Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A lesson in listening from my old record player

Last night, as I sat with my headphones on listening to Boards of Canada on my old record player, I realised something wonderful about vinyl: it gave me the time to truly listen to & care about the music.

I listen to a ton of music each & everyday ... when I'm walking to work, commuting to work, working, walking to grab a coffee, during coffee if I am sans companion ... I could go on. Music is the soundtrack to my life.

There is, however, a fine line between it being the music and "the Muzak" of my life. When music becomes sonic wallpaper then it has failed ... or, should I say, I've failed as the listener to fully comprehend what it is that I am listening to.

Sometimes I think music is too readily available ... it's ubiquity is both a strength & a weakness - it is the most accessible artform but it can be taken for granted ... we can zone it out when it becomes too familiar like a radio tuned to a commercial station or when Spotify is churning out the hits on shuffle.

Sometimes we use music to drown out other sounds, like the hustle and bustle of our environment. When it is used like this then it becomes something other than what it was intended to be.

Music should be heard and for it to be heard we need to listen ... not just hear ... but truly listen.

The thing is, listening takes time. For us to listen, we need to ensure that the music is the primary activity in our heads.

Hearing ... music or a podcast or a radioshow ... sits nicely as a secondary activity. It can be ’on in the background’ whilst we do other things. This is the closest we get to the myth of multitasking ... hearing whilst simultaneously doing.

However for us to truly listen, it means the music comes into the foreground ... and for that to happen we need to give it time.

Digital music gave us many benefits ... the ’your whole library in your pocket’ idea, for example. But while we’ve gained with one hand, we have been lost, like some clever Faustian pact, the sense of time and of ritual. Music becomes little more than an activity that's done with other activities rather than an activity in itself.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't digital music’s fault ... but it is a phenomenon that is exacerbated by the easily accessible nature of music.  Something I am all too familiar with as the founder of a netlabel.

One such element is the ability to skip tracks. This has, in turn, led to the purchase of individual tracks. With vinyl and, in particular, LPs ... you are stuck with what's playing for the 15 - 25 minutes duration. This can be a bad thing - we can all name tracks on LPs that are there as filler ... but it can be a good thing too because, for that 15 - 25 mins, the music is your main activity ... you are there to listen.

When you give yourself the time to listen, I honestly believe the music displays a new radiance.

I’m not one of those vinyl purists that claim a record has a better sound than a CD because I don't have a top-of-the-range hi-fi. It is certainly better than low-rate MP3s ... although all my music on my iPhones is 320kbps and I don't really notice the difference. I'm not as interested in the sound as I am the expression. Music is someone’s expression & this expression deserves my attention. It also deserves my consideration ... something that manifests itself through the ritual of care that vinyl depends. I see playing a record like a modern day ’tea ritual’. The care given rewards me with an optimal experience. Nerdy, I know, but that's the way it appears - love the vinyl & it loves you back.

Taking this time & expending this care has paid dividends. "Music has the right to children", an album I've owned since ’98 in mp3 & CD, sounds fresh and new on vinyl. Not solely because it's on vinyl but because I've taken the time to listen to it.

Music deserves our time & attention. Vinyl is one way to impart that care. The whole ritualisation that comes from this care & consideration ensures I give it my full attention. This is the way it should be, in my opinion.


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