Listening to music in the age of digital abundance….

A recent tweet from @slainson, and an LA Times post from Steve Almond has me thinking about how we experience music in this age of digital abundance and endless entertainment choices. Music is everywhere today and largely functions as sonic wallpaper. The stuff is inescapable, whether you like it or not.

I often think about how music was consumed 100 or 200 years ago. The composition and production of classical music was highly specialized and funded by the church or nobility. Only the most elite aristocrats had the opportunity to hear it. It was fancy. It amazes me to realize that people would routinely get dressed up to sit in a room and listen to live performances of music they had never heard before! Keep in mind that the composers of the era (Beethoven for instance) were continually pushing the envelope and writing music people found challenging or disturbing. The premier of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ caused a riot. Contrast this with life today where you can’t even sit at a stoplight without being bombarded with some distorted sonic artifact. It’s everywhere and we have became anesthetized. As if that weren’t enough, music is continually competing for our attention with countless new forms of digital novelty and synoptic stimulation.

When I was growing up in late 1960’s Chicago, music was the cultural meeting place for an entire generation. There was no Internet, no video games, computers or video. Listening to music with rapt attention was the Big Thing. I remember a company that sold stereo equipment…the last item in their catalog was a roach clip! Music discovery for me involved running up to my room after dinner, putting on these clunky headphones and listening to “underground radio”. There was this DJ who called himself Scorpio and whispered into an echo chamber. His programming was personal, iconoclastic, and would make KCRW look formatted. I would take notes. I remember one night hearing Savoy Brown back to back with Freddie Hubbard (‘Straight Life’). I was blown away. This was the first time I had really heard George Benson. I had no idea it was possible to do what he was doing on the guitar and the soul/funk polytonality of Weldon Irvine’s ‘Mr. Clean’ sent me on a musical quest.

I would sit in front of the stereo listening to LPs until the grooves wore out (despite my best efforts to keep them pristine with various exotic accessories). I studied the liner notes obsessively and when I heard something I liked I would track each of the sidemen, trying to find everything they had recorded. I was fascinated with musical family trees and communities. The LA country rock scene took me down a long and winding road and one exceptional musician could lead to a whole string of new discoveries. I moved through the musical channels of LA and New York to Nashville and back. Meanwhile I continued my education into jazz and contemporary classical music. I was learning songs and solos by rote and it wasn’t long before I started doing transcriptions. The convergence of artists like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Buck Owens, Captain Beefheart, The Flying Burrito Brothers, McCoy Tyner, The Beatles, David Bromberg, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Bartok, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Stravinsky, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Debussy, etc., etc., seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me.

When I went to college in Boston I discovered the Harvard Coop record department and thought I had died and gone to heaven. They had these big Schwann catalogs on pedestals where it seemed as if you could look up anything in recorded history. The Coop had shelves of sequentially numbered record label catalogs, big and small. As I discovered new jazz and ethnic musicians I could look up everything they had recorded as leaders or sidemen and 9 times out of 10 find the treasure on these shelves.

I was working for Internet music pioneer Liquid Audio when everything shifted toward the Web. The company was founded and largely staffed by audio pros and musicians and was truly innovative, using the AAC codec (which sounded noticeably better then MP3 and would later be adopted by Apple) and developing a very flexible music player with a full array of metadata, including album credits, an unfortunate casualty of most current digital distribution schemes.  It was a very exciting time. It seemed as if the vast expanse of musical possibilities would soon be available to everyone with the click of a mouse.  Interestingly enough I was never really motivated to buy digital downloads because the audio quality was inferior to CDs which were in themselves an old technology at that point. I liked the idea of subscription services because they reminded me of my hours spent at the Coop. I could find anything I wanted and if the music stuck I would buy the CD.

Today we are exposed to new music through an exhausting number of channels including web sites, Internet radio, video games, television, film and advertising placement, retail sponsorship, and terrestrial radio. We listen on our phones & iPods, in our cars, and on our computers. I haven’t owned a traditional “stereo system” in years. The time I spend listening to music under ideal conditions with my complete attention has become increasingly rare. Of course I’m not the typical consumer. Being in the business you listen to (or play) so much music that peace and quiet is cherished. One of the barriers to focused listening is consolidating all of your music sources. Sonos has a great solution that integrates home theaters, digital music collections and streaming music services in one simple, multi-room user interface. I hope to see more growth in this area of consumer electronics.

