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Welcome and Mission Statement: What Is Lean-Foward Listening?

Lean-forward listening can be defined most urgently by what it is not. To encapsulate it in a single sentence: in the Big Tech-dominated era, it's not anything that is passively funneled into your ears by Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Amazon Music, Pandora Radio (for my middle-aged readers), Tidal, or any other algorithm-based streaming platform. It's not opening up the Spotify app and selecting anything on the Home Page from "Made for [Your Name]" down to the asinine mood playlists (not "Deep focus," not "Genre-bending blends," not "Sing-along," three choices that happen to loiter on my page at time of writing). It is ESPECIALLY not "Discover Weekly." It is not feebly shouting across the room to your Amazon Alexa or Google Home to "play happy music" or "play party bangers." It is not allowing, once your streamed album or video of choice has ended, the Autoplay feature (cleverly dubbed "Radio" on music streaming platforms) to hijack your listening experience at The Algorithm's discretion. It does not allow for any piece of music that you have not consciously chosen yourself to occupy the listening space.

I present lean-forward listening as an alternative to and in resistance of what I've seen referred to in print as "lean-back" listening. Most simply, this occurs any time The Algorithm takes over a user's streaming-based listening experience. Reread any of the above examples and you can perhaps easily envision yourself succumbing to it: when blearily starting your morning commute in a screeching subway or uncomfortably silent car (Lyft driver optional); when jamming your earphones in at work to drown out your noisy coworkers (especially [REDACTED], who loudly slurps the office's bottom-shelf Folgers coffee like it's Kopi Luwak); or when relaxing at home at the end of the day--maybe leaning back on your couch with your feet up and your hands wrapped around your dinner. I personally commit the offense most often when bathing: if the EP I've put on finishes before I'm done showering, chances are slim that I'll lean out of the curtain to put on something else (soaking my phone's screen in the process). Lean-back listening occurs out of convenience and out of a compulsion for instant gratification, when we lack the willpower to mentally engage with, critically evaluate, and actively change the content we consume. It is highly symptomatic of the current world we live in, one bursting at the seams with endless feed fodder and distractions.

Why is it so important that we do not fall complacent to this convenience-driven behavior? Let's look at what the lean-back mode of music consumption, as facilitated by the streaming giants, does. It systemically promotes gender inequality in the industry. It all but erases the contributions of songwriters, producers, et al., those working behind the scenes of your favorite records, from mention. It pays your favorite indie artists (well, those who haven't sold their souls to Big Tech) in mere pennies--in many cases, not even letting them know their work is being used by corporations in the first place--stratifying musicians into the 10% and the 90% and widening (someone call Bernie!). It gracelessly fails to reckon with problematic and abusive artists. It even adulterates the playlists you're listening to with tracks by completely fabricated artists to cut down on licensing costs. Most disturbingly, it tracks, catalogues, and ultimately monetizes your appreciation of and interactions with this most essential of human arts. Everything, I repeat everything, that is fed to us by algorithms is the product of data collection and grabs for ad revenue.

I encourage you, reader, to personally evaluate how complacent you have become in your daily consumption of music as content. Take inventory of the past few songs or albums you've listened to and consider what brought you to them. In my ongoing critique of the industry on this site, I will make attempts at proposing what scarce alternatives I can identify to The Algorithm. The unfortunate reality is that convenience is indeed king: streaming now accounts for some 75% of music industry revenue. This ultimately must be a very individually-driven battle. But lean-forward listening is possible. It happens when you subscribe to and actually read the newsletter of that indie label whose vision you support and check out their newly-signed artists. It happens when you patronize your local independent record store and ask the semi-aloof (but actually quite nice! and enthusiastic!) guy/gal/person at the register what stuff he's/she's/they've been digging lately. It happens as simply as when you text your friend or S.O. a link to check out this dope track (just not electronic music, my girl doesn't care for that stuff) you came across while reading Pitchfork or browsing Bandcamp (yes, that's one of the few ethical streaming sites). It happens when you go to concerts and music festivals!

I'll be exploring all of this and more in future writings. Among the critical pieces I may inevitably throw some posts in about artists, albums, concert venues, record stores, music publications, and festivals I've been following into the mix. I hope you'll join me along for the full set (that is, DJ_JWC_ExtendedSet.wav).

In solidarity, The Lean-Forward Listener


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