Preparing for No-Car Month (and a Driverless Future?)

Thanks Fiat! You were great (except for the falling-off hubcap and bumpy passenger ride).

Thanks Fiat! You were great (except for the falling-off hubcap and bumpy passenger ride).

In a few months we’re coming to the end of our lease on the Fiat 500 (our family’s only car) and we’re committing to getting around for at least one month without owning or leasing another car. We’re considering using any and all of the alternatives below:

  1. Bicycling, transporting goods in either panniers/saddlebags, or backpacks.
  2. Using Lyft and/or Uber and/or Flywheel.
  3. Using City CarShare and/or Zipcar (both have locations within walking distance of our house).
  4. Increased reliance on local public transit (BART, AC Transit, MUNI, the ferry, etc. — using Clipper cards for universal payment).
  5. Purchasing or renting a small motor vehicle like motorized skateboard (see demo below).
  6. Using a grocery delivery service like GoodEggs or Instacart.
  7. Renting a car for day trips and road trips.

Transportation challenges will include visiting friends in Marin (difficult to get to via public transport) and Santa Cruz, transporting groceries and other bulky/heavy purchases, dropping off/picking up our daughter at play dates and time with her grandparents, getting to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (challenging even with a car) and client visits all over the Bay Area. While in some cases we’ll solve transportation dilemmas by having things delivered, meeting online, etc., in most cases we’re planning to take the challenges head-on: how to do we physically get ourselves and our things from one place to another without owning or renting a car?

Buy Why?

We’re doing the experiment for at least five reasons:

  1. Compare costs: Even with our very inexpensive lease, our total car costs including insurance, gas, service, and tolls easily tops $400 a month. How will this compare to what we will spend on transportation alternatives (above and beyond what we already spend on BART, bicycle maintenance, etc.)?
  2. Compare convenience: We anticipate that there will be inconveniences in regards our chosen transportation alternatives, but how will these compare to the inconveniences of going to the gas station, getting the car serviced, and washing/cleaning the car inside and out?
  3. Compare fitness and stress levels: Sitting in Bay Area traffic is horrible. It’s also not good for the waistline. What effect will getting rid of the family car have on health and stress levels?
  4. Environmental impact: Seeing a recent SALT seminar by Saul Griffith inspired me to do my part in terms of reducing my personal carbon footprint.
  5. Get a preview of the future: I strongly believe that car ownership (and even car leasing) is at the beginning of a permanent, sharp decline. We want to get a preview of the new lifestyle even before the self-driving, fully automated, app-summonable electric vehicles fully replace the personal car ownership model.

The Driverless Future

Google and many major car manufacturers have built and are testing driverless cars. It’s easy to visualize a future where you tap your phone to summon a car, do something productive during your ride, and get dropped off without even thinking about parking. With a large automated fleet and low per-ride prices, personal car ownership will start to look less like a convenience and more like a liability.

City infrastructure will change to reflect a smaller fleet (fewer cars will be needed because the automated cars will serve many customers in a given day), less need for parking (smaller cars that park less often and more compactly when they do park — maybe cramming into a warehouse like sardines during low demand hours), and intelligent robotic driving that is safer for car passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists alike. Gas stations and parking lots will be replaced by parks, gardens, shops, and housing. This article explores some of the potential changes.

Stay Tuned

We’ll begin the experiment towards the end of the year. I’ll provide a full report on cost, convenience, fitness changes, and other observations and insights.

What do you think about the future of car ownership, and the possibility that electric driverless cars may transform urban infrastructure?

Skip to 7 min. for a demo of the Boosted board:

How To Get Rich Slowly Without a High-Paying Job

There are many advantages to getting rich slowly.

There are many advantages to getting rich slowly.

After reading feedback from readers I have decided to continue with the “How To” titles and subject matter for some posts. I enjoy the format and some have expressed they find it useful.

Today’s topic is how to get rich slowly, with a little help from Google Sheets.

Why write this post? In college I was just starting to save money from my part-time jobs, but I had no idea what to do with my savings. My parents had some savings and property assets, but no positions in the stock market or bonds, and nothing approaching an investment portfolio. I had no advice from them, nor did I know which questions to ask.

