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Savor Your Music: The Effect of Abundance in Culture

I.    More Is Less

Thus far, we have explored the paradoxes of choice overload in culture through the analytic lenses of the record store and web, coming to the conclusion that “paradise of music” that we had initially envisioned—may not exist.  As counterintuitive as it may be, the findings in my previous two essays point to the idea that more music is less.  That as the number of cultural options goes up, the amount of satisfaction that a fan derives out of any given choice will be lessened as a result; it may even cause them to opt out of the decision making process all together.  We also found that, in culture, the effect of overwhelming choice has the potential to cause fans to opt for the same old songs as a way to avoid facing unlimited options online and off, to rely on filters like Pandora rather than on themselves, and to become more passive participants in their cultural lives.   

Such insights are quite disheartening and run contrary to the long held beliefs of many, including the viewpoints that Chris Anderson expressed in his book The Long Tail.  The focus of this essay turns our attention away from our discussion of choice overload and the effects that it has on fans when they are purchasing music and brings us to the to the topic of how overwhelming choice may distress fans when they are enjoying the music that they already own.  Within the context of the iPod, we will try to discover whether or not storing thousands of songs in our pockets has forced us—as fans—to increase the amount of effort that we put into making a decision about what we want to hear and if the consequence of having unlimited options, causes us to enjoy any given song less.   

“For many of us, the iPod rekindled our dormant passion for music,” Steven Levy writes in The Perfect Thing.  “It made us want to hear more songs, it encouraged us to go out and find new bands to love, it offered a new ways to organize music and take it with us.”  As well, the iPod released fans from the constraints of Top 40 radio playlists and, for the first time, gave them complete control over their musical experiences.  Prior iterations, such as the Walkman, only allowed fans to play one album at a time, whereas the iPod granted fans the ability to play any song, from any album, at any time.  With the social epidemic of file-sharing that occurred alongside the advent of the iPod, the barriers of music consumption fell and the act of collecting music evolved.  Those who were born digital, among everyone else, gained access to a plethora of music online and could easily download the thousands of songs required to fill the storage capacity of any iPod.  Soon, even fans who previously expressed little interest in the act collecting music, downloaded massive collections of their own, and now, rather than burning single copies of CDs to give to friends, fans either loaded up their iPod full of music or copied and pasted their entire collections to their hard drive.  These common practices and newfound social behaviors had the effect of greatly multiplying the number of music choices that many fans faced and left them with the responsibility navigating collections that expanded far beyond their capabilities of doing so—with any measure of certainty.

When taking into consideration the listening habits of any iPod user that I’ve ever met, it becomes apparent that the girth of their music collections taunt them—most of the time.  Either the multitude of songs that they encounter when they turn on their iPod is so great that they constantly browse through songs—some they’ve never even heard—or there’s so many highly desirable songs, that picking even one of them is a task in of itself and all of the choices only serve to discourage them further.  In this respect, then, their collections have shifted from being an unalloyed blessing to a burden.  What was once the sheer joy of carrying their entire music library in their hand alters into the responsibilities of being a full-time, personal DJ, making selections that best fit their wide variety of moods—the ups and the downs.  Feebly, they try to stumble on the particular song that will make them the happiest.  The reason for this, according to Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness, people generally err in imagining what will make them happy and, often times, repeat those same errors.  Therefore, happiness is rarely as good as people imagine it to be, and rarely lasts as long as they think it will.  Thought of from the dilemma of someone trying to select the next song on their iPod, they usually blunder in deciding what song best fits their emotional state and make the same mistake, with the same songs, many times.  When they do (finally) pick a song, their contentment with it diminishes quickly, causing them to search out the next best song before the one that’s currently playing is halfway through.   Part of the logic behind this can also be found with the distinction between satisficers and maximizers—the type of decision maker they are.

