Wear My Headphones: Damon Krukowski On How Digital Culture Changes Us

Dec 22, 2017
Originally published on December 23, 2017 12:37 pm

In music and the culture it reflects, 2017 was predictably unpredictable: idols fell, empires shook, consensus was scarce. This conversation is one of five with artists, makers and thinkers whose work captured something unique about a chaotic year, and hinted at bigger revelations around the bend.


Digital technology has dominated music-making and listening for decades, but its effects have hit a little harder lately. Streaming has overtaken downloads as the music industry's primary revenue generator. Devices like the voice-operated Amazon Echo have surged in popularity, making the seamlessness of the digital experience feel like part of our bodies themselves. A redheaded heartthrob with an acoustic guitar claimed the top slot on Spotify's year-end chart, where every other artist in the top five hails from the digitally constructed realms of hip-hop, R&B and EDM, by crafting the pop-star equivalent of a dancehall track.

In the midst of this irrevocable shift, Damon Krukowski has emerged as a kind and clear-headed navigator. In April, the 53-year-old musician, writer and creative bon vivant published The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, a kind of guidebook to our new sonic realities. Over the summer, working with the production company Radiotopia, he launched a companion podcast called Ways of Hearing. Not only is the podcast a clear and emotionally resonant exploration of how digital culture has changed making and listening to music; it is also a potent political intervention, revealing ways in which listeners can be more than passive consumers shaped by algorithmically constructed playlists, and perhaps become active players who fully grasp and make choices about the music that so deeply affects their lives.

Ways of Hearing is divided into six episodes, structured around big themes like "Money," "Power" and "Love." Krukowski personalizes these abstractions by having listeners "wear my headphones for a bit" — going through the same thickets of comprehension and new fields of perception that he, an indie rock veteran and child of the analog age, experienced as he learned to become a digital savant. Krukowski is not an optimist about these changes, nor is he a doomsayer. His measured, inquisitive, but always clear tone is one thing that makes Ways of Hearing a delight. The other is the texture of the podcast itself: Working with sound designer Ian Cross, Krukowski has created a series about music that feels like music in its own right.

Just back from a Japanese tour with Damon & Naomi, the beloved indie-folk duo he shares with his wife, Naomi Yang, Krukowski spoke from his home studio in Boston, Mass. about learning how to "play" a podcast, using his own life as source material and writing a mini-jeremiad that feels like a map of a new world.

Ann Powers: In your book, you take apart listening experiences and help readers understand what they may be taking for granted when hearing. The podcast has the same goal — but there, you get to use sound to do it. What did you learn in that transition, turning a book about listening into an actual listening experience?

Damon Krukowski: I thought of the podcast in part because I was approached to do an audiobook version of The New Analog. And that exists: I did it for Audible.com. But I thought, this is kind of a silly exercise! Reading a book about sound aloud, without taking into account all the potential use of sound as an expressive tool. So, I pitched the podcast very confidently to the wonderful people at Radiotopia, saying, "Well, I've never made a podcast before, but I know how to make a record so I understand sound."

When I came down to making it, I discovered podcasting is actually its own form — so I had to learn quickly, from scratch, how to make this audio experience really read through language and not just music. It's a different thing: Podcasting is very, very emotional. Of course, music is an emotional medium, but there's something about the language in podcasting going straight into your ear. You're usually alone when you're listening to it. It's a very intimate experience. And you really can't use the same analytical tools that you can in a written book; it's more of the heart than the mind. I didn't get that until I started doing it.

I felt that throughout Ways of Hearing, you acted as a kind of sound detective, leading us through these inquiries. There's a musical quality to each episode — music illustrates and interrupts the narrative, but also continues it. It works in a rhythm with your voice and with the voices of the people you talk to.

That is a great description of what I was trying to achieve: to have the listener wear my headphones for a bit, or sit in front of my speakers and let me point something out to you. And my sound designer, Ian Cross, really took my ideas about that and made them real. For each episode, I gave him a palette of songs or sounds that I thought would speak to the whole episode that he could then play with.

The process actually reminds me of an experience Naomi and I had making our first record with our producer Kramer, who did all of [our previous band] Galaxie 500's records, too. I remember we gave him a cassette tape of things we were listening to, which included bits of The Magic Flute and some Max Roach drumming, just things that were inspiring us at the time: "Here's what's in our ears." And he took it and he put all the sounds on our record — there are little bits of sound that he just kind of wove into in the background of our songs. Ian did very much that same thing.

That connects to an underlying theme in your work, which is how a subject encounters sound: Even if people are hearing the same thing they each bring their own history, community and language to the experience.

