Sunday, 10 January 2016

When did you last sit down and listen all the way through an album?

Grazing is the new norm. And that's not good.

Thanks to Acid Pix at Flickr
I was asked this week what album I had listened to most recently, just for pleasure. 

I couldn't name one. I was astonished. 

Back in the day, I always, always, always had an album to champion and play till I wore the grooves out. Now? Not so much. It's far more about the artist. Or the song. Or the video. Or the Facebook like. 

That's a clue right there. Like most of us, I'm not dealing with grooves any more. Now, it's streams. But I think there's a lot more to it than that. And I'm certain I'm not alone. 

So I sat down and thought a bit. Here's what I came up with, after the jump. It's not pretty.

Marketing and demographics

I'm pretty sure that a lot of this has simply to do with age, and the fact that ancients like me don't usefully fit most marketing approaches these days. So, as an ancient, I am not targeted - for music, at least. The people doing the targeting are probably half my age, or less; ancients don't figure in their plan. I think that's a big part of it. But there's more. 

Too much hype 

How many times have you seen blockbuster campaigns for the hottest new album in the world – say, like the torrent of coverage splurged on Adele's perfectly competent album, just in time for Christmas? How many times have you opened Spotify to be told that something vapid and irrelevant to you is trending in your area? Do you still give a toss about the last Bond movie? 

How many times has the music business resorted to dirty tricks to sell their product – from chart-hyping to YouTube number manipulation?

Too many times. 

So I could care less about the next big thing in the paper, where the interview has clearly been set up by a PR company. The formula, despite the best efforts of most journos, is depressingly repetitive. In the long run, nobody wins at this selling game. The real relationship, as always, is between the artist and the listener. Not sales, not image, not the writer's opinion, not celeb gossip – none of that matters. Spare me the froth; I want the meat.

I've heard a lot of this stuff before.

I got sent a stack of new rock albums the other day. They will find their way to the rock DJ at Brum Radio. But out of curiosity, I stuck one on in the car as I drove across town. 

It was an established band from the US; you might well know the name. They play very well indeed, really well. Excellent players. But... there was not a spark of originality on the whole damn album

I could have been listening to this 40 years back, doing rock shows at the old BRMB. The only difference was that the musicianship was a lot better, and the album was vastly better recorded, at least from a technical point of view. But the ideas were stuck in a time warp. And I'm sorry to say that a lot of indie bands are just as guilty as these rock warhorses; same goes for much rap.

This is not to denigrate anyone who is making their music for the first time, and following in the footsteps of their inspirations. For them, and often for their audiences, it's thrilling, intense, fresh and vital. I applaud and encourage that. Long may it continue. Why? Because you never know where people will go, and how far they will develop from the familiar beginnings everyone starts out from.

The hype don't work. Where do I go for new music?

It used to be the radio. It's not any more. Certainly, there are decent shows to be found, even whole stations like 6music, and there are creative internet operations. I contribute to one of them, Brum Radio. I listen online, on a tablet, because that's easiest. I'd love to be able to pick up 6music when I drive, but I don't have a digital or online-equipped car radio.

Smartphones are not the new transistor radio

So why not take it with you and listen on a smartphone? Because the smartphone doesn't do the same thing. It distracts you rather than accompanies you. It is way more than a tranny radio. As a kid, I could take my favourite pirate station with me wherever I went. The impact was huge. The radio did just one thing – it pumped music out, for free. The phone goes everywhere, and radio is just part of the offer. And radio streams simply, tragically, can't compete with Facebook gossip or dumb videos of people falling over.

CDs are not over yet, but they are not what they were.

So let's get back to records. When do I listen to CDs these days? Not that much. I'm more likely to go find a track in Spotify that turn round and scrabble though my badly catalogued collection. I listen to CDs when I need to, when it's convenient: when I'm in the car. Or when I'm spotting though something new to evaluate it. Not otherwise. I'm off to Spotify or YouTube. And I hate Spotify's goopy sales pitches.

