Keep Listening: Notes On Turning 40 and Still Seeking Out New Music

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The author after receiving a celebratory banana cream pie to the face. (Photo: Sara Sanger)

Today, you read the words of a man who's turned 40.

In those 40 years, I've had girlfriends, dogs, jobs, cars, hangovers, apartments, and friends. I've loved baseball, bicycling, cooking, reading, and local history, and especially my wife and daughter.

But music... music has always been there.

From singing in church every Sunday to taking piano lessons at age five. From playing saxophone in the school band to rifling through my dad's Beatles records. From buying my first Run-DMC cassettes to making home recordings with my cousin on a Radio Shack mixer. And that's only before the age of eight.

With my favorite boombox, circa 1984.
With my favorite boombox, circa 1984.

By the age of 10, I was memorizing extended Mozart piano pieces. By 12, I'd discovered the local independent record store. By 13, I'd snuck out of the house to see my first show. By 14, I was making punk mixtapes, playing in the marching band, filing scene reports for MaximumRocknRoll and singing in a barbershop chorus.


At 15, I'd started a zine and conducted my first-ever band interview, with Green Day. I'd go on to start my own band at 16, tour the country more times than I can count, and, at 19, begin a 14-year-run working at a terrific independent record store, regularly ringing up people like Tom Waits. I played in bands, put out records and left on European tours here and there. Occasionally, I wrote about music for the local paper. Mostly I consumed it like it was water.

People come and, boy, do people ever go. But music has always been there.

In the 10 years since I left the record store for journalism, and especially in the years when I became the conspicuously older-looking person at shows, I've often been asked variations on the same question.

How in the world do I remain excited about new music?

Banging out a zine in my bedroom, in 1991.
Banging out a zine in my bedroom, senior year, 1991.

It's a valid question. I remember my mom telling me once, “Your favorite music in high school will be your favorite music for the rest of your life.” A recent study of online listening habits found that most people stop listening to new music altogether at age 33. And anecdotally, there's almost universal evidence of people being stuck in the glory days of their youth when it comes to music.

All of those things sound like a curse to me, and not just because I kinda liked the Red Hot Chili Peppers in high school. The curse is: Who wants to listen to the same songs forever? Why would anyone do that to themselves? Who wants to pay increasingly rising ticket prices to see a worse version of AC/DC, the Rolling Stones or U2 in a gigantic arena?

I, for one, don't want to live in that dusty, stagnant world. But more importantly, I see so many incredible people making such exciting music on a daily basis that I can't help but be inspired by it. Sure, following music is my job -- I'll give you that. But I see other people do this job, write about the music they liked in high school for a few years, and then quit. “I'm too old,” they say.

You are not too old.

On tour somewhere in Massachusetts, 1995.
On tour somewhere in Massachusetts, 1995.

I get it. I understand that now more than ever, the spigot of music is on full blast, and this is not necessarily a good thing. It can get really, really overwhelming when you're bombarded with surprise albums and video premieres and Late Show performances and Pitchfork reviews and Fader features and NPR First Listens and a gazillion podcasts. (Hence, the surge in "curators" sorting through it all.)

But I also know that new music naturally has less of an impact on one's brain at 40 than it did at 14. I've felt it myself. To combat this, I've developed some methods in recent years to preserve my natural curiosity about music. Some of them are simple common sense, and some of them are ridiculous, but they all help.

See Live Music. This is a no-brainer, but even I have to remind myself of it, despite often going to over 100 shows a year. Not only does seeing a show give you a fresh perspective on the music itself, it takes a solitary recorded-music listening experience and makes it communal. I can hear a song 20 times and then forever hear it differently after seeing it played live.

Working at the Last Record Store, where I spent 14 years absorbing everything.
Working at the Last Record Store, where I spent 14 years absorbing everything.

Get Physical. Don't listen solely to digital files. The benefit to a tactile experience with physical media is mentioned in every vinyl- or cassette-revival article for a reason: it's true. I still make tapes for this very reason, but I also buy records constantly. (That record store I quit working at? I still go there three times a week.) Also, CDs are in great supply right now and man, are they cheap. Music shouldn't arrive beamed into our brains, despite what streaming services try to sell us. If you have a hand in how it's played, you're engaging with it on a deeper level. (I don't recommend going so far as to eat a record, which I actually did once.)

Pay for Music. I recently led a panel at the Commonwealth Club about the declining value of music in the smartphone age, arguing that easy accessibility has diminished our appreciation for music. It's the same with getting all your music for free. If your investment in music is zero, you're less likely to be affected by it.

Be an Explorer. Try listening to crazy styles of music that you think you'd never, ever like. Especially seek out older music that's new to you, or music from other countries. Just today, I came across 15 boxes of obscure disco 12" singles at the local junk store and even though I'd probably, when pressed, say "I hate disco," I left with 20 of them. When you immerse yourself in music that's outside your usual listening habits, you're sure to be changed. I listened solely to pop-country radio for a week several years ago and came out of it a better person.

It's best to introduce your child to record shopping at an early age, right?
It's best to introduce your child to buying records at an early age, right?

Let Music Heal You. Those are possibly the most New Age-y four words I have ever typed, but I can't tell you how many times music has gotten me through breakups, the deaths of loved ones, stressful patches at work, periods of depression, being broke, and more. I've never had a therapist; I have a record collection instead.

Interact. Find local bands you love and support them directly. Send them messages saying how much you like their music and why. Buy their album from them personally at their merch table. I still have handwritten letters from bands who I wrote to as a teenager, which sounds quaint in this social media age, but it's a basic approach I keep up today.

Make Lists. I've found it valuable to chronicle what you're listening to in some type of list, or diary, or even the occasional social media posting -- because you can look back years later and see a snapshot of your life and assess how you've grown. Here's my list from last year. (And if you really want to dig deep, see my top album lists from the years 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and lo and behold, the entire decade from 2000-2009.) It's OK to be embarrassed by what you once liked, even though you shouldn't be. You should never feel embarrassed about any music you like, ever.

Switch Environments. I've hated albums at home, and then listened to them in the car and fallen in love with them. In the earbud era of today, I still think having a stereo at home is essential, but listening to music while walking, working, exercising, etc. can change the way you hear it completely.

Share! Music is more splintered and fragmented than ever, which is why virtually every conversation about music now sounds like this. But don't just talk about music, or text links to friends -- actually make time to sit down and play it for each other. Sharing music with others is essential, and justifies our obsession with it.


Anyway, here's to another 40 years, and to keeping an open mind toward whatever unlistenable garbage the kids are listening to when I turn 80. Today, I'm gonna see my dad, hike through the redwoods with my wife, and come home and have a dance party for turning 40. Hey, I've got all these new weird disco 12"s, right?