Five a day.

I'm a pretty bad correspondent as a rule, so that I've left this be for four months shouldn't be surprising, right? But yes, I've been busy--less consistently than I'd prefer, just like lots of you, I'm guessing.

Two posts and four months ago I noted that my arbitrary rule for 2010 would be that I would limit my acquisition of music to five discrete items (mixes, albums, singles, box sets, whatever) per day. That's exactly what I've been sticking to--and what do you know? It's working, far better than the one-in-one-out that I abandoned fairly early into 2009 did, or the endless catch-up that ensued when I decided to let the floodgates open last year.

By "acquisitions," I basically mean downloads. Beyond stuff I get sent for potential review--most of which is of basically no interest--I don't acquire much physical media, haven't in ages, aside from the occasional title I won't hear unless I buy it. I'll buy a CD if I like it a lot, too, as with the new Ted Leo album, but that's rare. Well, not entirely rare--not in 2010, the first quarter of which (I've talked elsewhere about this) has been terrific to my ears. Since much of my listening is bound up in podcasts and mixes for Beat Connection, my A.V. Club column, where I pick 10 good Web freebies a month (here's 2010's first four), the five-a-day method makes a special kind of sense; there's so much out there to pick from that whittling it down (especially since they tend to run in the hour range) helps manage the flood.

My methods are simple: I keep a Word doc per month in which I keep track of "acquisitions" (stuff I d/l or buy or, sometimes, request from publicists) and "browsed" (stuff I note for later) per day. Sometimes I cheat: I find as many titles as I can from each month's Resident Advisor DJ Top 50 [Feb, March] from eMusic and other sources, and that uses up an entire day's quota, for example. But most of the time I stick with five, and it's a good foreshortening exercise: it forces me to focus on what I'm really interested in, rather than things I vaguely think I might want to know about someday, long after I've forgotten I have it to begin with (i.e. about 10 minutes later). As much as anything, that's one reason 2010 sounds better to me: I'm more selective but still have some range.

What happens next is where my OCD tendencies works in my favor. New stuff goes into a dated folder, which then goes into an "Unheard" folder. Then, when I have time or interest--pretty frequently--I drag a day's worth of stuff into my iTunes "Unheard" playlist and listen to it. I did this last year with Slow Listening, except instead of an endless morass of stuff, some of which I have no recollection of (and given how lazy some of the stuff is tagged, there have been cases where I couldn't figure out what I was listening to at all), it's more finite, and therefore easier to manage. (Podcasts I subscribe to go into the playlist automatically, which on Mondays especially cuts down on the number of things I need to catch up on later.) For a while I was proceeding in strict order, but I've lately been doubling up, adding the most recent and earliest unheard folder into the playlist at the same time, so that I'm not consistently a month--or more--behind.

There really isn't a downside to doing things this way, I find. It's efficient, manageable, and exposes me to a lot without feeling like I'm drowning. Another wrinkle is in the way I've started to approach bigger items--the 12-and-a-half-hour Autechre mega-mix I mention in the April Beat Connection, for example, or this monster 12-volume history of female-fronted punk bands, both of which I've counted as a day's quota. Each is now on my iPod, and the Autechre is now my mandatory commute/headphone listening whenever I'm running errands or traveling into Manhattan or whatever else. (I'm seven minutes into part 8 of the 13-part Autechre mix as I type.) I might try and do something similar with this crazy 24-part history of electroacoustic music as well. (If the files are still available; haven't really looked at that site in a while.)

So yes, it's fairly rigorous. But it doesn't feel like a chore the way dumping 10 to 30 hours of music acquired willy-nilly into a first-listen playlist did in 2009. Again, I think 2010 is already a really good year for music, which 2009 was most assuredly not; that helps. But weeding/whittling things down beforehand, instead of just grabbing whatever, plays a part as well. I'm getting better at filtering this stuff for myself, and that helps me filter it better for others in return, especially since I listen to mixes/podcasts in a more purposeful way now. Let me say as well that two weeks after turning in the previous Beat Connection I have 16 mixes in serious contention for the May column's Top 10, with two more to go, and plenty as yet unheard. That's a dilemma I'm happy to have.

As for what's left to get into--well, plenty. The "Unheard" folder has 16 dated folders in it (earliest: March 13) and five other albums, only a couple of which feature music I already know--re-downloaded on a whim--that I haven't gotten to yet. The five-a-day rule doesn't lend itself to cleaning house with the kind of determination I had last year, but it's allowed me more breathing room than Slow Listening did. I think I've found my pace.


Welcome aboard.

I have company: Bob Ham, from Portland, OR, is going the Slow Listening route this year. Good luck, and remember: it's a lot easier than you think it'll be.


