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.