II.    Maximizing And Music

In choice theory, there are the satisficers and maximizers.  “We all know people who do their choosing quickly and decisively and people for whom almost every decisions is a major project,” Psychologist Barry Schwartz writes in his book The Paradox of Choice.  Satisficers are those who “can settle for something that’s good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.” In contrast, maximizers are those who “need to be sure that every purchase or decision was that best that could be made.” To give an example, my father is a satisficer, meaning that when we’re driving in the car and he’s selecting a radio station, he’s willing to stop looking once he’s found something that’s good enough.  Often times, its NPR or some other talk radio outlet.  I, on the other hand, am a maximizer.  This means that when I am in the car with him and it’s my turn to pick the station, I often check the other stations to see if something better is playing, even if I’m relatively satisfied with what I’m listening to.  The thing is, I want to hear the best song and I strive to achieve that goal.  The only way that I can ensure that I’m doing so is to explore all of the additional options—to make sure that I’m making the most out of my current musical experience.  This tendency of mine to maximize, it causes me to be nagged by the stations that I didn’t have the time to examine.  Consequently, I will get less pleasure out of the song that’s currently on.  Since, to me, I could’ve done better.

“The world offers a wide range of options, and something (presently unknown) creates maximizers, and the combines to make people unhappy with their decisions,” Schwartz writes.  “But it is certainly possible that choice and maximizing are not independent of each other.”  Put differently, it is possible that the excess of music that lives on the iPods of most fans can turn them into maximizers.  If this is true, then the proliferation of songs not only makes fans who are maximizers miserable, but it may also make fans who are satisficers into maximizers.  Consider this:  Prior to the social phenomenon of the iPod and iTunes, fans had a rather limited degree of control over their listening environments; the amount of pleasure they derived out of a musical experience correlated strongly with the quality of the DJ and their ability to select songs that were appealing to the largest audience.  So too, in navigating their personal collections, fans were beholden to the album format.  Therefore, when making selections of what songs listen to, the amount of choice they faced was clustered into groups.  The advent of the iPod marked the first truly individualized music experience—unconstrained by physical formats—that fans had access to; it gave them complete control over their listening environment.  With that, the iPod and iTunes also helped foster the fracturing music collections; fans now assembled libraries of music that consisted of individual songs—typically the singles.  The smaller the collection is, the higher the likelihood is that the contents reflect the most desirable songs.  Though this has the effect of greatly reducing the amount of choices that a fan confronts; it still increases amount of effort that goes into making a decision.  The bigger the collection is the more potential there is—that fans to feel the effect of overwhelming choice.  All of these shifts in music consumption, mainly, the increases in the autonomy and choice in listening environments, have contributed to turning fans into maximizers, those who seek to get the very best out their musical experiences.  But, does this make them miserable?  To some extent.  And it appears to reduce the enjoyment they get out of their music.  As well, these shifts seem to have turned those who are satisficers into maximizers.  Picking a song that’s good enough is harder; it must worry fans that they could’ve done better, because they can’t set down the iPod and stop scrolling through it.

Why is that?  The simplest explanation for this behavioral change and why the iPod may be turning satisficers into maximizers has to do with the very possibilities afforded by the device.  “It would seem that the sheer number of musical choices afforded by the iPod can ‘liberate’ a listener from traditional modes of listening, freeing him or her from the rigid, predetermined song sequences of album,” Eric Casero writes.  “This freedom, however, may have the unintended consequence of distracting the listener from his or her current listening experience, thereby diluting this experience by diverting the listener’s cognitive focus from the music itself to the musical choices available.”  One of the more profound things that the iPod has altered is our orientation towards music, causing us to focus on the future of our music experience, more so, than on the present.  Casero, then, further asserts that, “While our brains may concentrate some energy on listening to a piece of music, they are likely, at the same time, to be focusing on possible options for future listening, options that have only grown in breadth since the dawn of the digital age.”   When a fan selects a song to listen to, say its three and a half minutes in length—if they aren’t shuffling—they will have to choose the next song before that time has elapsed.  Otherwise, they are at risk of having their music suddenly come to a halt, thus, disrupting the fluidity of their listening environment.  To forgo this interference, fans will commonly attempt to select the next song while the other is currently playing.  This has the effect of causing them to enjoy the present song less, because they have diverted their focus away from it, and are instead, trying to weigh out the merits of the next song to occur in the sequence.  Fans aren’t “savoring” their music, so to speak.  In an effort to maximize their music experience, it could be said that, in a subtle way, they are also trying, mostly in vain, to increase the amount of satisfaction and happiness that they derive out of their music.  The problem, of course, is that in trying to do so, they are getting less as a result.  

