$3 Per Month: The Largest Possible Music Budget
I need a constant soundtrack of it at all times – different types of music for breakfast-eating, house-building, furniture-making, driving, blog-writing, exercising, dancing, house cleaning, patio beer-drinking-and-campfire-having, and more. And it has to be different music all the time – no repeating the same song within a week (preferably a month), different genres throughout each day, and of course absolutely no talking or commercials interrupting the mix, ever.
With a habit like this, you can imagine that I have to spend a lot of time collecting and organizing the music, and making mixes that meet my stringent requirements. And in the past, I have spent a lot of money on the hobby as well. Let’s talk about those olden days to explain how things were, and how they have changed.
Ever since that golden day when my dad brought home a little battery-powered radio from an advertising industry trade show, I have been hooked. I used to slip the flat radio under my pillow before going to sleep each night as a 9-year-old, and one of my parents would quietly reach under my sleeping head and turn it off on their own way to bed later that night. At the time, I listened to an AM rock station called CKOC that played the cutting edge early ’80s rock and pop music that thrilled youngsters of my generation. Toto’s Africa and much of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album blew little Pre-teen MMM’s mind.
As the years went on, my interest grew. I bought my first double-cassette deck portable stereo (“ghetto blaster”, as we called them back then, despite the fact that we lived in a crime-free town, population 4,000, and thus there were no ghettos available to blast). I started buying tapes, meticulously recording songs from the weekly American Top 40 broadcast with Casey Kasem, and swapping recordings of records and tapes with friends. I discovered the concept of High Quality Sound, and commandeered the stereo system from the family living room for my own bedroom. After scoring my first minimum-wage job, I went crazy and bought an $1100 stereo system of my own, and some of my budding little audiophile friends followed suit. CDs were invented and we bought some of the first CD players and started accumulating CDs at a brisk pace, despite their punishing $20-per-disc price ($36.38 in today’s dollars if you adjust for inflation). I joined, and quit, the Columbia House music club repeatedly as a way of getting more CDs for less.
That was a funny time in our lives, since our spending on music as a percentage of income was ridiculous. By the age of 17, I had amassed about 300 CDs, representing well over $4000 of casual spending collected onto one heavy bookshelf. This is comparable to me buying and maintaining a multi-bedroom luxury motor yacht today, something which I obviously would not even consider. But kids will be kids, and Mr. Money Mustache wasn’t around to admonish me at the time for the careless spending.
But thankfully, both the Internet and the globalization of manufacturing have come along, and completely wiped out the old model. It’s much more difficult for Leather-clad Hair Metal bands like Kiss, Winger, Slaughter, and Quiet Riot to pack stadiums while simultaneously making millions for themselves and their managers and merchandisers and owners. But it’s much easier for independent musicians like my brother Wax Mannequin to spread the word and gain a moderate but dedicated fan base that spans a few countries and lets them travel and rock out upon many ‘a’ fine stage. And music consumers like myself have enjoyed the effects of Napster, Usenet newsgroups, eMule, Bit Torrent, and many other technologies that have fleshed out music collections worldwide at minimal expense, even while we enjoy buying the music of local musicians directly after a barroom concert, with cash, over a compliment and a handshake.
The thing about music for music enthusiasts is that we need a LOT of it. If I listen to music for an average of 4 hours a day, 30 days a month, with no repeats, I’d need a rotation of 1440 songs, or $1440 dollars worth of music at iTunes prices just to get me through the first month.
In the bad old days, a listener was trapped in a triangle between the options of Incredible Expense, Time-Consuming and Possibly-Illegal Piracy, or Awful Commercial-laden FM radio.
Then Internet Radio came along.
Suddenly there were thousands of streaming radio stations playing nice DJ-arranged mixes of music, supported only by small visual ads but no intrusive audio ads. It was a huge step forward, especially for office workers who want to groove along with headphones all day while they work on their computers. But each DJ’s taste still seemed to differ from my own, such that an annoying tuneless grating noise song or a schlocky Celine Dion-style ballad would pop incongruously into the mix and snap me out of my concentration. Because of this risk, I often had to resort back to my own digital music collection and the attendant time expenditures.
But one year ago, I discovered a nice hybrid of the two systems: Pandora Internet Radio. You type in the name of a musician, like my favorite Jazz piano player Ahmad Jamal. Pandora automatically creates a “Station” that plays only Ahmad Jamal and similar musicians.. 24 hours a day, advertising free, as long as you pony up the $36 per year fee for the premium Pandora One service.
If a station ever plays a song you don’t like, you run over to your computer and click the “thumbs down” button. This feeds back into Pandora’s algorithm to further figure out your tastes and make the station even better.
I have been a paying Pandora subscriber for one year, and it has been a constant companion for me, streaming out of my laptop into the main stereo at home, and out of my iPhone into the Construction Radio when I am out in the yard or at a party or job site.
I’ve created and customized about 30 stations, each of which draw upon thousands of songs, and I get to sit back and mix and match them for the event at hand. Ahmad Jamal, Alana Davis, Action Figure Party, AC/DC, The Biscuit Burners, Celia Cruz, The Dining Rooms, DJ Shadow, Don Ross, Fila Brazillia, India Arie, Jurassic 5 (best hip-hop group ever), Manu Chao, Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Medeski Martin and Wood, Mountain Brothers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Strunz & Farah, Turntablism & Beat Science, and the classic early hip-hoppers Young MC/Digital Underground are just some of my stations that form the broad foundation of this crazy new world of infinite music listening.
Pandora satisfies my desire for high quality audio as well. With the premium service, I get streaming at a bitrate of 192kb/sec using a compression method that is more advanced than MP3 (aacPlus). I run this sound stream out of the digital output on the back of my laptop, into my beefy Yamaha receiver, where the digital-to-analog conversion is done in a nice low-noise environment. It is amplified with a fantastic amount of clean power, and pumped out to the gorgeous row of woofers and tweeters depicted in the headline photo of this article. The end result is rich, detailed concerts in my living room, where the fine hairs of brushes hitting the drums strike out into the kitchen, and where the Bass tickles your buttocks at strategic moments. (I will admit that in the area of music reproduction, my frugality has broken down in earlier years. Someday when I lead a more minimalist life, this equipment will have to go.. but for now, the MMM Household rocks on.)
All at a monthly cost of only 3 songs from iTunes, or 3 Justin Bieber ringtones that a teen might purchase for her phone while walking around in the shopping mall. If I can get all this legally for $3 per month, it is hard to imagine spending more in any situation. So I am actually enjoying the most decadent and expensive music collection that can possibly be justified.
It makes me wonder who these people are that are pumping hundreds of their hard-earned employees into Apple’s iTunes store each year, when I already have the largest music collection imaginable at $3 per month!
Sometimes it is great to be a big spender.
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