Music blends communal experience with extreme subjectivity. And that's what makes it so personally powerful, in any genre of music: You listen to it from your point of view, from your ears. That's what I'm trying to get at in the book and podcast: In the midst of this rushed digital communication, which feels so universal, so instant, so simultaneous, don't forget it's highly subjective. You've got the tools to think about your own position with regard to this material, and your own choices about how to engage with it.

In books and writing about digital technology — a field that is growing — we often have naysayers or boosters. We have the Jaron Laniers of the world saying, "This is a disaster, we're losing our humanity." And then there's anyone who gives a TED Talk, saying, "This is leading us forward into a great new frontier." You seem to occupy a space between: You use and appreciate the tools, but you also want to question our position in relationship to them and the power dynamics behind that.

That was one of the motivations for writing The New Analog: There was only this tiny little narrow bit of years during which people lived through this switch, and I thought, "I'd better leave a testament, because this isn't going to happen again." I wasn't confident that I had this big powerful conclusion to offer, but I thought I could leave a document that would be useful later, because people are going to forget what it was to live without the digital tools.

What do you think about analog fetishists? There are certainly a lot of them today. Does it ever feel like they're clinging to a cliff and eventually they'll just fall off?

To try and hold on to old technology in its entirety is pretty much impossible. At the same time, I love the romance and the energy and the attention to detail that people can put into it. I think Jack White is doing amazing things. But most of me, especially when we're making our own records, just doesn't have the time, patience or money to go down that rabbit hole. It takes an immense effort, which is why I admire the people who do it really well.

Take the simplest example: The biggest switch we've all made is from tape decks to hard drives. The big difference, to me, is that tape decks have to be maintained and hard drives don't. They either fail or they work, so all you have to do is back them up. And when they fail they just stop.

You don't have to clean them, you don't have to test them.

You don't have to calibrate them, you don't have to keep them in perfect working order. We actually switched to digital recording as soon as we started a home studio, because I'd seen what it took to run a tape deck properly, and I just thought, "We can't do that." We could've maybe come up with the capital to invest in a tape machine, but the idea of keeping it running well was beyond us. At that point it became a choice: Do we have this machine that's not running properly or do we just switch over to this crappy new medium? At the time it was digital audio tape. It was the worst! It was on VHS cassettes. The transfer was so bad, when you turned them on, you heard all these clunks like you did in your VCR. The machines broke all the time. But when they broke, you threw them away.

And that planned obsolescence is an effect of capitalism, which is another an undercurrent in your work this year. You have an episode of the podcast about money, but money can't be confined to one episode; it plays into every single thing you talk about.

It's very true. In the end, the book was intended to be a political gesture. My editor received it that way, which delighted me. When I first put out the proposal, it could have been taken up as strictly a music book.

Or a how-to book, in a weird way. How to survive technology.

A guide to living with tech. It is both those things. But I'm motivated by an interest in laying bare some of the root issues involved in these decisions that we make, or that we decline to make, in the digital environment. There's a lot of acceptance of this role that's being defined for us by these huge corporations we engage with every day: The social media ones, the manufactures of our digital tools. It seems we have no choice the matter, [but] the fact is we do. At its heart this is a project about waking people up to that situation.

In 2012 you wrote a widely seen essay for Pitchfork about streaming and what it was doing to musicians' income. That's part of an ongoing debate as those services' playlists have become the center of many people's listening practices. How do you think the relationship to streaming has changed since you first wrote that essay?

I think it's getting worse. When I wrote that article, I had this feeling that this system was unfair. But I didn't have the feeling that it was going to spiral in that direction endlessly, and now it feels like it is: the consolidation in so few hands, the control of what people are hearing.

The playlist could be a new creative platform for DJing, or even making a mixtape. But because of the scale of digital communications and the monopolies that we're dealing with, certain playlists have so much power now. It's out of scale. It's belittling people's individual exploration of music. It's discouraging people from building their own playlists. And that is the opposite of where I would wish this system would go, because the other side of digital sharing online is so beautifully democratic and utopian — which is full access to everything ever, all the time.

I was just in Japan on tour, and I'm thrilled that I can come home and research an artist I discovered in a record store over there, Morio Agata — I brought back one LP, but I can find all the other LPs online now. Here's the ironic footnote: I have to do it by going to pirate sites. He's famous in Japan and not outside, and when you're looking in places that are not being pushed by the services you have access to, [that means] looking outside the entire system. Instead of it being this glorious sharing of everything out there, we're splitting it up into two Internets. One is complete corporate control and domination, and the other is what's left over of what [the Internet] started as, which was a free access and sharing of information. And the free part is getting smaller and smaller.

There's a tension in how we listen to music now between real choice, the illusion of choice, and seductive passivity. With on-demand services, I can choose something I've never heard before at any time, but the platform's interface encourages me to just sit back and listen to the playlists it promotes. What makes the playlist so addictive that we'll give up what choice we have — the same way we just scroll for hours on Facebook instead of using it more actively?

