Do you remember the first time? Music and the rise of the ‘scented candle’
I grew up listening to Pulp.
I vividly remember lying outside my older sisters’ bedroom as she played Different Class from her multi-CD changer Hi-Fi, while I pushed myself up against her door, devouring Jarvis’ every word. Outside, unbeknown to my sister, I was recording the music onto a battered plastic tape loaded into my bright-red stereo system. The music, the words, they were made to be contemplated, they had a rare quality and, at ten years old, had an unquantifiable value to me.
I started university in 2006, fresh from a home still using a dial-up internet connection. Within the first month at the University of Sussex I received Jarvis Cocker’s new solo album on Compact Disc in the post. I hadn’t purchased any new music since the summer so with genuine excitement I inserted the CD into the deck, put on my prized Sennheiser headphones and lay back and imbued each one of the 13 songs from the start through to the bonus song: placed 13 minutes after the end of the final track. Within the next few weeks I discovered the multitude of music available online through something I came to understand as a torrent. It fundamentally changed the way I listened to music and, I fear, for the worse.
So, why am I writing about these incredibly inconsequential events that have some sentimental value to me but mean nothing to the reader? Yes, there has been much research looking at the implications of the internet on the music industry, falling album sales and (some) artists and record companies raging against the illegal accessibility of their music online. There has also been a plethora of academic work studying the affects of modern computer interfaces, search engines and multi-tasking on the brain. I am writing as I wish to add my (again, inconsequential) opinion to the field with how I feel that new media has depleted our ability to truly appreciate music and in turn the way we value each track (note how I say track rather than album).
This juncture brings me back to Jarvis Cocker. Yesterday (Sunday 16 October) the Yorkshire born St Martin’s graduate and voice of a generation was quoted in the Guardian as viewing the way the music is consumed today as ‘like a scented candle…it sets the mood’ leaving your ‘brain free to do something else’. This shocked me into action, it was against my sensibilities as a music lover that I would interact with music in such a flippant manner. I realised that while I downloaded Jarvis’ newest album, I could not even tell you the name of the album, let alone whether it even has a bonus track at the end. Jarvis Cocker is correct, I am not truly listening anymore.
I am not writing this article as a nostalgic ode to the gramophone, record player, tape deck, mini-disc or the CD. To me, the materiality of the object is in the grand scale just a redundant result of technology and capitalism and I have no love for physically hunting down and holding a beautiful rare 7″ in my hands. However, the concept that interests me is how the ‘itunes’ listening experience creates a shift in the relation we have to the artists and the listening experience itself. From each of the previously mentioned formats the shift from one to the next did not change the process with which involved the human. They all required the human to go through the same set of events: walking to a store and purchasing object A, placing it in object B and pressing the play button. As we move from CD to the MP3 this has changed. All we have to do now is press the play (and even now just through a mouse).
A wave of adverts claim that modern gadgets and technologies get things done faster and so free you up to do what you want. Indeed, the iPhone 4s operates as your own personal assistant, feeding you information at your will, walking you through unknown cities and organising your next meeting. Furthermore the nature of my iPod Classic and it’s 160gb capacity (circa 30 000 songs) means that I no longer have to select 20 CDs to take with me on my trip to work or school, I now can take all of my music anywhere at anytime. Indeed, at a push of a button I can initiate the iPhone to play me any music I desire. I still passionately enjoy music and it is more instantly and spatially available than ever before, so why am I (and the rest of my music-loving generation) not specifically listening and taking the time for music anymore?
The first concept that I came across when trying to understand why my brain v music relationship has become so strained was the idea of rivalrous consumption v nonrivalrous consumption (Katz, 2004:163). With all the aforementioned media forms if you purchased a CD, record then it became less available to someone else. The MP3 is nonrivalrous, one can copy it an unlimited amount of times without a depletion in quality. The ease of access and the unlimited copies of the product available changes ones relationship to the music and artists. There are many that laud new technologies and their ability to open us up to many new artists and make access to music universal and more equal. Indeed, I am downloading and listening to a much broader amount of music myself and in personal experience it does lend itself to consuming a much wider range of genres. Katz romanticises this slightly, illustrating a ‘divergent approach’ to music listening where people can find music according to key terms (typing in ‘rain’ may offer you music that replicates rain as an audio file as well as ones which sing about it in the song), offering the user a new way of finding music ‘which cannot be duplicated in the physical world (2004:168).
Yes, this means we are listening to a greater amount of music and with a more diverse perspective but if you take Carr’s view of consumption of written text in Is Google Making us Stupid, it is a ‘different kind of’ listening’ (2008). Modern listening means we are now listening to one or two songs from a given album and skipping onto something else (2004:168), creating a generation of ‘power listeners’. If we transfer Carr’s stance on how reading has changed, digital based music consumption encourages more listening but the format the music appears means our brains are ‘disengaged’ (2008). Indeed if we take Carr’s premise that ‘when the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image’ you can see how music has changed (2008). When we listen to a song on Spotify, Last FM, iTunes we are being constantly linked and directed to similar artist that we may like. The psychological result ‘is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration’ (Carr, 2008), thus neatly explaining my inability to recall any details about the last record released by one of my greatest musical heroes. Maybe this suggests that a return to a listening style which prioritises how we consume rather than what and how much we consume would be favourable.
