The other day I was at work making small talk with a fellow co-worker. I had given him the latest album by The Black Keys when it was released in May, and I asked him if he still listens to the record.
“Maybe for the first week I gave it a few spins, and then I went back to my usual way of listening to music,” he said.
“What’s your usual way of listening to music?” I wondered.
“Well, maybe it’s all the years I’ve been in radio, but I only like to listen to music on shuffle mode. Albums kind of bore me.”
“Huh. I guess we can thank CDs and the Internet for the shift in listening habits,” I added.
“Yeah. I remember the days of going to record shops and just flipping through the racks and finding records that I bought just because the cover art looked so strange or funny,” He mused.
“Going to the record store…now that’s something that’s become a bit of a niche market,” I opined. “It’s now the province of hipsters and old farts like me.”
“Yeah, the Internet has given most of us A.D.D. and it seems we can’t just listen to an entire record without getting antsy and wanting to see what else is on, he said.
“Well, I’ve devoted more time to listening to entire albums — mostly in the car — but I have to admit that when I’m cooking or riding my bike, my playlist is on shuffle mode,” I said.
We both had to get back to the proverbial salt mines, but our little conversation reminded me that despite what was said, the era of the long play record (i.e., LPs, albums, or “33s”) is not over. It’s still a popular format, but it seems those who are purchasing LPs/vinyl are buying the back catalogue of established or classic bands. Sure, many artists now release 180 gram vinyl at vastly inflated prices to entice consumers with promises that it will sound better — but a lot of that depends on your sound system. If you have a good turntable, tuner and speakers, 180 gram vinyl will sound infinitely better than shitty mp3s (which gives you about ten percent of the audio recorded in the studio because it compresses the audio signal to a compact size that can be delivered as a download in very little time). However, if you have a good external speaker for your phone or mp3 player, your shitty mp3s will sound better than FM radio — but that’s not saying much.
The sad truth is that most people don’t mind mediocre sound. Whether it’s those cheap record players my grade school had when I was a kid:
They all pumped out pretty mediocre to lousy sound — but it was good enough for most ears. That kind of changed with the era of the stereo system. You know, those devices you’d buy to really make the music come alive in the comfort of your home (or bedroom). While this isn’t the brand of stereo we had, we did have one of these rack systems that made our LPs sound pretty good — plus you could make cassette tape (and mix tapes) dubs with these systems.
But even these systems varied in quality, and often times you were sold a piece of crap that sounded marginally better than the old family console.
With the advent of the CD (and the player’s shuffle mode option), listeners were given the ability to hear records in a new way: re-ordering the songs in a random sample that disrupted what the artist intended for the listener to hear. Sure, they were all the same songs, but now you could hear them in a completely different order because your player would allow you to do so. And, if you had the patience, you could program the disc to omit certain songs that you found, um, not to your liking — which further altered the long play listening experience the artist produced. Sure, with LPs, you could get up off your bed, walk over to the record player, lift the needle, and drop it down on or near the song you really wanted to hear, but people can be lazy, and most would just endure the annoyance of a song to get to the one they really wanted to hear.
The effect the CD had on listening habits eroded the experience of listening to an entire record. With players that held more than one CD at a time, you could load up five discs, hit shuffle, and see what magic (or train wrecks) came out of your speakers. Once the Internet evolved into what it is today, it just intensified the shuffle mode experience into a giant jukebox that had infinite plays. You can skip songs you don’t like in favor of landing on the one that strikes your fancy, and it requires very little effort (unless your idea of “effort” is tapping a screen). Now that we’re all DJs playing to an audience of one, the album experience seems quaint. Why listen to an entire record when there’s so much more that’s out there waiting to be consumed and discarded in a flash. Why savor something when you can binge at the musical buffet? After all, you’ve already paid for the computer and the Internet connection for this all-you-can-eat experience, so why waste your time with just one artist’s record?
This brings me back to the long play record, and the kind anti-Internet listening habits that come with it. The albums I’ve listened to over and over for a few months are the latest by Robert Plant, The New Pornographers, The Black Keys, and Beck. Prince just released two new records, and I’ve given them a few spins, but one thing I’ve noticed with the long play experience: it has brought back the pleasure of listening to the “deep cuts” and paying attention to the production of an album. After all, these artists want you to hear the musicianship that went into producing these records and enjoy the songs that (hopefully) affect you on a deeper level. Maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic, but the effect of listening to one album at a time has given me a longer attention span that allows me to really absorb a record like I did in my salad days when I bought a couple of albums a week and truly listened to every track.