III.     Overloaded With Choice

As you might guess, fans who exhibit the tendency to maximize their music experiences are also those who are the most susceptible to the paradoxes of choice overload.  When a fan is overwhelmed by the number of songs on their iPod; it will be easier for them to regret a choice if the alternatives are plentiful than if they were scarce, especially if the alternatives are so plentiful that not all of them could be investigated.  This makes it easy for them to imagine that they could’ve made a different choice that would’ve been better.  All the imagined alternatives then, induce the fan to regret the decision they made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction they get out of the decision they made, even if it was a good song.  It is, however, not the best song.  To consider the attractiveness of the alternative songs that they rejected causes them to become less satisfied with the one they’ve chosen, leading them to keep scrolling through their iPod.  The more songs they consider, these missed opportunities add up, and collectively diminish the amount of satisfaction they get out of the chosen alternative. 

As well, it is likely that they too will opt for the same songs as a way to avoid facing unlimited options, become more reliant on filters—like the shuffle—rather than on themselves, and perhaps, all this choice, may cause them to become more passive in the participation in cultural life. Part of the logic behind this contention is that as our cultural options proliferate; it, as neurologist Daniel Levitin suggests, “causes us not to bond or bind to a particular musical piece.” In fact, fans may wind up attached to none of them. Moreover, Casero argues that, “As technology delivers an increasing number of options for music listening, the music itself becomes increasingly dissociated from any kind of physical medium.”  This, he contends, has the effect of significantly reducing “the impact that any single piece of music can have on our conscious state because that piece no longer carries with it the same cognitive connections that it would have in previous eras.”  Consequentially, what happens when fans listen to music on the iPod is that they become engaged with a single object.  Before the digital music era, when fans listened to albums, they had to engage with multiple objects, each of which represented the work of a particular artist.  Casero believes that this may change the way perceive music.  “We start to see ‘music’ as a single totality, rather than something created by multiple individual artists,” he explained to me.  As a result, the individual identities of these artists begin to dissolve—as do our personal relationships with them. 

The other reason: “The thing that made it different for me was that you had to choose,” Eliot Van Buskirk writes in Wired.  “You would have enough for one CD or tape, sometimes, to buy that week. You really had to do research and immerse yourself and read reviews of the stuff, and now you can just get it right away.” This utter disparity between “choosing” and “picking” is something I explored in my previous essay. Choosing is the mark of an actively engaged fan, one who critically evaluates the music they want to put on their iPod.  The practice is demanding, but it bears fruit.  And, once and awhile they may even come to the conclusion that none of the above music will get uploaded. Now, take someone who file-shares their music and fills it into their iPod. In that instance, they are choosing not to choose at all. Rather, they are just picking all the music they might like, which is a much more passive. The might be interrogating their options, as to not waste time and bandwidth, but decision making process makes them much more passive and likely causes them to become less active in their cultural lives.

Two of the remaining consequences of fans being overloaded with options are the curse of high expectations and self-blame.  What contributes to the escalation of expectations among iPod users, beyond their past relationship with radio and MTV, is the amount of choice and control they now have in their listening environment.  Outside of the waves of least objectionable, “one size fits all” programming of yesteryear, users are granted with complete and utter dictation over their musical experiences.  Yet, what this leads to is circumstances that seem to conspire to make their listening sessions less satisfying than they could be, in part, because users expect them to be that much better.  No one has high expectations of radio stations.  In fact, listeners expect to be disappointed with the DJ’s choice of music at least some of the time.  But, when it comes down to a user trying to select what music they what to hear, in a world of full control and an unfettered surplus of songs, they expect to be pleased with their music decisions all the time.  This creates what could be called “the illusion of the perfect song.”  It is, as if, iPod users have convinced themselves that they are capable of discerning what the ideal song to match their mood is—whenever they grab the device.  The search for this song always ensues much longer than expected and users are typically dissatisfied with the results.  Some of the time, users accomplish the seemingly organic magic of the perfect playlist.  But most often, the labor they put in never aligns with their hopes.  In taking the idea of personal programming to heart, users have attempted to maximize their music experience to the point where each moment garners the opportunity to hear the best music possible; they can’t tell when a good song, is good enough, and to not worry if they could’ve done better.

