There are many things you notice as you plow deeper into your 30s. It’s a transitional period with incredibly visible milestones: babies, weddings, houses, more babies. What gets added to people’s lives can feel loud and inescapable – but often what drifts away is less visible.
For the last few years, I have felt the inescapable disappearance of music from my friends’ lives. Even people with whom I have longstanding relationships that were born from a shared love of music have simply let it go, or let it fade deep into the background. A 2015 study of people’s listening habits on Spotify found that most people stop listening to new music at 33; a 2018 report by Deezer had it at 30. In my 20s, the idea that people’s appetite to consume new music regularly would be switched off like some kind of tap was ludicrous. However, now I’m 36, it’s difficult to argue with.
The capacity to be amazed, overwhelmed or sucker-punched by music remains a constant presence and ecstatic joy in my life. It’s something I’ve experienced a million times but when it hits it still feels new. The late DJ Andrew Weatherall, with his boundless curiosity, knowledge and passion for music, right up until his untimely death, is my personal benchmark and inspiration. I write about music for a living, and naturally I don’t expect others to maintain anywhere near the same level of interest – and not everyone reaches their 30s and gives up on music, as the success of BBC Radio 6 Music shows. Not that there’s anything wrong with tapping out, either – interests and priorities change. A parent with two kids under five has things higher up their to-do list than checking out Jockstrap. Gigs become less attractive when a small person screams you awake at 5am. I get it.
Nevertheless, it’s a strange and alienating experience to have a fundamental part of your relationship with someone deteriorate. The shift is a subtle one; a sudden realisation that hits as the once regular conversation of “what are you listening to?” is seemingly replaced permanently by “what are you watching?” I’ve lost count of the amount of free +1 tickets I’ve had go unaccounted for; the seat next to me becoming a coat stand. I’ve not been able to give away free tickets to see Nick Cave, staggeringly expensive arena pop shows, or even entire festival weekend passes.
It’s easy to chalk this up to simply getting older, as the rabid enthusiasm, naivety and passion of youth dwindles, but that has an ageist presumption baked into it. There may be more hurdles to committing to cultural discovery but people don’t become fundamentally less curious because they get older. Most people don’t stop discovering new books, films, podcasts or TV. Yet music seems to be something that more commonly slips away – or is even perceived as something you’re supposed to grow out of. Music is a key part of youthful identity formation: once your idea of yourself becomes fixed, perhaps by distinct markers like marriage and kids, the need for it slips away. Sometimes when I speak to people about going to gigs, festivals or raves, I see an almost pitying look wash over their face: “Really? You’re still doing that? Bless.” As if clinging on represents some childish refusal to let go of youth, the equivalent of a balding mod refusing to shave off their depleting feather cut.
One similarly aged and child-free friend who admits to a dwindling passion for music says it’s a combination of going out less – and so music is no longer the centre of socialising – preferring to listen to podcasts, and having more options available across streaming. Another simply says it’s harder to muster that same level of excitement about anything, period, while one former consumer and maker of music happily admits that he now only really listens to three bands.
This lack of interest in new music seems to coincide – or perhaps even feeds – huge surges in nostalgia around my age group: take the odd phenomenon of so-called indie sleaze, with its warped rose-tinted shutter glasses and desire to retroactively create something that didn’t exist. Objectionable as that particular fetishism is, it’s an interesting generational insight into how those staring down middle age recalibrate their relationship to music. Though I’m not begrudging anyone some nostalgia. The world can be an overflowing cesspit, and if using familiar music to ignite fond memories helps, then drink it up.
Nor is there anything wrong with stepping away from the endless churn. I loved Emma Garland’s recent article on deactivating her streaming accounts and giving up on endlessly chasing the zeitgeist (ie mediocre TV) simply because that’s what’s directing the conversation. Keeping up with new music can feel like an equally exhausting task bordering on the futile. I get numb from time to time too, and listening to albums can feel like going through the motions without absorbing anything. The sheer volume of culture makes it easy to feel as though we are trapped within a huge content-spewing factory working harder than ever to keep up with the production line. Stepping away from that madness makes sense.
But this desertion of music that I have observed feels different – less a tactical retreat and more a mushrooming apathy or indifference. Trying to remain dedicated to music during these apparent wilderness years can be a lonely pursuit. Something you once associated with camaraderie, shared experience and collective memories becomes a one-way exchange. It’s still special, and for many people that’s how they prefer to enjoy music – and there’s always community to be found online, though it’s a thin substitute when you’ve known the real thing. While the thrill of falling in love with a record hasn’t dimmed, it’s dispiriting to know that you have a shrinking group of friends to share it with, as more people seemingly outgrow the one thing you never thought was possible to outgrow.