinsky's "Symphonies of Wind Instruments," a piece my college wind ensemble played once, but which I wasn't assigned to; I wish I had been). I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I haven't purchased anything yet, and if they go belly up before I do, I'll feel lame about it. Speaking strictly about the product, though (I know nothing of their business practices) and what it does to the landscape of online listening, it seems like just the kind of operation worth supporting, while the soundbite boutiques and aspiring mind-readers seem less and less so. If anyone I've mentioned it to in person had ever used it, I wouldn't have bothered giving it so much airtime here.