How did it go?

2009 is now over. It was an odd year--in some ways a terrible one, in others one with more hope than I should have had reason for.
As of 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2010, I had two hours and 40 minutes of music as yet unlistened-to in the "Unheard" iTunes playlist--a couple of DJ mixes, an EP, two single tracks, and an album. There are about a dozen albums I'd requested from Forced Exposure that I didn't get to for one reason or other; maybe a few more than that. (My physical organization skills haven't appreciably improved over the past year, unfortunately.) I got four CDs for Christmas that I haven't cracked yet. And there are a couple of critics' lists I either hunted-and-gathered from or got .zip files from--most of those I've played through, but I've missed a few things too, and will get to those.

That's the stuff I acquired but didn't play in 2009--pretty good, I think. I'm going to call the experiment a success. It certainly seems reasonable, especially since I'm listening to some of that stuff right now, clearing the path, in a sense. "Reasonable" is what I was hoping this would be, and I'm glad to say it has been, in many ways.

Not all, of course. When I began SLM, I figured I'd be listening deeper and to less stuff. It didn't turn out that way at all--the opposite, in fact. I cycled through more stuff than ever, didn't re-listen as much as I'd anticipated, and whether or not that's because 2009 was a terrible year, musically speaking, is not quite the point.

For those of you who care about these things, I do think 2009 was a terrible year for music. I put up a list of 100 favorite tracks from the year on my other blog. My Top 10 albums are there too. I could add another 30 or 40 albums, and another 20-25 tracks I discovered after going through other people's lists. None of that means I think 2009 was a "good" year. It didn't feel like all that much was happening--though a few things were, notably the post-dubstep/U.K. funky/house nexus that the FACT Magazine mixes I doted on, especially over the summer, covered amply. The next edition of Beat Connection features a list of favorite mixes/podcasts from '09, and more than the albums or even tracks lists, it reflects my real sense of what was happening--maybe that should be capitalized: Happening--during the year. And that's a fertile area, definitely. But it's one cylinder.

This summer, I spent some time tracking down and listening to the singles on Al Shipley's reconsidered 2003 list. (Got 49 out of 50.) Playing through them while talking on IM with a friend, I said, "God--that was such a good year I could get away with pretending not to like the White Stripes." I was kidding: I never disliked the White Stripes; just the opposite. But I also didn't pay them as much attention as I could have, simply because there was so much else going on that I was even more interested in. That's what I mean by a good or great year: not simply "if you seek you shall find," but "I keep tripping over really good stuff without even meaning to." That's what you want to happen all the time, and in 2009 it didn't.

I don't think SLM had much to do with that. If less music stuck with me this go-round, that's the breaks; you aren't guaranteed anything when you pay attention to art. (Unless you psyche yourself into reactions you're not actually having, something I've been guilty of less this year than ever, a good aftereffect.) But as far as the method goes, I was dissatisfied with some of my own rules. I abandoned the one-in-one-out rule pretty early on, choosing instead to go on downloading binges that I paid back with marathon listens. I didn't mind the marathon listens at all--cycling through lots of new music is loads of fun, really energizing, I find, though it's not an everyday activity--but I'd intended not to acquire in binges so much. And there were definitely times when I wanted to go back to certain things but felt duty bound to charge ahead--not always, but occasionally. That's an occupational hazard anyway for a music critic--re-listening for reviews, auditioning stuff to pitch. It's just more pronounced when genuine thrills are thinner on the ground.

I'd planned to make December the exception for SLM's rules, and to some degree I did, but for the most part I kept at it for the full year, and I plan to more or less do it in 2010, too--and beyond that. The economy hasn't improved much since a year ago, and my overall thriftiness has fed into, and been informed by, the experiment. It's also had a tangible effect on my frame of mind regarding music. Usually around this time, I feel frazzled, anxious, and guilty about the amount of music I never got around to listening to--the critics' favorites I never heard, the cult items I didn't investigated, the stuff I played once and liked but never went back to. The latter still applies, but what do you know: I've actually played everything I intended to play. I feel calm and even about it! I honestly can't remember the last time I've felt that way. So yes, it worked. I'll still want to hear more than I'll possibly have time for; I wouldn't want the impulse to disappear. To me it's a sign of life. But I used to feel out of control of my own cravings, and I don't anymore.

Since I like making up arbitrary rules, here's the one I'm hoping to follow for 2010: no more than five items acquired per day. "Item" means discrete unit--album, DJ-mix, podcast, EP, single. If I grab five songs from Digital Dripped, that's five items. If I buy five box sets, that's five items, etc. That's "hoping," not "expecting." But I've done OK so far, you know?