I thought about this when I was making the "Power" episode in the podcast. I went to Forced Exposure, a music distributor here in Boston, and I went to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and talked to [executive director] Elaine Katzenberger there. What I was thinking about is, what is that difference? Because I knew experientially that walking into a bookstore is a different thing than going online and finding the book you want on Amazon. If you frame it in terms of choice, Amazon wins. If you frame it in terms of accessibility, Amazon wins. That's bizarre, because you'd think those would be key elements in making City Lights a great bookstore. But there are these other elements that the digital platform really has trouble reproducing. It's scale — a personal scale, a human scale. It's hard on the digital platform to maintain the natural small scale of a business the size of City Lights or Forced Exposure.

Startups want to go global: Can there be billions of users? Can it scale endlessly? That's what they're always looking for; it's a factor in how these products and companies are set up. The products for which the answer is yes are the ones we're stuck with. But there's a lot to be said for things that can't scale. You can't scale a relationship. You can't scale eccentricity.

You can't scale an indie rock scene.

Very much so, as I also learned firsthand. My band came of age in a very small-scale indie scene that then, because of Nirvana and a couple of other factors, turned into a massively different, scaled activity.

This makes me want to to quickly mention the "loudness wars" chapter of your book and podcast — because the sound of rock changed when the scale changed.

Absolutely. Those records we were making with Kramer in the late '80s, they couldn't fit on the commercial radio formats. They didn't have the right volume and the right compression. They were made for the formats that we were making them for: people's homes and college radio stations, where they were placed next to other songs that had similar dynamics.

And just sound great in small rooms.

And not to get too off-topic, but this is a gripe that I have right now about festivals dominating live music. "Well, gigs are good, let's scale it up. It's nice to have 250 people in a room; what if we had 25,000?" You can't play the same music to 25,000 people. It doesn't work. You have to change the actual sounds you make. You have to change the way those sounds are amplified. Ultimately, you have to change who you are as a musician.

Do you think these trends can be disrupted? Can the flattening you describe be countered by the artists somehow? Or the audience?

I have enough utopian in me to think so. In fact, I think it's happening all the time — it's just not being rewarded financially or becoming dominant. A simple example, which I tend to raise a lot because I really like it, is [the online music distribution and marketing company] Bandcamp. Bandcamp is to Spotify or Apple Music what Forced Exposure or an indie record store is to the major label system. And the simple difference is that bands and labels that upload their material onto Bandcamp control more of the parameters of how that music is received, so you build a little bit more of your own context around your music.

Ultimately it's the loss of context, or replacement of your context with a corporate context, that makes for this flatness or sameness that I see in major streaming services and on festival circuit. You go to see a band in a regular size venue, the band sets the tone for the night. It's in collaboration with the audience and the venue, but you see the band on their terms, in so many ways. At a festival you don't: You see the band at the festival's terms. It's very hard to break through that. I've seen people try, and more power to them, but it's near impossible because the medium is so overpowering. Same with streaming services: The medium takes over and the individual context of all these individual creators, with all their quirky ideas and differences, gets blurred.

I want to end on a positive note. Could you talk about your experience in Serbia, which really stood out to me when you described it on the podcast? It's like a beautiful fairy tale, in which the analog and digital worlds coalesced.

I went to Belgrade, in Serbia, on tour with Naomi. This was some years ago — I understand Belgrade has become quite different now, but this was still close to the end of the war in former Yugoslavia, and Belgrade was still under sanctions and really cut off from the rest of Europe. We crossed a barrier, and all our digital tools went dead. We'd been in the car without a physical map — we only had Google Maps — and then we crossed the border and Google Maps went blank because it had been knocked out deliberately. All of a sudden, and had to fall back on old touring habits to find our way.

The miracle of the situation, and the beauty of it, was that we got to the venue and people knew our music. If Google Maps couldn't make it there and our cell phone service couldn't make it there, you know our record distributor couldn't get there — but what could get there was the utopian side of digital communications: piracy, bootlegging, online sharing for free, could get our music into an otherwise sanctioned part of the world. We had gone through all these political and physical barriers made to keep us separate, and yet there we were playing our music to people who actually knew it. That, to me, is the utopian thing about digital communication: It's global, so you can communicate with people that are alien to you and make them familiar. And that is the ideal.

Don't let these tools separate us into the alien and the familiar. That's the crazy filter bubble thing: "OK, the digital platform is going to sort the world out into those I'm comfortable communicating with and everybody else." It should be exactly the other way around, which is, "I can hear this record from Japan without having to get on a plane. I can reach out and explore the music and make it familiar in this new way." It's the elimination of borders. That's what's gorgeous and beautiful and dreamy about the digital platform, and what I don't want to give up about it.

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