But here's the thing. It's a big thing. CDs changed the way we listen to albums, forever. We started to edit our selections because, all of a sudden, it was dead easy.

Skipping and cherry-picking is now the norm.

You've got a CD in the player. Here comes a bum track. It doesn't grab you in ten seconds, because you are so busy in your new distractified world. So you hit Skip. And you miss that killer moment that comes 45 seconds in. 

Tell me the last time you stuck with an album all the way through on your phone? Internet delivery of our entertainment, especially when controlled by mega-corporations, means we've lost the ability to sit down and take something in, the way the artist wants us to.

Artists want to do albums because they have lots of things to say; they have sets-full of songs; they frame their work in that timespan, and that's exactly right and proper. 

But there's a wall of distraction coming at us all the time, and it gets in the way between us and the artist. We buy these cheery glittery bits of entertainment, uncritically. I'm guilty of this, and I know lots of other people are too.

I'm so done with vinyl.

Sorry, newbie vinyl fans: vinyl is a pain. It's heavy, it takes up space. It's very easy to damage. I don't like records that jump on vinyl any more than jumpy stuttering CDs. Certainly, the format meant that you are at least encouraged to listen all the way through a side of 20 minutes or so before flipping the record over. But I feel no need to obsess over a rediscovered format which has been sexed up to shift units at sometimes very silly prices. Sure, the analogue sound can be warmer. But if you want real warm analogue sound, go listen to someone playing live. In the meantime I can do without the record industry selling me its product all over again in yet another must-have format.

I get more of a kick from live performances 

This is a very personal standpoint. I guess that's why I spend more time than ever watching live music. If you're at a festival, you're there for the duration. So you can be open to surprises, the way it used to be when you bought albums. 

It's the same with a decent support act you'd never heard of before. Sure, somebody has picked the act – a promoter, a club manager, an enthusiast. But the act then has to go out and play. And the relationship I talked about starts to blossom and grow. It also works, beautifully, on YouTube, where there are fabulous live videos to catch.

So now we're grazers. And we're never satisfied

So, that's the long and short of it. Like everyone else, I've become a grazer. I munch and move on. I pick up on something on Facebook from a pal, which might take take me to YouTube or Soundcloud, and from there, I'm off picking my way through algorythms and hopefully finding something new. 

Song by song. 

That's the way our entertainment industry likes it: uncritical grazing and distraction, forever with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction that there isn't something even more glittery waiting on your next click. There's precious little room for albums in our digital world, methinks. And that's an awful. shame, not least for those artists who have a body of work to present.

If course that's not to say that tomorrow I'll pick up an album and be completely blown away, and I'll live with it for a month. I hope it happens. But I'm not holding my breath. 

You may well disagree. If so, have at it – I'd love to hear from you.


A wand'ring bass, I....

Last week's post on Ranter Richard March, his stolen bass, and his community of pals who clubbed together to get him out of a jam generated absolutely huge numbers by the standards of this tiny little blog. But late last week came the news that Richard has been reunited with his bass. It was unscratched. The thieves dumped it in the street, because they knew it would be difficult to fence. They kept his amplifier, though. 

So now, Richard will donate funds raised to a charity, He welcomes your suggestions if you kicked in to his fund. He's on facebook, here.

Ain't life grand sometimes?


Radio To Go on Brum Radio 

Mon 11th, 10pm: In The Studio with Kris Halpin
Tue 12th, 4pm: Big Wheels: Roy Williams pt1
Wed 13th, 11pm: Live & Local: Ricky Cool & The In Crowd at the Roadhouse 
Friday 15th, 4 pm: Muso Takeover with Anna Bennett and Hannah Fathers from Boat To Row

Brum Radio is in test transmissions now. After their first airing, these shows can be found on Brum Radio's Mixcloud page.

All Radio To Go shows aired on Brum Radio are listed on the blog, here.  


I'd love you to sign up to the mailing list 

The Radio To Mailing list is the best way I can keep in touch with you, and you with me. You get a short email, usually on Mondays, with big recent topics, and, once in a while, a special offer or a mailing list exclusive freebie. And I won't pass your address on, promise.

