Listening in fragments – an issue?

With the technological changes in the music industry over the last 20 years have come changes in listening purchasing habits. And I suspect some interesting changes in the world of fans.

I never really purchased vinyl. I was buying cassettes in the 80’s and CD’s in the 90’s. Unlike many people I knew, I never really bought vinyl for its warmer sound or its nostalgic feel. I had a few albums, but they were bought for me by my family. So my experience with music, purchased music at least, was on full length releases. Sure, you could get “singles”. They were (as I remember) more than half the price of the full album and often had only two or three songs. It was more cost effective to buy the whole album. Since the singles often contained unreleased b-sides or extra live tracks, I would get those only if I was a huge fan of the band – usually in a n effort to ensure my collection of their work was complete.

I remember coming home from the record store (Mainstream Music, The Exclusive Co, and Music Stop were my favorite stores) and unwrapping the cellophane. In the earlier days, you had to remove the discs from these long flat cardboard boxes, too. Lots of packaging, but it was definitely a fun experience. I’d take a disc and put it into the player. Maybe play the song I wanted to hear first, but most often just hit “play” and “repeat all”. I’d take the disc in for hours, memorizing each sound – every word – and form favorite tracks and least favorite moments. I’d often fall in love with entire albums right away, laying on my floor, eyes covered, sound being the only sensory stimuli for hours. Knocks on my bedroom door would either go unanswered or get an angry yell out of me. Sometimes I’d have to endure songs I didn’t really like just to get through the disc, but I gave every song a good two or three listens at least. And every now and then I didn’t like the disc. Maybe just one song was good, or maybe the disc provided the context to show me just how crappy that one good song really was.

But this is how I became a fan. This is how Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Radiohead, and so many more bands became a large part of me. And, yes, I mean exactly that. They became a part of me. They seemed to live somewhere in between my chest and my stomach. I couldn’t quite reach the exact spot, but they still live there today. I can feel the music inside me there any time I need it. Some of them live closer to my heart than others. But when any of them visit my town, I’m sure to do my best to get out to see the show.

But I think it’s different for today’s kids. Probably not everyone. But there seems to be a completely different way of listening and experiencing music today. It seems like listening to a collection of songs (an album, let’s call it) is something of the past. That most young people just add songs, one by one, to their playlists or libraries without stopping to consider that maybe this band has other songs they’d like, too. Listening to one song without having the album as context. Without even knowing if that one song was just a lucky shot or part of a much greater well of talent.

It seems to me that I can’t go to a friend who liked Band X’s (a fictional band name – there probably is a Band X somewhere, and to them, I’m sorry) old song and ask if she heard the new one and what she thought, because the band never mattered in the first place. She probably only knows that one song anyway. And she probably wouldn’t care about the new song unless someone was playing it and it happened to catch her attention in much the same way the first song did. And when she realized she liked two songs by the same band it wouldn’t make a difference to her one way or another.

I feel like I can’t discuss music with anyone under a certain age because they don’t have anything to say besides “yeah, I like that song” or “no, it sucked”. I feel like listening to music in this new fragmented way loses a lot. It takes the music out of context. It creates a lack of connection between the listener and the music. It’s like standing in front of a 4 foot painting and looking exclusively at three inches – not even acknowledging the rest of it exists. It’s superficial.

I know not everyone listens to music the same way I always have. I knew people that didn’t listen to whole albums when I was young – but I thought they were weird. What do you think? Am I just not seeing things as they are or is there some shift in the way younger people experience music? Does it make a difference or am I making it out to be too big a deal?


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