At age 21 in 1990 I was lucky enough to end up with an economics professor as a landlord (he worked at the University of Hawaii at Manoa; I was living in Honolulu doing a dolphin cognition internship). When I asked him what to do with my savings, my landlord told me to invest in a growth-oriented Vanguard mutual fund and set up an automatic monthly transfer to that account. For the options available at the time, it was great advice. I did what he recommended. Despite irregular income (I’ve never had a full-time job) and making nearly every investment mistake in the book, I’m financially in good shape today, primarily due to the professor’s advice.

I’m hoping to help people in the same way my Hawaii landlord helped me. Most of the financial and investment advice I see is very “zoomed in,” addressing a single aspect of investing, trading, or personal finance (allocation strategies, rebalancing your portfolio, saving money on banking fees, etc.) but there is a dearth of big picture advice. While it may be overly ambitious to map out anything approaching a universal get-rich-slowly plan (100% of my assumptions will be wrong for any particular individual), I’m going to try anyway.

Why Accumulate Money? What is Rich?

Many (perhaps most) people feel deeply ambivalent about accumulating money. Perhaps they feel that is immoral, contributing to income inequality, or slightly dishonest (people who accumulate money don’t want to do “an honest day’s work”), or they associate investing and wealth accumulation with negative impressions of “retirement” (inactivity, lack of engagement, decline, etc.) or a particular social class. Some people simply choose to live with less, or even go so far as to take a vow of poverty.

It’s worth examining and deconstructing these feelings. My own reasons for wanting to accumulate wealth are as follows:

  • I have a deep resistance to authority (I like helping and contributing and serving others, but I like to work on a voluntary basis).
  • I have many interests and activities that I like to engage in, but most of them don’t generate income (thus the desire for passive income).
  • I would prefer to not be a financial burden to anyone when I am past my prime earning years.
  • I enjoy living well. Fancy cheese is expensive.
  • I enjoy contributing to organizations doing good work in the world.

Rich, in my book, means having enough passive income to support your preferred lifestyle.

The Basics

Nothing new here. The fundamentals of my get-rich-slowly system are boring, tried-and-true, unoriginal. I’ve included the basic advice given in the classic The Richest Man in Babylon, and integrated some ideas from the more recent MONEY Master the Game (the latter I covered in detail in this post). What I’ve done that is a little different is to include a public Google spreadsheet (with copying and downloading enabled) that includes budget examples, savings scenarios, and portfolio allocation and account tracking with live calls to Google Finance and Yahoo Finance.

The basics are as follows:

  • allocate 20% of your income to paying off any outstanding debts, especially high-interest debt
  • allocate at least 10% of your income to paying yourself first ideally with automatic transfer(s) into your savings and/or investment accounts
  • create and implement an asset allocation plan, rebalancing at least once a year (preferably by buying “cheaper” sectors)

So blah-blah-blah what does that even mean, especially the last bit? To demonstrate, I’ve created some public Google Sheets in which I outline several scenarios, and how these strategies might play out over time. In order to be specific I needed to make assumptions, so to some the numbers will look low and to others they’ll look high. Feel free to copy these sheets and adjust the numbers to fit your own situation.

Why Google Sheets? (sidebar for nerds)

For the budget and savings sheets, any spreadsheet application could work. I like the free OpenOffice product. But for statistics calls to Yahoo Finance and Google Finance (live stock quotes, price-to-earnings ratio, 200-day moving averages, etc.), Google Sheets is unparalleled. After futzing around with Visual Basic functions and waiting for desktop spreadsheet applications take minutes to load (and crashing half the time), learning what Google Sheets could do blew my mind. Now matter how many calls I add to a sheet, loading is near-instantaneous, and I’ve yet to have a crash. Here is the documentation page for the formulas I use.

Two Scenarios

I’ve created two budget/debt-payoff spreadsheets — one for a recent college graduate saddled with both student loan and credit card debt, and one for a person of the same age working a service industry job (or jobs, given the unreliable nature of shift work) with credit card debt. Both scenarios assume single, no dependents, regular income (from employment, freelance work, or entrepreneurial sources), and living in the United States.

Both scenarios present some hardship (significant student loan and credit card debt in the former scenario, a lack of higher education and credit card debt in the latter).