Most disconcerting of all is that, in a world of unlimited music options, it is hard to avoid blaming oneself for disappointment.  “Our heightened individualism means that, not only do we expect perfection in all things, but we expect to produce this perfection ourselves,” Schwartz writes.  “When we (inevitably) fail, the culture of individualism biases us toward casual explanations that focus on personal rather than universal factors.”  He continues, “That is, the culture has established a kind of officially acceptable style of casual explanation, and it is the one that encourages the individual to blame himself for failure.”  Meaning that, there is also no excuse for failure.  Both in terms of being able to select “the perfect song” on a personal level, but also for having for bad taste in music at a collective level.  In his book The Cult of the iPod, author Leander Kahney documented what’s known as “playlistism.”  As college student Stephen Aubrey told Kahney, it is “discrimination based not a race, sex, or religion, but on someone’s terrible taste in music, as revealed by their iTunes music library.” In other words, the choice of what music an iPod user listens to has important social consequences.  More so than it did for previous generations.  Already, research suggests that you are what you listen to.  “It is now common practice to list your favorite bands on sites like MySpace or Facebook,” Psychologist Jason Rentfrow, explains. “This research shows that in doing so, many of us are also making clear public statements of who we are and how we should be perceived, whether we are conscious of that or not.”  Nowhere is this more clear than for iPod users, who carry their libraries—everywhere.  Except with an excess of music, there is no excuse for bad taste.

All of this, I’m afraid, has the effect of causing us to enjoy the music we own less and to derive smaller amounts of satisfaction from our iPod listening sessions.  This can’t be, can it?  Fans love their iPods.  Yet, as these findings suggest, even the music that we do own, when there is too much choice, becomes much more of a paradox than a paradise.  If we, as fans, can’t enjoy the song that’s currently playing on our iPod, what can we? The answer to that question, if there is one, feels less clear than it should be.  To be sure, it is certainly not my intent to persuade you that there’s too much music out there, online, wherever, as not only would that be heresy, but because I happen to think that there’s not nearly enough music.  Either way, the purpose of this exploration into choice theory, as it applies to the obstacles that fans face in the digital age, is to provoke thought.  Not to scare anyone into thinking through and though that, in a culture abundant with music, fans are being robbed of satisfaction.  Sometimes, more music is less.  Other times, that may not be the case.  More important than any of these inferences may be the simple, yet powerful notion that we need to savor our music.  This means, much like it does at the dinner table, that we need to set down our forks and actually taste the food that’s in our mouth.  Same goes with the iPod.  Set it down, forget all the choices, and just listen.

Kyle Bylin is a cultural critic and Editor of Hypebot and Music Think Tank. Contact.

Edited By: Jamie Johnson

Reader Comments (13)

Thanks for the article.
Over the last three years I undertook the task of rating every single one of the songs in my bloated iTunes library. Here was my ranking system
5 STARS = "don't bother me, I'm listening to this song now" It's absolute gold and 100% compelling of my attention.
4 STARS = always happy when it comes on
3 STARS = deserves to be in my collection due to artistic merit, sentimentality of good memories
2 STARS = boring, banal, average crap
1 STAR = I have a visceral negative reaction to this music.

I threw out the 2 STARS and kept the rest. I kept the 1 STARS because I find that I wind up liking some of the music over time. For example, The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky initially totally terrified me and "Welcome to the Terrordome" by Public Enemy actually made me physically nauseous. But now I really love and appreciate those pieces.

Why do this - for starters, I want to engage with my tastes as they develop over time. I used to like Bob Marley but now some of it is just boring. Sorry, Bob, Three Little Birds doesn't do it for me anymore.

Also, when I go on road trips I need to defend my choices: My band, Tin Pan, plays a game when we're on long drives. The iPod shuffle game and we play a vicious strain of it. You can't vote on your own songs. If a song comes up that someone hates they can ding it. One ding and you move on to the next iPod. If two people just want to skip the song then you just move to the next tune. Three skips though and you have to give up your turn.

Now, I can load up my ipod with 4 and 5 star selections and am prepared to do battle!!! To quote you above: "... with an excess of music, there is no excuse for bad taste."