Put your email address in the box below, and you're all set. 



Unknown said...

Whilst sharing your enthusiasm for live music, Robin, I still find myself listening to the occasional album. It's probably partly due to my lack of technological expertise that I rely on relatively old-fashioned technology, but there may also be some other motivations:
1. To complement/extend the live experience by buying a CD at a gig and then listening to it. So lately I've enjoyed listening to Kim Lowings and The Greenwood's "Historia", Chris Cleverley's "Apparitions", Boat To Row's "I Found You Here", ....
2. Receiving a CD from a friend by way of recommendation. Towards the end of last year, I sat down and was mesmerised by Madredeus' "Antologia"- I'd never come across them before, and the full album was definitely worth the investment of time to listen.
3. Not so common these days, but over the years I've gained a lot from listening to what used to be known as "Sampler Albums" as a way of finding new music (usually within a given genre). A recent example was "Where The Light is Strong" showcasing some of the local musicians who perform at The Tower of Song (-ok, most of them weren't new to me, but it's not quite the same category as buying a CD of a particular artist).

Radio To Go said...

Hi Tony

I agree with all this. Many of the recent albums I've bought have been directly through attending gigs. But that simply highlights my point about the artist-listener relationship. It's one of the real drivers in music development. It's what the music business seems to manipulate. But they are interested in getting a sale. After that, hey, it's tail-end marketing.

Loz Lozwold said...

The only place I listen to complete albums now is the car. The rot set in with the CD and the skip function. MP3 made it worse. Then playlists.

Rod Gilchrist said...

Sad thing is that there are few albums these days that warrant playing in full, and anyway, with vinyl you played them in two a little project I've put together a one track per year compilation for the last 50 years, mainly stuff that had particular resonance for me, and while playing around with it actually listened to a whole lot of full albums I'd not listened to in their full form for many years...for the record (no pun intended) there are quite a few albums that I regularly listen to in full, probably my most played is "Blue Desert - by Marc Jordan - ©1979" at home, and in the car, on vinyl at home!

Ben Calvert said...

The last album that I listened to all the way through was Tender Buttons by Broadcast. That was last weekend. I know it's a bit of post-modern tongue-in-cheek statement on that slipmat, but the truth is that there is no MP3 industry to speak of. Is there? I still make more cash from physical sales of albums than sales of mp3s or streams.

Julian Crook said...

I went out on Friday and bought the new Bowie album on the day of release from a proper record shop (cd admittedly) - came home, ripped it and put on my iPod, then sat down at the end of the evening and played it end to end, twice ... just like the old days ... the only downside was the fact that some of it creeped me out before bed, but hey that's art.

Radio To Go said...

And pleased to read this. That said, Julian, you are demonstrating old habits, and you are listening to an old artist from the old days. That's how we used to do it when we were kids. Except for the ripping to iPod bit.

Unknown said...

Interesting reading as always. I decided a couple of years ago to set myself a task of buying 3 CDs a month of new music and trying where possible to buy artists I hadn't got in my collection thus far. It's based on what friends have recommended, what I hear on 6 Music, the occasional review, some from gigs, and I have a good local indie record shop who are always free with their own suggestions. I sync them onto a mp3 for convenience although I still enjoy shuffling it's good to hear them through as intended. I still like owning the physical product too.Maybe it's the nerdish discipline of it but I've discovered some cracking music - 2015 e.g. from Irish thrash punk (Girl Band), Kendrick Lamar to melodic singer songwriters like Marry Waterson and Martin Courtney. So a few days until pay day, any suggestions for January?

Christopher Woods said...

I can't just dip into an album, I have to listen to the whole thing. I also need to be in the mood to listen to it, so sometimes one or two albums don't leave my Now Playing list (digital or CD) for many hours.

I accept I'm in a declining minority... But I'm hoping people will slow realise (again) the value of listening at length when they get bored with constantly dipping. An album's usually a wonderfully curated thing that deserves our attention.