I based income in the college grad scenario on 2nd quintile averages from 2007 Congressional Budget Office estimates [PDF] (the latest I could find). In the service industry scenario I used hourly wages of between $15 and $20 an hour ($15 is minimum in much of the Bay Area). Certainly many people make less (and in the former scenario, many graduates have six-figure debt). These are not worst-case scenarios, but rather middle-of-the-road, hopefully realistic scenarios for many young people.

To make the calculations simpler I assumed debt interest payments to be included in the debt amount. So actual starting credit card debt in both scenarios might only be $3000, with $5000 required to pay off that amount including interest. Debt consolidation can often lower interest payments and is a good option as long the consolidator is reputable.

Both scenarios assume no job benefits, but the availability of low-cost health insurance plans (such as those offered via

Both scenarios assume no car ownership or lease, but a reliance on public transportation, car sharing/rentals, and driving services.

“Cash savings” is assumed to be 100% spent (on emergencies if necessary, otherwise on big-ticket items like travel, furniture, new computers, music festivals, etc.). “Investment savings” is assumed to be 100% retained.

“Rent” is a big assumption too. Some people can work anywhere as long as they have an internet connection (freelance programming or any 4-Hour Workweek style “muse”), and might choose a nomadic lifestyle based on youth hostels, temporary crash pads, or even camping outdoors. Whatever works! Your budget will definitely vary.

The “Payment Mode” column is my suggestion for how to set up payment for each category. Setting up automatic transfer for savings is the key precept of the “pay yourself first” idea (otherwise you are likely to pay yourself last, or maybe not at all). Putting bills on auto-pay saves time, but you may prefer to pay your bills manually (via bill-pay or check) depending on how much of a cash buffer you can afford to keep in your checking account, and how closely you prefer to audit various bills. Personally I have about half my bills on auto-pay. I have arbitrarily decided that the 25-year-olds are responsible enough to use a credit card and pay it off in full every month (thus avoiding fees and reaping the considerable benefits that some credit cards offer). That said I know plenty of financially responsible young people and financially reckless oldsters. Use your own best judgement!

If you see formula mistakes in either spreadsheet, or estimates that look way off, please point them out — I’ll adjust based on feedback. Here are the consolidated links to the spreadsheets:

They’re all part of the same document, so you can also just open any of them and then navigate using the bottom tabs. No Google sign-in required.


Paying off high-interest debt should be a top-priority, but that can make for a tight budget for a year or two. Creating a realistic budget for the lower-income scenario was difficult, even with the assumption of no dependents and reasonable medical costs.

Budgets in both scenarios loosen up considerably once debt is paid off, but living off bottom quintile income is always going to be tight. Even starting with $30K lower (negative) net worth, the college grad ends up with double the net worth at age 25, with much better future savings prospects. This assumes that the college degree actually translates into a job with reasonably good income — not always the case — but budgets on a low or lowish hourly wage (especially with unreliable shift work) are always going to be tight.

Developing these budgets emphasized the point that it’s more effective to increase earnings than it is to be excessively frugal (something that Ramit Sethi discusses in detail on his blogthis article is a good introduction). Frugality has its place — especially in terms of cutting out expensive services that don’t add much value to your life — but increasing income even by 10% can increase expendable income (money available for fancy cheese, dining out, travel, clothes, entertainment, fun times) by 20% or more (because rent, utilities, health insurance, etc. are generally fixed costs).

The good news for the lower-income saver is that as long as they get an early start, they’re in better shape than the big earner who neglects to save and invest until middle age.

First Goal — Get Out of Debt and Start Your Investment “Nut”

Both scenarios demonstrate that it’s possible to pay off a moderate amount of debt relatively quickly, while still saving for both fun times/toys and long-term investments. If you’re fortunate enough to go to college, graduate without debt, and land a good job, you can blow these scenarios out of the water. But even the service worker with a lowish hourly wage can end up in good shape at age 25 if they prioritize payoff off debt and paying themselves first.

Second Goal — Build a Diverse, Low-Risk, Low-Fee Portfolio and Maintain Allocation Targets

This spreadsheet is a snapshot of a possible portfolio for someone with middle-class monthly earnings ($5K/mo. post-tax) at age 30, roughly corresponding to middle-quintile CBO averages. The budget includes an aggressive 20% investment savings rate, but is not stingy. The starting net worth of $60K is an extrapolation of the college-grad scenario (who at age 25 had a $24K net worth and was investing $540/mo.).

