Intentional Consumption

December 17, 20233 minutes to read

On the last night of Channukah, I gave each of my kids their first vinyl record from their current favorite artist (Taylor Swift and Imagine Dragons respectively but that's not important to the story.) The physical records were not the real gift. My real goal was to give them a special kind of experience.

When I was young - maybe 14 until 18 - almost every other Tuesday I would head down to Main Street in my hometown to the "cool" record store. Tuesday was Release Day when all the new music would come out. I'd listen to the new arrivals and try to decide which one CD I could afford. It was one and only one – one CD, one album, one artist – because $16.99 felt like a lot of money to a kid in 1992.

Disc in hand, I'd hustle back home or to a friend's house and immediately sit in front of the stereo to listen. We listened to that entire album from start to finish without interruption. I'd read every word - every credit, lyric, and letter - in the liner notes while listening. I'd pore over the artwork. Then I'd go back and listen to the best songs. Then listen to the whole thing again. If my neighbor had a different album we'd trade them for a week. If it was the new Best. Album. Ever. we'd dub it onto old cassettes that had already been recorded over 8 times.

We could listen to that new record at least 10 times within the next week. It was a privilege that I could focus on enjoying art. I committed to new music because of the investment in time and money, and because in my hormone-addled teenage brain, there wasn't anything better to do. I would lose myself in the music because there were no distractions and it connected to me in a visceral way.

Warning: Heading into, "cranky old man yelling at clouds" territory.

Today you can listen to virtually every known recording in the world for the cost of one CD in 1992. You can skip randomly between songs, albums, and artists as fast as your thumbs will allow. Or you can delegate decisions completely to virtual DJs powered by "machine learning". The algorithm knows more about pairing music than you do. Except it doesn't.

To make matters worse, there's infinite distraction interrupting your listening experience. Music has become the background to scrolling and shopping. It's impossible to perceive everything the artist created for you when your attention is split between apps. You just can't connect to the emotion in the music when you hear music instead of listen to it.

I believe there is great value in engaging in activities that require longer focus. Listening to albums instead of tracks, Books instead of Articles, Movies instead of Episodes. Doing the work for the reward shapes our brains in positive ways. Long-term focus also prolongs the reward hit so that the payoff is much sweeter. Studies have proven that Dopamine - the neurotransmitter associated with delight - is generated in the anticipation of the reward and not the delivery of it.

When my kids received their records, both of them sat and listened to an entire side at a time. They alternated artists in a rare display of sibling collaboration. Afterward, each of them couldn't stop talking about their favorite songs and how new and exciting the experience felt.

"[Records are] Better than Spotify!"
--Melody (age 8)

They inspired me to listen to a very dear album that I purchased on one of those Tuesdays 30+ years ago. I haven't listened to it in 10 years maybe (I probably only "listened" to 2 albums in 2023 😔). It was a revelation as the next 49 minutes disappeared and I was once again transported to another world of sound, and feeling.

It's important sometimes to choose beauty over convenience. I hope my kids remember this lesson someday when we're all disembodied heads floating in the [_______]-verse. I'll close by quoting one of the great philosophers of my early youth who put it best.

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

--Ferris Bueller