#168: Punks in the Beerlight

An important ritual throughout my youth was inspecting someone’s music collection the first time you visited their house or rode in their car and using that information to decide how cool they were. Despite the broad transition from physical to digital media—CD sales peaked in 2000, the year after Napster’s founding—the ritual, which depended upon ownership of the former, remained widespread for at least another decade or so, fading for me sometime in the early 2010s when I finally put my huge CD collection in storage (my final CD purchase, the Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, occurred in 2012) and irreversibly ending in 2016 when I got rid of the CDs altogether. For much of my life, I had spent most of my disposable income on CDs, investing great effort in accumulating them and tying my identity to the music I liked via ownership of carefully-selected albums. Even after the physical collection was gone I still felt that bond with it, like a phantom limb, but it was suddenly harder to communicate that part of myself to other people (I was also old by then so it didn’t matter as much). Bookshelves endure today as the last form of self-identifying physical media collection that most of us display in our homes, which is probably why we increasingly fetishize them and learned during the pandemic to carefully position them in the backgrounds of our Zoom meetings. But as such statements go, bookshelves in your 30s aren’t nearly as powerful as a record collection when you’re 19.

Spotify and YouTube, of course, were the primary reasons for CDs’ waning significance in my life (at some point in the 2010s it became difficult to even find devices that could play CDs). As with most other media, the internet massively curtailed music’s physical presence in the world, thereby eliminating a powerful mode of communicating one’s taste. We still downloaded and “owned” MP3s in a manner analogous to records, but these collections were largely invisible; once streaming became dominant we didn’t even own the files. As music became increasingly digital, the mechanisms that emerged for signaling our music preferences were quite different. The earliest version of Facebook, which appeared in 2004 as I was still ravenously accumulating CDs, foreshadowed the new arrangement: Early Facebook was little more than a directory of linked profiles, most famous for offering the ability to display one’s relationship status but also significant for providing fields in which users could list their favorite bands and movies—which were still understood in 2004 to be core pillars of identity, at least for college students. Filling in those lists of bands on Facebook was a painstaking process with (seemingly) high stakes, the results of which would presumably reach a much larger audience than a shelf full of records, impacting one’s social life more decisively. For the first time, instead of amassing a music collection that could speak for itself via IKEA CD towers and 128-disc wallets, we could just state what we liked—instead of showing, now we were mostly telling.

Music taste thus decoupled from monetary expenditure. Instead of saving up to buy another Fugazi CD and adding it to the shelf, you could just say you liked Fugazi, and download their whole catalog for free. This made music taste more egalitarian and marked the beginning of the end for old school music snobbery, driven by scarcity and dominated by avid record collectors with skin in the game, but it also increased the importance of finding ways to talk about what you liked—because that was increasingly all there was. In an alternate universe, maybe we would somehow display the recommendation algorithms that supposedly reflect our personal music preferences, but it turns out we’re frequently ashamed of those algorithmic results, sensing that they show the wrong version of ourselves even if that version is more “real” than whatever we would consciously curate. What happened instead is another decoupling: We listen privately and announce our taste publicly (on social media), and there is no need for the two to perfectly align, as was the case when the same record collection we listened to also showed others what we liked. Freed from the constraints of physical media, self-branding has become unimaginably fluid; our online identities grow more baroque and complex as Spotify nudges our actual listening behavior toward standardized patterns. The recent explosion of NFTs is surprising in how seems to subvert this arrangement by artificially reimposing the constraints of ownership: NFT collectors display their CryptoPunks and Bored Apes in wallets where they are meant to be seen, like a record shelf for digital space. But reuniting our stated and revealed preferences is risky: Like a public-facing Spotify algorithm, it might just demonstrate that everyone’s actual taste is more generic than they pretend it is.

This newsletter is supported by paid subscriptions, which give you access to an extra issue (in addition to the free Friday issue). Sign up to get the full experience.