Has abundance made my enjoyment of music less. Not at all. Perhaps the opposite. I feel more wedded to my tastes and preferences. I feel I have to say "no" to a lot instead of blindly or lazily accepting. I feel that this is somewhat like living in New York City... So many people are in your face moment after moment and the only way to survive is by having a kind of armor that only lets you accept or say yes to the things that you are truly interested in. If not, you become a little bit lost. If you are successful you become empowered, opinionated, vocal and strong. And you build your communities around those tastes and preferences.

August 2 | Unregistered CommenterJesse

Hmmm - yes, thank you - a very thought-provoking post.

What about "music like water" - our glorious future of piped music, on tap whenever we want it, whatever we want, as much as we want? It's funny how unappealing that idea has always seemed to me. I think you've pinpointed why.

The process of actually buying music, and therefore having to choose it, track by track, (or album by album) could return the consumer to a state of active participation in the experience, and simultaneously reduce the choices available to a more manageable level.

AND actually enable the artists (and other recording professionals) to make a living.

The words 'baby' and 'bathwater' spring to mind .....

August 2 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Hol

I can't help feeling that the essay turns a relatively harmless state of mind -- "hmm; what do I want to listen to next?' -- into something that seems to border on psychological catastrophe. I love music a whole lot but the idea of requiring a 'perfect' song to accompany me over and over through my day is entirely foreign to me. And I for one am tired of the web 2.0 trend towards making any activity that isn't aggressively interactive into some kind of suspicious endeavor. I personally love letting shuffle take over, and feel it frees me to enjoy what there is to enjoy about each song that arises.

In any case, I agree with Catherine that the actual process of buying music-- so often denigrated or at least sidestepped these days-- would not only bring collections down to a manageable size but by its nature creates a more active listener. One thing often overlooked in the rush to gain access to free music is the importance of the act of purchasing and therefore attaching literal value to the music in your collection. When you buy an album, you have a vested interest in getting to know it, and maybe even learning to like something that didn't strike you agreeably at first.

Oh and it may also be worth noting that the iPod generation is not the first to have to select their music song by song. There was a generation that grew up with 45 RPM records in the late '50s and early '60s and they had to do the same thing, with no shuffle-like automation of the process possible (although some record players did allow you to stack a few records at a time). I do not think too many music fans of that era were psychologically harmed by the responsibility.

@Catherine @Jeremy
definitely! we appreciate things more when we have to put an effort into getting them. music like water means worthless music. it's a mind shortcut, and that's why we don't appreciate enough our luck for having abundance of water.

terrific post! thank you.

August 3 | Unregistered Commentermarsiano

I think an interesting side note that I see when I go on tour is if I play in a small town where there are only one to two shows a week, people show up whether they are into the musical style or not. While in a big city with a hundred shows a week, even people who theoretically would like my music don't show up not because they are somewhere else, but because music stops being an exciting event.

@Brian John Mitchell

Ha - yes...I have always found it ironic that so many bands want to move to LA...but virtually all LA bands come off tour saying how they loved finally being listened to and appreciated.

August 3 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

Great article Kyle. You're definitely right about people becoming less satisfied when they have so much more to choose from. What's interesting is that it always seems to work that way. That's part of the reason there are shop-a-holics- there is always something "better" around the corner.

August 3 | Registered CommenterJosiah Mann

This is a really interesting essay that has managed to articulate well many of my own thoughts.


The point about being 'more wedded to my tastes and preferences' really struck home. The power of saying 'no' is weird because I think to some extent, in all manner of situations we are conditioned to 'be polite'. A lot of the time, expressing your disinterest is really hard to get across in a way that isn't insulting to the recipient. Even amongst my oldest friends, if they rave about a new TV series or film or whatever there's always a little odd moment if I express my lack of enjoyment. People seem to be more sensitive these days :)

@Catherine @Jeremy @Marsiano

Agreed. The conscious decision to purchase means it's your responsibility. I believe the phrase 'taking ownership' is what all the office motivators use. I've always found that if I bought an album I'd persevere even if a few songs didn't grab me because experience has taught me that those songs can often be the 'growers' that I end up liking more.