Our hypothetical investor has a low-cost brokerage account (perhaps Schwab or Vanguard), has chosen to manage their own investments (maybe they are a monkey investor, like myself), and has taken positions in low-cost exchange-traded funds (ETFs), as well as US Treasury bonds purchased directly via So what does their portfolio include?

  • SPY (a low-fee ETF that tracks the S&P 500)
  • IJR (a low-fee ETF that tracks the S&P Small Cap 600)
  • VNQ (a low-fee Vanguard Real Estate Investment Trust ETF)
  • TLT (a low-fee ETF that holds various long-term US treasury bonds)
  • IEF (a low-fee ETF that holds various medium-term US treasury bonds)
  • GLD (a low-fee ETF that tracks the price of gold)
  • US Treasury long-term bonds (held directly)
  • US Treasury medium-term bonds (held directly)

These are just examples — there are dozens of low-expense ETFs to choose from, and some investors might prefer to own individual stocks. However no mutual funds are included, because mutual funds usually don’t beat the S&P 500, and are generally laden with exorbitant fees, many of them hidden.

The example investor has both a Traditional IRA account (which presents immediate tax savings) and a Roth IRA (which allows tax-free withdrawals) and also a regular brokerage account. The non-IRA account is necessary because the $12K annual savings exceeds the combined IRA limit imposed to the IRS (current $5,500 per individual). For this example I’ve placed the equities holdings in the Roth IRA because they’re likely to appreciate the most over time.

Allocation sectors are weighted towards bonds, because equities (stocks) are typically three times more volatile than bonds. Incredibly successful investors such as Ray Dalio recommend even heavier weighting towards bonds, but for a 30-year old investor the example allocation is reasonable. “Your age in bonds” (as a percentage) is an oft-recommended rule of thumb, and this portfolio is even more conservative.

The portfolio includes both directly held bonds and bond funds because the latter may fluctuate significantly, and is riskier. For example if interest rates go up, TLT will lose value (bonds purchased at lower rates become less valuable). However you will never lose principal on a directly held bond (provided you are willing to hold onto it). It might even make sense to separate directly held bonds and bond funds into separate asset classes with their own target allocation percentages, though I haven’t done so in this case.

Most importantly, sectors are chosen that typically do not all move together in tandem (aka “fake diversification” — see mistake #2).

What Actions are Required to Maintain an Allocated Portfolio?

Once the Google Sheet is set up (note that the market price and dividend/yield columns make live calls to Google Finance and Yahoo Finance respectively), maintaining your portfolio should take about one hour a quarter (every three months) — something even an ostrich can handle. Here are the steps:

  1. Login to various accounts (including brokerage) and update the Quantity Held column. Current market value will then update automatically.
  2. Note in which sectors the Actual Allocation is below the Target Allocation.
  3. Note how much cash you hold over your cash threshold (in this scenario the investor prefers to have a minimum of three times their monthly income in cash).
  4. Buy in with available cash to whatever holding or holdings will bring your lowest sector actual allocation percentage closer to the target allocation percentage. In other words if your target for the large cap equity sector (big company stocks) is 30%, and your actual allocation is 25%, you could use excess cash (any amount over your minimum cash threshold) to purchase additional shares of SPY or another low-fee large-cap equity ETF.

Selling is optional. If a particular sector has rocketed up in price and you find yourself with an actual percentage well above your target percentage, it makes sense to sell part of your position and take some profits. This especially makes sense for metals and commodities, which don’t pay dividends. But there’s nothing wrong with ignoring selling altogether and simply “buying low” all the time (this will happen automatically as you buy in to your lowest actual percentage sectors). Remember there is a capital gains tax hit every time you sell, especially if you’ve held the position for less than a year.

When you buy, make sure to select the option to automatically reinvest dividends. This will allow you to increase your positions automatically over time without paying additional commissions.

Compound Returns

There is a doozy of a formula in the bottom section of this sheet that estimates net worth after Y number of years based on P starting portfolio value, c annual contribution, and r annual rate of return, compounded. Looking at the three examples, it’s easy to see that Y is very important. The low-income saver ends up richer than the laggard who starts ten years later, even if the late saver invests twice as much per month.

P(1 + r)Y + c[ ((1 + r)Y + 1 – (1 + r)) / r ]

Even so, things look rosy for all three of our hypothetical investors. 6% growth a year is a reasonable expectation for a well-allocated portfolio (some years will be much better, some much worse, but our hypothetical investor will always be buying low). Our middle-income investor who had their allocated portfolio going before age 30 has a net worth of nearly two million dollars at age 65, which could easily generate over $6000/mo. in passive investment income (from interest and dividends). Combined with Social Security benefits, that amount could support a comfortable lifestyle. Any kind of pension, 401(k) or 403(b) plan, and/or passive income from other sources (rental properties, side businesses, royalties, etc.) could make life downright cushy. There is a very good chance (depending on lifestyle preferences and inflation) that our hypothetical investor is rich according to my definition above.

Of course there’s no guarantee that any particular individual will live to age 65 or much beyond. If possible we should be living the good life all the time, not deferring gratification until we’re too old to fully enjoy it. But the beauty of paying yourself first is that as long as your budget isn’t too stingy, you don’t even miss the money you save for investment purposes. You just make a habit of saving and investing, and end up rich. This is especially true if you invest some energy, time, and attention into earning a bit more (rather than living extremely frugally, or giving up your time and money too easily to the demands of others, or spending so much time pursuing leisure activities that they cease to be deeply enjoyable).

Third Goal — Convert a Portfolio into Income for Life

The classic strategy is to tweak your allocation percentages towards less volatile asset classes (bonds, certificates of deposit, high-interest savings, etc.) as you get older. That’s why I use 4% instead of 6% in the rough passive income calculations here. If your portfolio is mostly bonds and CDs, it’s going to grow at a lower rate.

Tony Robbins discusses some other strategies such as purchasing fixed-index annuities in MONEY Master the Game. The main idea is that you don’t want to be 80% in stocks when you want to retire and the stock market happens to crash. At a certain age you want to start locking in some of your returns.

If I’m still blogging in ten year at age 56, I’ll revisit this topic in detail!

Additional Considerations

Some readers will face hurdles not addressed by this post, such as unemployment, poor employment prospects due to disability or local economic conditions or legal issues (immigration, criminal record), no savings and large debt burden in mid life or older, additional expenses and time constraints from caring for dependents, and so on. As mentioned above, your spreadsheet will vary. If you’re just not a spreadsheet person, the core principles still apply. Clear debts. Pay yourself first. Invest wisely. If you’re not the DIY type, work with a reputable fiduciary (someone who does not receive trading commissions). Wealthfront is an intriguing new option, though I haven’t researched the service enough to recommend it.

A certain amount of “vim and vigor” is required to even start thinking about ways to increase earnings and long-term wealth. Sometimes addressing depression or underlying health issues or even sleep deprivation is a prerequisite to undertaking a wealth-building plan. On the other hand, creating and implementing a long-term wealth-building plan presents its own neurological rewards, and may have a mood-lifting and motivating effect.

In my next finance post I’ll discuss how I evaluate individual sectors for value, and one way to approach investing a lump sum. What’s the best strategy if you suddenly find yourself in possession of a large chunk of cash, perhaps from an inheritance or sale of a major asset? Should you immediately buy in to your various sector allocation targets, all at once? Or should you buy in gradually, looking for “deals”? If you choose the latter strategy, does that mean you’re committing the great investing sin of “trying to time the market“? At this particular moment in time global markets are highly volatile, many asset classes seem overpriced, and some sectors are plunging in value — so these are important considerations for the cash-rich.

I hope you find this post helpful. I’ve covered a lot of ground, so please point out any mistakes or formula errors you notice, and feel free to share your opinions and/or stories.

Helping People — A Realization

Rescue: specific, well-defined, limited help

Rescue: specific, well-defined, limited help

Yesterday I received an angry email from a reader that gave me pause for thought. The reader asked me to do something I wasn’t comfortable doing and I declined. The reader became frustrated and let me know in no uncertain terms. Their argument went something like this: Why was I presenting myself as someone helpful if I wasn’t willing to help them?

It wasn’t a terrible interaction — just a frustrated person venting — but it did get me thinking about what I’m trying to do here. This blog is subtitled “Systems for Living Well” and that’s mostly what it’s about. I share my own experiences, insights, and knowledge, and hope this blog benefits others. In the past I’ve framed that as “helping people.”

But I’m wondering if “helping” people often leads to dysfunction and codependence. How much responsibility should the “helper” take for the circumstances of the “helped”? Is there a danger of the person being helped surrendering their own power and agency to the helper?

“Helping people” has been a core value of mine since grade school. To reevaluate and possibly jettison this guiding principle is a big deal for me. It’s not that I want to become less altruistic or less giving (especially in relation to friends and family), but I think the old language doesn’t work anymore. I need to replace “helping” with more specific verbs, in both my thinking process and in terms of real life actions.

Some thoughts re: the future direction of this blog:

What I Want to Retain or Move Towards

  • writing posts that educate, inspire, and/or entertain readers
  • sharing personal experiences that might benefit others
  • providing specific, clearly defined assistance to others when I am moved to do so, when it is mutually beneficial, or when I am being compensated

What I Want to Move Away From

  • helping others out of a general sense of obligation, because I have a “helper” identity
  • writing blog posts (or anything) that prescribe or recommend a particular course of action (“you should” or even “how to”)
  • presenting myself as an expert or authority
  • taking responsibility for other people’s actions or choices

I’m thinking out loud here. I don’t want to be less generous just because a few people feel overly entitled. I have no problem setting limits. Still, I may need to be clearer about what I’m offering, and where those limits are.

I hope you found this post educational, inspiring, or at least mildly entertaining!

30-Day Experiment: How To Double Your Current Music Knowledge in a Month

WWLlogoBack in May Marc Kate (a good friend and host of the Why We Listen podcast) emailed me with some thoughts about current music and his own relationship to music:

I’m finding that the trap of Retromania, the ubiquity of nostalgia, the lazy, daily choices we increasingly make in our playlists are contributing to music’s stagnation.

I mostly feel like some of the most exciting music I’ve ever heard is happening right now, but I also can’t rightly defend any of it as particularly new. I’ve always prioritized music that is cutting edge, but I can’t say I’ve really heard any in decades.

He followed this up with a proposed experiment and invitation:

So, I want to see what happens, what I learn if I eschew music that is even slightly old. Even if it means I’m actually just listening to wholly historically derivative music that was made last month.

Instantly I was in. Even though I disagreed that music was stagnating in any way, and I’d been finding plenty of new music I loved, I wanted to take the new new music experience to the extreme. For the month of June, Marc and I agreed we would ONLY listen to music released no more than one year ago (and this could not include re-releases or new releases of old music). There would be exceptions only for listening experiences out of our control (like music piped into grocery stores, public spaces, etc.).

Listen to the JD Moyer episode of Why We Listen.

Music Search

The first problem I confronted: how would I find this new music? Some I could find by browsing sales charts on sites like Beatport, which have a high turnover rate and rarely include music more than a few months old. But this would only lead me to new electronic music, and part of the idea of the experiment was to expand my musical taste (or at least exposure) into genres I might not otherwise consider.

I hit upon a solution about a week in. While preparing a giant playlist for my birthday party (with a new music theme), I hit up friends and acquaintances on Twitter for their favorite album of the year. I got a 100% response rate — it turns out people love to recommend music. I love to discover and recommend music as well (it’s one reason I co-founded Loöq Records) … it may be a near-universal desire to want to share music that has touched and inspired us.

There are three main ways you can discover new music in this internet age:

  1. You can rely on algorithms (such as Pandora’s) to lead you to new music based on music you already like.
  2. You can be a “Knight of the New” (to borrow a phrase from reddit) and actively research new bands and releases (at the record store, on youtube, on music sales sites).
  3. You can rely on your friends.

Option 1 is the laziest. Option 2 requires time and dedication, and also listening to lots of bad music in order to find the good stuff (not being in love with this process was one reason I gave up DJing). Option 3 is probably still dominant among the <30 crowd, but in my circles and at my age (forty-six) there are more conversations about kids and schools than there are about new tracks and music videos. But I found it wasn’t hard to steer the conversation back in that direction. With a little prompting I received a flood of recommendations — more than I had time to listen to.

Thoughts on Streaming

First digital downloads replaced physical media, and now streaming is replacing a large percentage of downloads. Each wave cut music industry revenues by half or more. Piracy has of course played a role, but the replication/sharing revolution is the main factor.

Nimble players, like my own label, can survive by cutting costs. Vinyl production and shipping were huge expenses, and when we dropped vinyl our profits-per-release shot up. Even though revenue is low, we can keep releasing music we love and make a little money in the process. But I do miss vinyl …

What about the consumer side? Previous to this experiment, my preferred mode of listening to music was still removing a slab of vinyl from its cardboard sleeve, placing it on the Technics 1200, and dropping the needle on the record. Music just sounds best this way. But none of my favorite albums (like Tycho – Awake) had been released in the past year. So I signed up for a 3-month free Spotify trial and jumped into the world of consumer streaming.

It’s amazing what you get for the price of an internet connection and a few cups of coffee. I was able to find 100% of the music recommended to me. It was easy to set up as many playlists as I wanted. Obviously Spotify isn’t the only streaming service but they have a great interface and a huge library. While they may not pay artists as generously as they claim, Spotify is a great deal for the music consumer.

Effects of Only New Music

I listened to so much new music in June that is was overwhelming. I didn’t get to know any of it very well. Of the many recommendations I received, only a few stuck. It’s good that there’s a huge, highly diverse universe of new music, because tastes diverge just as much.

A few albums that will stay in my playlists:

  • Fort Romeau – Insides
  • D’Angelo – Black Messiah
  • Jooris Voorn – Nobody Knows
  • Galantis – Pharmacy
  • Dan Sherman – Places EP

(The last one is a Loöq Records release, but it earned its place on the short list.)

How does this compare to the amount of new music I usually add to my active playlists (not just my library)? At the most I really fall in love with no more than one new album a month, so it was a big increase. I’m still getting to know the albums above, but they’re all keepers.

Since there wasn’t any discomfort involved in listening to only new music, the month went by quickly. Marc had a similar experience. One month might have been too short of a time for this experiment to feel the full effects.

Overall the experiment was a good kick-in-the-pants to expand my listening horizons.

Enter Marc Kate …

WWL30smAs I mentioned above Marc is the host and producer of the Why We Listen podcast. While the typical format is Marc asking the guest to choose three songs – any three songs, for any reason they like – to share and discuss with him, our episode featured a broader discussion about music centering around the June listening experiment. You can listen to our discussion here, or as soon as it posts on iTunes.

Here’s Marc’s take on New Music June:

We live in a world that is changing rapidly, and music isn’t keeping up. It seems to be content with aping the Beach Boys or combining Afro-Beat with post-punk, or looping Italo-Disco album cuts, or discovering faux genres (Yacht Rock) or any other strategy that has been mined for decades. If I’m sounding cynical, it’s because I am. I’m deeply excited about a lot of music I’m hearing, but deeply disappointed in how conservative it all sounds. Complaining that all new music sounds the same is a tired position to take, but it it has never been truer in my lifetime as it is now. If you disagree, I challenge you to point me to five minutes of music that wasn’t possible or is indistinguishable from music that we could have heard 15 or more years ago.

I was raised believing what Jacques Attali said: that “Music is prophecy.” Music is the weather vane, the barometer and the compass. Through it we can know where we are and where we are going. However, for the past few decades, it seems that music mostly reminds us of where we’ve been.

I started my podcast Why We Listen as an excuse to meet with interesting people to learn about their listening habits and learn how music functions for them relative to how I understand music to function for me.

What I discovered, as I spent so much time immersed in this kind of research, is that music really has stagnated. And I’ve been complicit. My listening habits had stagnated too. I’d become lazy and undemanding, settling for middlebrow delights and not asking to be challenged. Technology has made it easy for us to be collectively conservative. We’re surrounded by the music of our grandparents. Public space is more likely to play music that is 30 years old than anything contemporary, and contemporary music is more likely to sound like music that is 30 years old.

This doesn’t sound like prophecy. It sounds like a history lesson, like we’re trying to describe this chaotic new world with dead languages.

So, inspired by JD Moyer’s ‘lifestyle experiments’ as I think of them, I thought to detoxify for a month. I wanted to do my best to purge vintage sounds from my personal soundtrack and see what that would do to my attitude.

What I discovered is what I already knew:
That there is a lot of really fun new music being made with very traditional goals.
That there are some people out there pushing at the edges of what’s possible. Just little nudges. Nothing revolutionary, but promising gestures of discovery.
That there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that some sort of sonic revolt is waiting around the corner.

But I’m patient. And I’m listening.

I’m more optimistic about the current state of music production than Marc, and we have some good back-and-forth in the podcast (as of writing this I haven’t yet heard it, but Marc promised he’d edit out the bits where I sounded like a complete idiot). If they made the cut, I also shared some of my own experiences and frustrations writing and releasing music that inspires me, but isn’t necessarily targeted at any particular audience or market segment. How does your music find its people? And what if those people don’t exist? Should you change your style, chasing what’s popular? Or just do your own weird thing and hope a few other people will like it? Twenty years writing music music and running a record label and I still can’t give you a good answer to this question. I guess it depends on what your goals are, as an artist.

Marc Kate’s most recent album, mentioned on the podcoast, is File: #08, now available from Computer Tapes. His forthcoming album Failing Forms will be released in November.

I Quit Facebook and I Don’t Miss It

Approximately two weeks ago I deleted my Facebook account. It wasn’t something I thought about a great deal. I suddenly realized “I’m done with Facebook,” and a day later I deleted my account.

I’ve been concerned about Facebook’s data-mining and privacy policies since I learned about early links to the CIA and DARPA. But this isn’t why I deleted my account. I don’t know if I even fully understand why I wanted to stop using Facebook, but here are some of the reasons I’ve considered:

  • despite having 300+ “friends,” my feed was usually full of comments and posts from people I didn’t even know
  • I got tired of reading other people’s political opinions or hearing about their outrage
  • annoying animated gifs and autoplay videos
  • I rarely felt compelled to share or post anything … mostly because I no longer had a clear sense of who was reading/seeing it

Facebook was starting to feel like a low-quality tabloid newspaper instead of a way to connect with family and friends.

One reason I stayed on Facebook for so long was that I felt it helped me keep up with acquaintances. I recently had an experience that made me rethink this supposition. I ran into someone from the dance music scene that I hadn’t seen in years. I’d seen that person’s posts on Facebook so I had a vague idea that I knew what was going on with him. But after a brief conversation on BART (our local transit system) I realized that I’d had no idea what was really going on in his life. I had been reading his posts without context, and didn’t understand that his life had been turned upside-down by a series of events, and that he was having to rebuild his life essentially from scratch. I learned more in a five minute conversation than I would have from reading a thousand of his Facebook posts.

Events and Invitations

A few friends would use Facebook to invite me to events. It was often difficult to find these real invites among the dozens of spam-invites to paid events that would also show up in my Facebook events list. I suppose some friends will have to switch to email (or snail mail) to invite me to things, but I actually check those formats on a regular basis. It’s nice to have one fewer inbox.

Focus, Active Curation

Since quitting both Facebook and Reddit, it’s much harder to waste time on my computer. I check my email, the New York Times headlines, and that’s about it. Sometimes I’ll look at my Twitter feed and click on a few interesting links. But I no longer fall into a black hole of distraction where I lose an hour or more of my day. I feel more focused.

In the evening, if I’m actively looking for entertainment, I now have to be more active in my search (instead of passively browsing an algorithm-generated feed, or pages of “top voted” content). This is a good thing. I’m reading more fiction (in book format, not on my computer), and finding very narrow content related to my hobbies (like the TerranScapes youtube channel). This is a return to how I sought entertainment during the first thirty-five years of my life, and it’s a more gratifying system. I’m engaging with material that actively interests me in very specific ways, instead of finding the occasional gem amidst a sea of broad content.

Out of the Loop?

I did have some mild anxiety about becoming more socially isolated or being “out of the loop” if I quit Facebook. I quickly identified this as a false fear. My real friends weren’t going to forget about me, and though I might learn things about people’s lives (who got married, who had a kid, etc.) later than most, I might enjoy the information more receiving it in person.

Quitting Facebook did inspire me to be more active in regards to social planning. Life is finite and you don’t have time to do everything with everyone. I’ll save the details for a later post, but I’ve made a few changes to my system for tracking what I/we want to do with our friends and family, and taking the necessary steps to schedule and plan those social engagements.

I actually feel more socially connected since I quit Facebook. I’m no longer looking at events I wasn’t invited to, parties I didn’t attend, and trips I didn’t take. Instead I’m looking at my own calendar to see what I have planned for the week, and with whom. If the calendar is looking empty then I take steps to fill it up.