Music Blogging and the Paradox of Choice

My mother once told me a story about visiting a library when she was a young girl. She walked in and immediately felt overwhelmed. Where did she even begin? Which of the thousands of books should she choose? Shelf after shelf, stack after stack the place was suffocating. She wandered around in a daze, left empty handed and didn’t return.

What she was suffering from is what philosopher Barry Schwartz calls the ‘paradox of choice’. Humans crave choices and the right to freedom but too much choice and the magnitude of the decision becomes paralysing and detrimental to our social and emotional wellbeing. The result is that we often fail to choose at all or go for the safe option and deeply regret our choices, adding more stress to the next time we have to decide.

My mother’s reaction to the library has always puzzled me. As a child I was a voracious reader who worked through the entire children’s section as though it was my own personal Everest. To me endless choice was intoxicating, irresistible. The only problem I had was that there just wasn’t enough time in the day to read everything I wanted to. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. Choice seemed like a challenge to conquer rather than something to be afraid of. Even now I still read like this and the result is that if I’m not reading something I get restless and unhappy. I could miss every new movie and TV show and it wouldn’t bother me but I always have to be reading.

When I turned thirteen I became equally obsessed with music. Every day I listened to the radio non-stop, saved all my money to buy new albums and singles every Saturday, taped songs and live performances off the radio and catalogued them, read every word of the music press, watched MTV and the like, spent too much time and money in record shops etc etc etc. I couldn’t keep up with every new album or song that was released but I sure as hell tried. When my mother asked me what albums I wanted for Christmas one year, I gave her a five page list that barely scratched the surface of what I wanted to listen to and own. About that time I remember visiting a friend of my step dad’s whose house had shelves and shelves of CDs and vinyl, running my hand along the spines like I was touching heaven itself.

Later when the internet arrived my brother and I found Napster and we downloaded music with that sense of unhinged glee you only get from doing something you know is wrong. As time moved on I used limewire and joined various music sharing websites – my favourite was ‘indie exchange’ on Live Journal which became a community in itself. The choice of music seemed unlimited, unparalleled. We made mix CDs of our dreams and heard new albums before they were even in the shops. It wasn’t right but we didn’t care.

I still bought CDs and vinyl but I had to admit that during this period it was a considerable amount less than before. And yet I was listening to more and more music. I never once lost my appetite to devour as much as I humanly could.

Naturally this story of musical gluttony ends up with me starting this here music blog. On this hallowed ground I could have the opportunity to discuss and share all the music that I loved, find new artists and spend time with those from the past who deserved my attention. So I paid up for a subscription to an unlimited streaming service and got ready to dive in. My previous digital music consumption suddenly seemed quaint and highly curated to my own taste. Only now could I really sample any genre, artist, album, song out there without any real effort or commitment at all. Here was nirvana itself.

At first I thought my review schedule would be manageable because I had decided to eliminate the male gender entirely. Beyond that I would cover every new release by women artist that I loved, with no genre limitations. Initially it seemed easy – so many great albums were vying for my time and attention. In the first ten months of the blog I reviewed over eighty of them. It was exhilarating fun.

As the blog gained more readers and followers so I started to have a few people and PRs actually request that I listen to their music. I tried to do my best to write something worthy of such an honour. In 2018, the second year of the blog, I managed to write 75 reviews and starting sharing live reviews too.

This year though I’ve struggled to keep up with that pace and felt a creeping sense of unease. At one point halfway through the year I couldn’t find any music to write about, which seems ridiculous considering how much is out there. Every album, old and new, felt wrong somehow. I listened and felt nothing most of the time. When I went on twitter I saw what other cooler blogs were reviewing and what people were listening to and felt mild panic. I was nowhere near keeping up with the tidal wave of music being released. My email inbox had become filled with so many pitches I didn’t even open the majority of them, let alone listen. My followers sent me more suggestions for new music too and I just felt like I was failing them by not having the energy to engage. These things only seemed to underline the realisation that I was barely scratching the surface. Soon I felt like giving up. The paradox of choice had got its grip on me at last.

And I know I’m not the only one whose music choices have been affected by the possibilities and problems that streaming services offer. Look at what’s popular on these platforms – generic playlists made by algorithms appealing to the widest possible audience, plus a kind of easy listening style that doesn’t offend the casual listener to the point that nearly every song starts to sound the same. When I was growing up we had pop music and alternative music. You chose your side. It was easy enough to stay on top of what was popular and what was good. Now music fans are scattered to the four corners and all that unites us is this terrible generic pop music and the random good song that somehow rises to the surface of the Spotify swamp.

At least before the music you consumed had an end point – the CD finished or the record clicked off. Now the streaming rabbit hole calls to me every moment of the day – taunting me with its never ending possibilities. The next song might just save your life. Just keep skipping.

