When I was a kid, our family had a console we played music on. It had a radio, a turntable and, of course stereo speakers. Back then, the dominant audio format was vinyl recordings of various speeds (i.e., 33 rpm, 45 rpm, and 78 rpm). I didn’t know that the faster one rotated records meant better fidelity. But considering how sound quality wasn’t an issue for my young ears, I just liked that you could hear records at different speeds — well, I mean at speeds they weren’t supposed to be played on. My brother Steve used to like to sit in front of the speakers and listen to music. I guess he liked what he heard so much, he’d sometimes gnaw on the wood of the console. I may have been guilty of that, too. But as I grew older, I did like sitting in our living room (in front of the speakers) and listen to records. I didn’t have much musical preference, but I did grow to love an album by The Beach Boys called “Spirit of America” when I was about 8 or 9.
Later, after the console gave up the ghost, my father bought one of those home stereos that had individual components and was in a cabinet where you’d stack the receiver, equalizer, cassette player and record player. The sound quality was so much better than our old console, and by then I was probably listening to a lot of early New Wave and rock (now classic rock).
It was certainly an upgrade, but I still listened to music roughly the same way I did when I was cutting my teeth on that console. I didn’t sit in front of the speakers, but I did sit down in the living room to put on a record or cassette and just kind let it all wash over me — while I studied the cover art and read the liner notes of the LPs or cassette.
Those days, however, are long gone. I’m not sure if people listen to music in a more passive way anymore. Sure, making music portable to play when you’re active has been with us for a long time. Car radios have been part of the music landscape since the 1930s. While transistor radios came later (developed in the ’40s and ’50s, but really popular in the ’60s and ’70s), the idea that people could have pre-programmed music on the go was certainly novel and embraced in a radio culture.
And then, as technology got better, so did effort to improve portability and sound quality:
Nowadays, it’s about being in a silo of media that you choose to consume in a portable way. It’s not just audio, but video, games, text, two-way video communication, and…oh yeah, using a telephone.
What’s missing in this? I would say that as the pull for one’s attention increases via smartphones and tablets, the less we tend to immerse ourselves music without distraction. The “deep listening” that I used to do is a rarity. I’m always doing something else when I’m listening to music. Driving, cooking, exercising, looking at my phone, sitting on BART. It’s rare that I put a CD in the player or stream some audio without engaging in some activity. For many artists, I think they’d love it if their audience would try to take in what they see and hear in such a way that they are not reaching for their phones to snap a picture and post something to social media as a “sharable” moment. But that’s not the culture we live in. We share these moments in an ecosystem that’s designed to be fleeting. Endless scrolling means you’re only taking in a small amount of what you’re being fed. Maybe that creates short attention spans. Maybe it cheapens experiences to the point that we’re not all that impressed by what humans create as much as we are by what we share with each other.
When was the last time you really sat down and played a musical recording (doesn’t matter what format) and just…listened to what was coming out of the speakers?