Here’s my advice for those who love music and want to cut through the noise and bring back the full experience:

  • Make a special place to listen.
  • Get the best sound system together you can. You can pick up powered studio monitors that don’t sound half bad for as little as a few hundred bucks. Listen to the highest quality audio available to you.
  • Make a plan to discover music that’s new to you….Perhaps checking out a new artist or exploring a musical genre that is unfamiliar. Find your favorite music discovery channels and support them.
  • Set aside time just to listen with your full attention. 
  • Turn off your phone, log off Facebook, etc.
  • Give it up to the journey the music takes.
  • When you hear something that moves you, listen to it over, and over, again.
  • Find out everything you can about the musicians you like and follow their creative path to discover new artists.
  • Go out and find the music live.
  • Write about it…talk about it…support the artists…spread the word!
  • Repeat….

6 thoughts on “Listening to music in the age of digital abundance….”

  1. Great post. This will resonate with anyone who grew up in the golden age of the vinyl LP. The question is: can the dedicated, stationary listening session be appreciated by a younger generation that has never experienced music this way?

  2. Thanks for that journey down memory lane. I remember all of it.
    I remember going into department stores where they were showcasing their new stereo systems by playing demo albums.

    I remember heading to the local record store to see what had just come in and buying albums so that I would have the latest underground music.

    I remember listening to radio to hear something I had never heard before. I'd listen to Boston's WBZ (50,000 watts of flower power) down in Norfolk VA where I was living one summer. There was a late night DJ who would play obscure stuff like Pearls Before Swine.

    I still run across a few artists that make me go "Wow." But I don't have any rituals anymore to find them. I read recommendations and check those out, but the anticipation of visiting a place (in the real world or online) to find new music isn't there anymore. Too many mediocre bands have been hyped in the blogosphere.

    On the other hand, some of the stuff that turns up on YouTube (like some classic concert or TV show that I saw years ago that has been found and uploaded) has really made me smile. It's all kind of random, but there are some gems out there.

  3. When I was a kid I bought Beatles 45s at the local vacuum cleaner store. There was all this anticipation and excitement. It was a very special thing to hear new music for the first time.

    I'm an optimist and think this is a time of real creative opportunity. You are right, the challenge is keeping music relevant, getting the cream to the top, and cutting through all the noise and mediocrity…

  4. I share a lot of the same sentiments that you have all described here. Music discovery pre-internet/Napster was a time of excitement and anticipation. We worked much harder to discover new music and I know that the connection to the music was much deeper.

    My friends and I would do what we called the "record fly" every Saturday where we would spend hours hitting the record shops (used and new) in Toronto looking for rare, imported, live and new music.

    Our trip back home on the subway meant ripping open the plastic off LPs and CDs. Soaking in the artwork, liner notes, graphics and lyrics. We bonded with artists entirely through the music. Tweets, Facebook fan pages, blogs? Who could have imagined that all those years.

    There was a certain mystique that made us focus entirely on the music and less so on the non-music aspects of the fan/artist relationship.

  5. Nice post, and I particularly like the recommendations of making both a special place and a special time to listen. Also appreciate your interest in listening to many genres, from pop to jazz to classical.

    The only quibble I have is that I believe that there are many committed music fans who are not necessarily committed audiophiles. And so with nothing but full respect, I would nevertheless argue with your insistence on "highest quality available" audio. I think that can be more of a musician's concern than a fan's concern (although clearly there are serious audiophiles out there who are not musicians).

    Me, I was turned on to a world of music via a relatively cheap FM radio in the mid '70s, and just never have really needed the super high-quality experience. Yes, you want something better than tinny if at all possible. But once it's 'acceptable,' I don't personally think it needs to be 'highest quality.' I have decent speakers, but nothing better. I still feel completely attached to the music, and always have.

    And I point this out largely so people don't get discouraged because they might not have high-quality audio available and yet otherwise can follow the rest of your wonderful suggestions to the letter.

  6. Jeremy – Thanks for the comment. You make an excellent point. The music comes first of course and the opportunities for discovering and listening to music today are ubiquitous. AAC and high bit rate MP3s sound quite good. I don't want to discourage anyone. Transistor radios changed my life when I was a kid!

    I was in the studio biz for many years so I get tweeky about audio but what is available to everyone today sounds really great. There's certainly no need to be an audiophile. After a certain point it's splitting hairs anyway.

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