That is so true. Here in London there seemed to be the idea a few years back that it would be great if every pub on every street corner had live music playing every night. The idea of being 'spoilt for choice' seemed very attractive. These days most of my musician friends are happy to play in covers bands once a month for fun because as one of them said 'at least we're being heard'. It seemd like we ended up talking about two different things to me but what can you do eh?

A friend gave me a copy of Levitin's 'This Is Your Brain On Music' book and it was a fascinating read, well worth a look for the curious.

In general, the whole 'abundance of music' debate makes me think of being in a restaurant perusing the dessert menu. Yes, once in a while I'll have the Pavlova, Cheesecake or the Apple Tart but most of the time, I'll order the Chocolate Fudge Cake (with cream of course).

Because I know I'll like it.

August 3 | Unregistered CommenterInkysmudge

The concept not addressed in the article (but brought up in the first comment) is culling your music collection. For me, the process of choosing the next song to listen to is simple, I play on shuffle of some kind or another, and reject songs I don't feel like listening to at the moment.

The key to making this work is that I've culled the songs that I'm not actually interested in ever listening to, so what remains is actually songs I like rather than songs I sort-of thought I might like at some point in time.

At one point I actually had a 5-star ranking system like the first commenter, but a software glitch lost my rankings, so on my second try I reduced the ranking to "keep" and "cull". Surprisingly (I just checked) I've only culled about 100 songs out of my 5,000 song collection, but this has had a large impact on my enjoyment of my music collection.

August 3 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Granade

Schwartz makes quite an argument for satisficing in The Paradox of Choice. I think that it comes down to the fact that we're just overthinking this stuff. Music is an enjoyable activity, which many have inadvertently transformed into a chore, just like channel surfing on TV, or as you mentioned, looking for the PERFECT station on the radio.

I used to only purchase the largest capacity iPods there were. About a year ago, I got an 80 gig classic, that I could never fill to capacity, but perceived the idea of doing so a goal of mine. Then, somebody broke into my car and stole it from me. I picked up a 16 gig nano and haven't looked back. And strangely enough, the restriction of choice has undoubtedly caused me to appreciate the stuff I have on there more.

I just make sure it's loaded with only stuff I like, with a separate playlist for new and unheard music. That's it. Worrying about it too much is a 100% waste of time, and though Schwartz's book doesn't go into the subject of music, it helped me to realize how stupid it is to maximize every decision. Maximizing is important on big purchases (house, car, etc.) but worthless in this context, and it can make you miserable if you let it. Listen to what makes you happy, skip all the rest.

Also, Jeremy brings up a stellar point about the importance of albums, it's something I sincerely miss with iPods. CDs were not something that you had the ability to rewrite, and they do create a more active listener. Shuffle is great, but it won't ever replace the cohesiveness and fluidity of an album.

August 3 | Unregistered CommenterMark D

Kyle, I always appreciate your thoughtful essays.

Like many commenters, the experience of choosing songs on a song-by-song basis (rather than listening to playlists) is alien to me - I usually put something on, and just listen to it. But I'd also describe myself as a satisficer, not a maximizer. Most of the downsides to an abundance of music that you mention are specific to maximizers. So I think the real question is the one you raise in Section II, based on Barry Schwartz's work: Does the easy availability of music make more of us into maximizers? I'd love to see some data or studies on this specific point.

August 3 | Unregistered Commenterdebcha

Thoughtful and insighful essay– here's to savoring (and not just browsing) music! I think similar points could be made for live music. Here in New York, as a music lover, I'm often overwhelmed by the abundance of quality choices for music shows. Some nights, paralysis sets in, and I just stay at home and watch a movie on Netflix! Much appreciated post.

August 4 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

On the whole issue of choice - humans often look to others when making decisions. How many times have you read a favorable album review on Pitchfork or iTunes or some other website, and thought "huh, maybe I should check that out..." ?

Since there is so much music available to us at the click of our fingertips, it is becoming harder and harder for us to make our own decisions without consulting the opinions of our peers.

Social media & Web 2.0 initiatives are making it extremely easy for people to see what others think of a product, which of their friends purchased the product (if any), if their friends would recommend purchasing the product, how many people downloaded the product, and much more. Check out Threadless' Facebook Fan page .. crazy!

August 4 | Registered CommenterChris Bracco

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