Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: How to listen to music

By | Published on Thursday 6 June 2013

Craig David digging some beats

That the internet has “made music more disposable” has become a point raised with increased frequency as consumption via downloads and, more recently, streaming has grown.

Where once you would have had to go to a record shop to buy an album, or at least send off somewhere to receive it by post, we all now have access to more music than we could ever dream of right at our fingertips, via our computers and mobile phones. This, apparently, means that people no longer invest time in music, because they no longer invest money in it. Or not directly. Or not so much.

When people have access to music without having a physical thing in their hand that they paid for, so the argument goes, then they won’t stick with a new record long enough to really get to grips with it. So if they don’t immediately like something, they’ll just move onto the next thing and forget about it.

There’s possibly a shred of truth in this, but then this argument also assumes that we all listened to every CD we bought over and over again, whether we liked them or not, in order to ensure we got the full £13 worth of listening out of them. But, here’s the thing: we didn’t.

Sure, I persevered with Deftones’ fourth album, even though I didn’t like it the first three or four times I listened to it. But if I look at my CD collection, I’ll find lots in there that I simply gave up on. Even if I intended to go back, I’ve never been able to muster the inclination. I just really, really liked Deftones’ previous albums and wasn’t willing to believe they’d delivered a dud.

Conversely, while I’d only been casually interested in Daft Punk’s first album, I loved their second long player from the first time I heard it. Except, after six or seven listens (on CD), I decided, actually, the ratio of quality to filler was not that great and have never listened to it again since. See, it can work both ways.

Your CD collection, should you still have one, is probably littered with things you can’t quite believe you spent money on. And in some cases you probably questioned your own judgement not long after that transaction took place. You might even have taken a CD back to the shop once or twice, a luxury denied us by iTunes et al. Most records have a finite time in your affections, and only a few will remain firm favourites for years or decades of your life. Times change, tastes change.

There are a couple of things that have really got me thinking about this lately. The first was a piece by Pete Paphides, on his blog, claiming that anyone who doesn’t like the new Daft Punk album just isn’t listening to it properly, and the second a piece this week by Sophie Heawood in The Guardian on how getting rid of your entire physical music collection, along with your stereo, and then only listening to low quality streams through laptop speakers, isn’t a great way to experience music.

First, I feel I should point out that I haven’t listened to the new Daft Punk album. Thanks to my experience with the previous album (‘Tron’ soundtrack excepted) I didn’t feel in any rush, and then the massively polarised debate around it, once the record had been unleashed, turned it into A Big Thing You Must Have A Strong Opinion On, and that didn’t sound like much fun to me.

When I do get round to checking out ‘Random Access Memories’, I may or may not listen to it more than once. I probably will give it a few tries, just because I’ve seen a couple of the interviews on YouTube with the duo’s collaborators, and I’m interested in the work that went into making the record. But then again, I might be so turned off by the album on first contact that even that won’t persuade me into repeat listens, because sometimes the process is more interesting than the result. Regardless, I will definitely be listening on Spotify, because this is an album I would never have gone out and bought on spec.

Of course, if you think you’ll enjoy an album more if you’ve paid for it, then that’s fine. But don’t assume I will too. And don’t assume it’s not possible to fall in love with a record you come to through intangible means. Or, indeed, via the marketing or PR department of a record label, which always seems to me like the strongest example of how the playing field has been levelled for everyone in the digital age.

Obviously listening to music through tinny speakers on your laptop is going to be a less pleasant experience. But that’s not how you have to experience digital music. At the very least you could buy some decent headphones. Or you could keep your stereo, plug your laptop into it – it’ll cost about £3 to buy a cable to do that with – and set your Spotify stream to the highest quality.

Or, if laptop speakers are really how you’ve decided you must now listen to all music, you could just think back to the days when you used to happily sing along with badly copied tapes played through the shitty stereo in your old Fiat Uno and pretend you’re back there. Or back at school when you and a friend would split a pair of earphones between you so that one of you got the right channel and the other the left out of your crappy walkman. Nostalgia’s a weird thing.

When stereo records first became available, some complained that it was just a gimmick and that mono was the only way to truly hear music. When CDs came out, they complained that vinyl was still better. I’m sure that when recorded music first became available people said that it was nothing like as good as buying the sheet music and playing it yourself. And, hell, why are we even listening to recordings when you could see the band play it live? All of which are valid arguments (except the one about mono – what the fuck?), but at the same time, ones that can be easily disregarded based on any individual preference.

The problem is, now that people who always wanted to be able to listen to as much music as possible have got everything they ever dreamed of, a lot of them aren’t sure how to deal with it. Almost infinite choice is also a big criticism levelled at digital music, particularly streaming services. When you have most of the world’s music laid out in front of you, apparently – or at least according to Sophie Heawood – you just end up listening to Rihanna albums you don’t even like over and over again. But, I’d argue, if you aren’t listening to music as you think you should be, then you are the problem.

I’m not sure too much choice is a new problem either. When I only had my CD collection available to me, did I always know what I wanted to listen to? Nope. Did I sometimes make a mistake and pick something that, actually, I didn’t really enjoy? Yep. And then, as now, I sometimes managed to muster that inclination to pick something that I’d been avoiding and suddenly had an epiphany that it was, in fact, the greatest thing ever.

The difference now is that the range of music I’m willing to take a punt on is broader because I’m not limited by my resistance to spend money on things I’m worried I won’t like. Sometimes my eagerness to discover something new and exciting means that I probably don’t give as much attention to something else that didn’t immediately grab me. But that’s no different to how it’s always been. There will always be music I listen to over and over and get completely lost in, and there will always be (and always has been) music I listen to once and discard. Rightly or wrongly.

Our access to music may have changed, but what you get out of it still remains your responsibility. If you’d rather buy everything on CD then that’s fine, if you want to listen purely on streaming services then that’s also fine. Neither is wrong, they’re just different. And working out the best way to interact with these changing methods of consumption is still something we’re getting to grips with.

Actually, when it really comes down to it, I’m not sure all this concern about where music is heading is caused by people like me. It’s probably more a manifestation of a fear that in ten or 20 years time The Kids will no longer enjoy music, they’ll just mindlessly let a succession of compressed audio files wash over them, barely even registering what they’re hearing. Or listening to daytime Radio 1, as we used to call it when I was their age.