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The Good Listener: What's A Modern Music Snob To Do?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the booklets of money-saving coupons we use to light kindling in the fireplace is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, tips for obsessive music fans in an age of instant online gratification.

Paul Allen Hunton writes: "I used to pride myself on discovering music first — we all did, didn't we? But in the era of YouTube, Spotify and Pandora, discovering music first and then rubbing it in everyone's faces later isn't what it used to be. What is a music snob/elitist supposed to do in this new era of digital music delivery? Will we ever reign supreme again? From a guy who loved 'Thrift Shop' in August."

A lot of the fundamentals you describe won't change: We'll never again live in a world where tastes drift slowly and regionally; where a band that's big in Brooklyn will spend years in anonymity outside its own ZIP code absent an alchemic big-budget push from a label. As with any sea change of its magnitude, widespread digital availability has advantages (democratization, ease of discovery and distribution, the disempowerment of closed-minded gatekeepers) and disadvantages (threats to musicians' income, the decline of record stores and other in-person communities, the devaluing of music as a medium meriting ownership).

And, yes, for true music obsessives (snobs, elitists and experts alike), the rewards of in-depth knowledge are more easily duplicated with a Google search. As you note, it's gotten far more difficult to stay months or years ahead of trends, but on the other hand, is that really a bad thing — even for self-styled ahead-of-the-curve know-it-alls? For aspiring tastemakers, especially those who view themselves as evangelists rather than snobs, the good news is that the sheer volume of musical options (and the ease with which we can listen) will always make it possible to stay ahead of people with less free time to do so. If you do your job right, you can still be an early adopter — and, though trends are ephemeral, bragging rights are forever. You did it yourself, just now! You loved Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop" months before most of your friends, and nothing stopped you from pointing it out!

Finally, I encourage you to remember that every piece of music on earth is new to someone: New fans are born everyday, many people with perfectly sound tastes steer entirely clear of social media and sites like this one, and no marketing campaign ever reaches anything approaching 100 percent saturation. Be a friendly, approachable, sharing, nonjudgmental resource for your busy and open-minded friends — the more you view "snobbery" as a playfully self-deprecating word for expertise, the better — and you'll be amazed at how easy it is to impress someone.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at or tweet @allsongs.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)

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