How To Throw A Listening Party

Listening parties aren’t about exclusion, and the ones I’ve attended are gender-balanced and better for it. Here are some general guidelines.
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March 7, 2012
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music, sharing is caring, party, listening party, how to do stuff

An unnaturally cool composition grad student who worked at my university radio station introduced me to listening parties. I believe I was technically his boss at the time, but I only remember being awed that I was invited to such a uniquely interesting gathering.

The idea is simple. Assemble the coolest people you know, and play music for one another. The host should, at minimum, have a good stereo and multiple playback options. You get to decide the rest.

Because I was sure this idea must have spread at least a bit, after I finished the rest of this piece, I did my due Google diligence and discovered this sort of annoying column in the San Francisco Chronicle archives about how listening parties are for dudes who love Tom Waits, Verve remix albums, and John Peel sessions. Maybe it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but since I’m sort of tired of the old-dude-who-knows-best shtick, I’m feeling very Californian myself when I think, Whatever, man. Peace out.

Listening parties aren’t about exclusion, and the ones I’ve attended are gender-balanced and better for it. Here are some general guidelines.

1. Invite the most divergent but pleasant group of people you can corral.

Did you ever have an awkward birthday party as a kid where you invited kids from school and then two neighborhood girls and it was mad awkward because the friend groups clashed? Is that everyone’s life now, too?

Well, a listening party is your chance to make that a non-issue. People bond over random stuff, so if they can’t bond over being your friend, then help them bond over good tunes. My ideal (city-non-specific) invite list would include my trained-composer friend, her anticon-loving boyfriend, the friend I met on Turntable.fm* (no really, we did and she’s amazing), and one of my partner’s colleagues who is absolutely one of those old-dudes-who-know-best but also knows too much to be excluded.

I also strongly suggest that you invite people from other countries or at least other regions of your country if at all possible. They bring the best stuff you’ll never otherwise hear.

2. Set some ground rules.

You can ask that no one talk during a song. You can ask that no one say crap like, “Wow, you brought that?” It’s your party. You want people to check their attitude at the door? Say so. (Or just invite your lover-not-hater pals.)

3. Set a limit.

I personally dig a three-song limit because everyone gets to play a good mix of stuff. If you’re like me, you’ll have a miserable time picking only three songs to share! (Recent favorites or personal classics? Danceable or mellow? Decisions!!)

I vote against setting a time limit on individual tracks because I like to think people will police themselves. (If your friends are awesome, they probably will.)

Also, I think every song ever written and performed should be at least six minutes long except maybe hardcore songs that clock in at a solid 0:33 or 1:26. So for my listening party, leave the radio edits at home.

4. Don’t be afraid to play something normal.

Someone might bring a 23-minute Nurse With Wound song. That’s cool. Don’t be afraid to follow it with a 3-minute Spoon track or an old Modest Mouse/Ugly Casanova song you liked before Isaac Brock got relatively popular. Shit, bring your Maroon 5 or Jay-Z or Miley. (Well, maybe. Try a Rye Rye remix instead.) Just don’t bring the hate. Not everyone knows the esoteric shit you do, and your record store snob pal can learn to appreciate that Grammy-nominated MGMT single. This is the entire point.

5. Snacks: Optional.

Hard to talk about the nuances of a four-track recording with a mouth full of pretzels, but you gotta keep your strength up too. I don’t recommend drinking -- do the whole pure experience thing -- but maybe that’s just because I don’t otherwise imbibe. You’ll know what feels right.

Do you want to know what I’d play if you came to my listening party this weekend? This was a late-night pass at it. I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow. Or every day.

Last time I played "PONPONPON" in public, I was asked to leave the outdoor seating area where I was chilling with pals. Whatevs J-POP haters. Turn this UP!

This is probably one of the most formative songs in my life, one that has forced me to ask myself for the last 10 years if I’d choose a Beemer, a necklace or freedom. I’m not being funny, and killer rhymes count for just as much as heavy beats at my listening party. I also know how good Dead Prez sounds live and how nice stic.man is when signing CDs. Make that happen for yourself too.

Something from the “Drive” soundtrack is obvious, right? Whatever, new wave lives! So let’s go with this italo disco new classic from Glass Candy because the horns are wicked and I boogied to this duo last week. Let’s...take off our masks/And be...so natural.

Alright party people, when’s your first listening shindig? What’s on the playlist? And invite me? Please and thank you!*I am well aware that Turntable.fm IS one giant listening party, but I get off on the whole IRL/analog thing. As someone who has done a lot of both, trust me when I say it's even more fun to play DJ for pals in person.