I wondered what I could do to get myself out of the slump. I went back to reread ‘The Paradox of Choice’ and thought more about how to find peace with everything that you can’t consume. Schwartz recommends that you embrace voluntary constraints. Less is more. So in the second half of the year I have reviewed a lot less, more like one album a week rather than two or three. I have also focused more on country and Americana since this is my passion and where my blog engagement is best. I still want to cover the bigger releases from other genres I love and intend to keep making Scottish music a priority as well. Even within those constraints I’ve accepted that there will be albums I miss and that’s ok.

The other advice is to seek ‘good enough’ and not the best. Writing is always challenging and never seems to get easier. I fall into bad habits and sometimes wonder if I’m actually getting worse not better as time goes on. Maybe that’s the case but I love to write and so I’m just going to keep on trying. Embrace adequacy and hope that being in it for the long haul will lead me somewhere. Creating something to make sense of the overwhelming flood is better than just staring into the abyss, I guess.

The book also recommends that we stop comparing ourselves to others. This was advice I really needed to hear after seeing the parade of Spotify listening stats this past week. Every post just got me thinking that I hadn’t listened enough, that I’d missed something really great. Same thing with the end of year lists. So many albums I hadn’t even heard of, let alone heard a note of. I pride myself on musical knowledge and it’s hard to admit defeat. I just ran out of time and headspace to take any more in.

In the modern music ocean there is just no way to know every drop of water. You just have to swim your own course through the tides. I hope this blog can continue to be a small guide to help others to find their way.

13 thoughts on “Music Blogging and the Paradox of Choice

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  1. “When I went on twitter I saw what other cooler blogs were reviewing and what people were listening to and felt mild panic.” ???? Your blog is as cool as any other and those who proclaim being cool are more probably sucking up to the latest trends. A blow by blow account of classic Dolly Parton albums might not be cutting edge but it sets out your territory which is somewhat unique as most of us bloggers seem to be old white men.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well thanks for calling me cool and unique – I wasn’t fishing for compliments honestly! I am going to try to worry less about this next year. Sometimes I get overwhelmed even trying to keep up with one genre let alone the trends across all of alternative music.

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  2. Thank you for sharing! You are an incredible, honest writer and I am delighted to see the conclusions you drew from the reading. Striving to be good enough is super liberating!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The comparison trap can be overwhelming – as can the pressures we put on ourselves to produce (and the self-doubts about what we do write). I think it’s something every blogger faces at one point or another. One thing that I do (or try to do) is flip the equation. Look at what your blog offers that others can’t – your voice. And instead of worrying about reviews never written, rejoice in those that were.

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  4. I’ll admit that running a music blog has given me more than my fair share of anxiety – more so than I’d ever thought possible when starting it, at least. What I mean is, I totally get what you’re saying with this post. I think the important thing to remember is that it’s all a hobby at the end of the day. Your happiness with it comes first and foremost, and Highway Queens’ worth stems from the quality of its posts (which are always excellent) rather than the quantity. I agree with Jeff above, it’s important to consider what has been written rather than what you regret not writing. And judging from personal experience and what I see from other writers, burnout is a very real entity that comes with this blogging thing. But I speak for many readers when I say that Highway Queens is an important voice in the blogging environment.

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  5. It used to bother me that there was so much music that I was missing out on, but I’m totally content now with what I do manage to listen to. Besides if you’re listening to a dozen new albums a day – even one new album every day – are you really thoroughly absorbing and appreciating that work?
    Once again this year there will be plenty of stuff I haven’t listened to on the year-end lists, but it works both ways. I suspect the likes of Meursault, Connie Constance, Liz Lawrence, Jackie Charles, Mattiel and Richard Dawson – some of my 2019 favourites – won’t make much of an impact on Pitchfork, Rolling Stone et al.
    Envy and comparison is just an endless, bottomless spiral. There will never be enough time in life to listen to all the music or read all the books we’d like to.
    Be content. You’re doing a great job with the blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this piece, as you sum up so well what all of us writers have experienced at some point. The delicate balance between wanting happy readers and a happy you makes choices on what to cover agonized enough but now with streaming and social media thrown into the mix it just makes it even more overwhelming. That’s part of why I personally I had to step away from blogging for a while and why I’m still away from social media for the most part. I’m glad you realized you should cover what makes you happy, as not only will this help prevent burnout, but you will attract the type of reader you want, as it’s not about getting the biggest audience rather an audience you enjoy engaging with and talking music. Also any blog with a dedicated Dolly Parton section is cool in my book!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Social media adds a whole other dimension to this problem for sure. I sometimes think it would be better just to blog and not post on these platforms at all but it’s hard to give them up now. How are you feeling about blogging now? And also thank you for the Dolly compliment! X

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can understand what you mean about it being hard to give up. Personally I feel like my writing has gotten better since I’ve mostly walked away from social media, as I know it can cloud my judgement and can cause me to create unnecessary pressure within myself to write a certain way. I feel much better about blogging now. I only write when I want to and about what I want. I know that if I stick to the music and just be myself that I’ll be happy with my writing. And it’s served me well so far since returning to it.

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