The portability of the MP3’s and the iPhone as music listening platform has had far reaching effects. We now listen to music on the train on the way to work, when waiting at a post office, while Facebooking our friends: we are never just listening to music. Indeed, the iPhone embodies the possibilities of managing several tasks at once while on the move. Multi tasking is increasing and is permeating our media consumption on every level, whether at home or in public. While it can be argued that we still have the option and agency to do one thing at a time, one only needs to refer back to is Google Making us Stupid? to see that our power over our brain and actions is only so powerful. One blogger nicely sums up the reasons we no why we no longer focus on music:
50 years ago, music was the primary choice of entertainment by default. There were no videogames, cable tv with hundreds of channels, Movies on Demand, PPV, DVDs, blu-ray discs, Tivo/DVRs etc. All these new entertainment mediums are vying for your time, money and attention. It should come as no surprise that sitting to listen to music is almost passe for most people (May 16 2010).
Along with portability, Katz argues that music has changed in that it is no longer part of the real world, being more akin to to the ‘world of ideas than the world of things’ (2004:163). Indeed the physicality of our relationship has depleted. We no longer stand up, walk out the door and walk home with the album of choice. It is no longer linked with our daily lives and actions, it now enters our lives through the click of a button and pixels on a screen. Unless we go and see the band live, there is no individualised, physical experience which connects us to the music. Furthermore, with music being ubiquitously free, it no longer relates to our physical daily lives. I remember at 17 spending nearly all of my income earned at working at the John Lewis department stores on the 500+ CDs albums I now own at home. This encouraged me to sit and listen to every song on every album as I could quantify that CD as being worth the 2 hours I spent helping old men try on shoes. I am not suggesting that I deserve that experience more than someone without capital but it definitely changes the way I listen. Finally, music used to have a physical presence in our homes. When you walk into my bedroom in the UK you see my record player, classic wooden speakers and towers of CDs. Music was a tangible part of our daily environment, however cumbersome and space hungry it was. Today in the Netherlands all I see is the cloned, silver MacBook, permanently removing the immediacy of music from my home.
The affect of the nature of the individualised world of ‘mac’ media consumption can be applied to understanding why our relationship to music has changed. I feel an idea that Katz puts forward is quite illuminating, he says that ‘downloaders enjoy..the flexibility to customize their musical experience’ (2004:168). Indeed, music is now a personalised experience. One one pick and choose songs from artists from a cross of genres and nationalities to create what I see as the modern album, the playlist. Furthermore, the ease and low cost of access to personal recording and mixing allows bedroom DJs and musicians to edit, respond to and broadcast versions of songs that have been released (songs which incurred thousands of record-company dollars to release), encouraging a more narcissistic and interactive listening experience. While these occurrences do have fantastic upsides and a wonderfully democratic framework, this does make music consumption more about the consumer than the artist. One record shop owner in Manhatten underlines that today ‘people’s connection to artists are maybe not as deep’. When we listen we are not considering the music anymore so much as ourselves.
The changing way in which humans access and can access music coupled with the design of music software and hardware, the constant physical movement of modern lifestyles and the neurological affect that digital media consumption has definitely limited our (or at least my own) ability to truly listen to and consider music. Indeed, the last few hours of my life have been spent writing this piece with Morrissey playing largely into my subconscious. The design of iTunes software meaning that I am not even spurred into consciousness by the sound of a CD reader gliding back into its dock after 40+ minutes of digital reading and requesting my attention. Each album has seamlessly passed onto the next, unnoticed by a most ardent fan. I realise that if I grew up with this relationship with music then I would never be able to recall how I first experienced Pulp.
All is not lost, however. I do not for a moment desire a return to the record player but changes in the way software is designed could really make a difference. Contemplate the possibility of visually ‘loading’ an MP3 album into a nicely designed music player on the desktop, delivering the return of some kind of physical relationship between the album and the listening experience. When the album ends, the music stops and the user must contemplate what they wish to listen to next. Agency and a level of engaged physicality is returned. Furthermore, the active agency of the listeners themselves can allow the full value of a song or artist back into the relationship by just compartmentalising ones media consumption. Look away from the screen, find a dark corner, let the music pay around rather than at you. Indeed, I will publish this article and try, for the first time in a very long time, to close my laptop, turn on my iPod and listen to Pulp’s Different Class from start until finish. I will not check Facebook, I will not Tweet, I will not even glance down at the glaring lights of my (11th and rising) Apple device. I will shut my eyes, appreciate, contemplate and remember the first time.
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Nicolas Carr, ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’, The Atlantic (July/August 2008), http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/
Mark Katz (2004) Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music. USA:University of California Press