The YouTube generation is listening to . . . cassettes?
Today’s young music fans are used to getting what they want to hear anytime anywhere, and their tastes are algorithm-assisted.
When it comes to music, there’s a generational divide that’s not just about the bands millennials can’t get enough of versus the ones our boomer and Gen Xer parents loved. If the listening habits of all those earbud-wearing college students in Boston — I’m one of them — remains a mystery to you, here’s a quick rundown on the joys of sound consumption in the digital age.
I have an algorithm to thank for introducing me to my favorite band, Jack’s Mannequin, an alt-rock group out of Southern California. One of the band’s songs popped up while I was listening to Pandora, and I was hooked. That’s the beauty of Pandora — the free-with-ads music streaming service suggests songs you might like based on your listening history, and it led me to the best band on earth.
Streaming has revolutionized music for my generation. A big reason is the freedom of exploration — and the magic of discovery. You never know on any given day what you might hear. The streaming service Spotify lets you create playlists that have become the new mixtapes: With a few clicks, you can assemble a collection of songs and share it instantly with friends. You can listen on your computer free of charge but with ads, or you can pay $9.99 a month for more options and no advertising. During the holidays, instead of the traditional Secret Santa, my friends and I exchange playlists.
Some musicians don’t like streaming because artists get an incredibly small cut of every play. (Taylor Swift made headlines when she yanked her music from Spotify.) But for up-and-coming bands especially, it’s all about the exposure.
Jamie Doran, the drummer for the Boston indie band Horse Jumper of Love, is a believer. “If more people hear about you, then they’re going to want to come out and see you and buy your merchandise.”
My high school best friends and I saved our big road trip for the summer after our senior year, driving to Anaheim to attend VidCon, an annual YouTube convention that brings fans and creators together.
I discovered many of the artists that are now heavy in my rotation by stumbling on their music videos or covers on YouTube.
YouTube is also useful for record label execs, who can get a sense of how a band performs without necessarily seeing it live. And it’s a resource for younger kids who can’t yet afford a Spotify subscription but crave free, explorable content. Boston-area labels like Disposable America and Run For Cover Records boost their name recognition by putting up music videos and studio sessions for public consumption on YouTube.
Like Pandora, YouTube queues up new songs and artists based on other things users are listening to. And it offers a world of visual content beyond standard music videos — studio sessions, live interviews with artists, and clips from concerts.
Millennials grew up with constantly increasing accessibility to digital music. We don’t have to take a chance buying a recording we haven’t heard before, the way music-loving boomers and Gen Xers often did. I love the ability to pull up almost any song or music video on YouTube within seconds, to show friends how a band portrayed a song or take something out for a test run before buying the record on vinyl.
It’s 2017, and your Walkman needs new batteries. Why? Because cassettes are back.
More and more local bands are releasing songs and albums on tape. For all its charm, vinyl is more expensive and takes months for manufacturers to produce. Cassettes allow bands and smaller labels to release physical copies of music faster, and without breaking the bank on production. Horse Jumper of Love, for instance, relies on cassette sales as a doorway to bigger and more expensive mediums like vinyl.
Spending $5 on a tape from a band you want to check out can be a lot more appealing than dropping major cash on vinyl. And for those of us born after compact discs made tape obsolete, cassettes hold a certain novelty that digital music and CDs have lost.
I tried to resist vinyl. Growing up on CDs — back when laptops still had CD drives — and iTunes, I refused to plunge into hipsterdom. But at 15, I couldn’t help but pluck up that cute floral Crosley record player to hear the new Andrew McMahon record released on vinyl. And that was my gateway drug. I roamed the record shops near my Bay Area home, my fingers dancing over the plastic-covered edges as my eyes skimmed titles, just like so many baby boomers and Gen Xers had before me. Did I need Take Care by Drake on vinyl? No. Did I want it? Well, obviously.
Just how much has vinyl returned to the mainstream? You can buy records at Barnes & Noble. My favorite bands today release beautiful LPs, the discs pressed to look like marble or in screaming neon colors, and priced upward of $20.
Last April on Record Store Day, when labels release limited-edition vinyl or re-pressed albums that have been out of stock for years, I stood shivering in front of Newbury Comics at 7:50 in the morning, hoping to snatch up a limited re-press of my favorite All-American Rejects album, Move Along. Alas, I didn’t get it, but other finds made the day worth it.
One thing I especially love about vinyl is how it connected me to my dad, who grew up listening to LPs by ABBA, the Beatles, and Elvis. I’ll never forget finding him lying on the couch in the dark, moving his hands to the music as he listened to the ABBA Greatest Hits album I’d found for $5 and given to him. Regardless of generational differences, music connects us.
Finally, the Holy Grail: concerts. These are what make me and legions of other students who pass through Boston a “music person.” Three thousand miles away from my hometown, college is terrifying. New people and surroundings are terrifying. But here I was, a nervous young adult, taking the Orange Line to the Royale or the Red Line to the Sinclair, going to shows alone or with the friends I had made working at my school’s music magazine.
Regardless of how the Boston music scene has changed through the decades, the bond among those who love music — and the joy of attending shows — remains the same (though instead of lighters, we’re holding up glowing smartphones, looking to capture memories).
Whenever I felt unsettled or overwhelmed, I had a gig on the horizon. Nights spent screaming lyrics at the Middle East or pressed up against the barricade at the House of Blues took me away from my worries. I toured the city through dark rooms where magic happened in the form of melodies and community. I will remember Boston and these moments forever.
I’m on my own. No longer do I have to plead with my dad to drive me into the city to see another show. I can go to as many as I have time for and feel the constant comfort and companionship of live music that has existed as long as there have been stages and songs.
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Test your taste with genres you may not have heard of
> Emo Revival: Think sad boys and girls sulking about lost love and the confusion of adolescence.
Listen to: Foxing, The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die
> Skate Punk: Originating from the skater subculture, it’s guitar-heavy and fast-paced like its punk forebears but with catchier lyrics.
Listen to: FIDLAR, Cerebral Ballzy
> Chiptune: Synthesized electronic music made through old video game consoles and computers.
Listen to: Anamanaguchi, YMCK
> Synth-pop: An upbeat, danceable subgenre of new wave that relies heavily on the synthesizer.
Listen to: Grimes, CHVRCHES
> Bedroom Pop: Dreamlike and floaty, bedroom pop is a subgenre of DIY indie music and meant to be contemplative and imperfect.
Listen to: Youth Lagoon, Alex G
A SPOTIFY PLAYLIST TO GET YOU STARTED: