Luke Larkin lives and writes in Missoula, MT, where he earned his MFA at the University of Montana. His prose and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in places like HAD, Iron Horse Literary Review, Sonora Review, and others. These days, he keeps his DJing to meticulously-curated Spotify playlists.
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During my lonely undergrad years, I got involved with college radio. What better way to inflict my music taste onto others than to broadcast it to maybe a couple dozen listeners (on a good day) scattered about the little mountain city in which I was pursuing my BA? I had few friends, went to fewer parties, and nobody was handing me the aux. But what I did have was a Spotify premium subscription, a misguided hipster complex, and time on my hands.
I submitted a show proposal to the university station: each Friday at 5pm, I’d roll into the studio and play songs that clocked fewer than two thousand plays on Spotify. The idea, ostensibly, was that I would be amplifying unknown voices in the industry, spotlighting the little guy. Every week, the station’s nineteen or so regular listeners could tune in to hear my plosive-heavy voice introduce bands with mad libs names (“That was What If Elephants, and before that, Sailing Sweater. Next up, Big Creature”). No particular genre, no particular theme. As long as it had fewer than two thousand plays, it’d be fair game. Part gimmick, part challenge to myself.
The station manager shrugged and approved the show.
It wasn’t great, and neither was a good deal of the music I spun. I ran the gig for about a year before moving on, but during its run I received a few earnest emails from bands grateful to be featured. Apparently, the software we used to log the day’s track list notified them that somewhere in the Rockies, a little campus station had spun their song. That was nice to hear, for them and for me.
The show came and went. I got bored and busy and left the station, neglected the playlist I built for the slot. But years later and the show still knocks around in my head from time to time. Not the show itself, exactly, but the experience I had producing it. How I came across the music I did, and how it made me feel at the time.
My method for finding material for the show went like this: I’d navigate to the Spotify page of the least-popular artist I could think of, then shift to the “related artists” section and keep with that loop until I was in uncharted territory, where the play counters didn’t even display for lack of listeners.
I pulled all-nighters alone in my dorm surfing the mysterious and wild underbelly of the streaming platform, but I didn’t feel very alone. Most every second, I had a stranger’s voice in my ear, a stranger singing or speaking words few others had heard. It felt uncanny and more than a little intimate, as though I were the lone audience member of a live DIY show. Here were a slew of musicians of all genres, who’d uploaded their unproven art to the ruthless proving grounds of digital music streaming, and here was a solitary teenager barely out of puberty, holding each track to his ear like a seashell. Who knew when the next listener would come around and pick them up and hold them to their own ear? I relished that. I relished being the first, or at least among the first. More than being first, though, I relished the solitude of it. There was a selfishness about the whole affair. These artists played for me, and only for me, at least for a while, so long as I could check the play counter and be fairly certain I was the only one listening. This was how my nights went, more often than not—me, headphones on and cross-legged on my bed, and them, whoever they were, unnoticed and unlauded, serenading me from across time and space.
It was lonely out there. It was desolate. It was also strange and full of life and sound. There’s a certain earnestness and grit I found there. Artists with little more than a mic, a guitar and an untrained voice; artists with a decent studio setup, but a sound unpolished by a professional producer; some artists doing spoken word over a sparse and uneven drum sequence or even just uploading a jam session they’d recently played in. I can’t call a lot of the stuff I found “good,” per se, but that hardly mattered to me. What mattered was that I was participating in something. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I knew it was somehow arcane.
I still do this from time to time—log into Spotify and hop from underground artist to underground artist, just for the fun of it. The excitement that comes with hearing something new and untested, something with teeth uncut by industry success. And to my surprise, many of the artists I stumbled across back in my radio station tenure remain among my favorites (acts like Ming & Ping, Sama Dams, The Still Tide). It’s not so selfish anymore, though. Sometimes it’s haunting. Sometimes I’ll come across an artist that hasn’t released anything in years, the assumption being that they gave up the ghost, left the music there for someone else to find, be it a lonely nineteen-year-old or a less lonely grad student, flipping through the digital record bin for something new, or else something old, but new to the world. I wish I could thank them for that, for leaving that shell on the beach. I wish I could tell them I heard what’s inside.
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malady and melody
features staff writers from Flypaper and select music critics invited to review projects and write guest articles. To be released sporadically.
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