How We Listen

And the failed promise of files

How we listen to music in 2020 differs significantly from how it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. And it differs from how we’ll listen in the future, doubtlessly. Over at an online, public discussion board where I regularly participate, someone introduced a conversation about how we listen right now. My initial sense was I listen on varied services today, whereas during the distant past of relative youth my listening was more unified. Then I began to do some forensics — that is, I thought before I typed my contribution to the discussion — and what I found differed from what I expected:

The Past: When I was growing up, I listened through four main ways: (1) the AM/FM radio in my bedroom, (2) the boombox cassette player (later with an LP player hooked into it) in my bedroom, (3) my parents’ LP/cassette player in the living room, and (4) MTV on the living room television. (Eventually a cassette Walkman and a CD player joined the mix. And later on: a CD Walkman.)

The Present: I set down that list to contrast it with the present. By definition, the present is more in flux than the past. These days, I note, it’s easier to categorize my listening habit by technology than by location. Someone replied in that same discussion that the transition “from place-based listening to product-based listening” is worth reflecting on. I agreed: I think the phone and the laptop are my main sources of distancing from music listening in this regard. Locations have disappeared because there is no spatial distinction. Sitting in the living room without either my phone or my laptop is a luxury I rarely take up — outside the house, even less so. By way of example, I typed my part of that chat on my phone as I walked to the barbershop. (For further example, three people at the barbershop were playing some racing game together on their own phones, as if the barbershop were their living room.) In any case, what follows is where my listening habit stands in mid-February 2020. It may change. It will. And I do need to treat my living room more like a cultural Faraday cage.

Laptop: Browser (SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube, etc.), plus a desktop Google Play Music (GPM gets me ad-free YouTube) application, plus an endless array of files that I have long since failed to keep organized. I play the files in VLC. (I would like something less clunky looking than VLC.) And there’s a CD player hooked up to my laptop, though I use it less to listen directly than to rip files (FLAC, thanks for asking) that I then listen to.

Phone: Same as laptop, minus the files (and less frequent SoundCloud).

iPad: Same as phone. (I have also gotten into setting up wholly unoriginal, very simple generative stuff that I think of as the semi-intentional releases of the software developers, but that’s a side topic.)

Other: Stereo in living room (LP, CD, cassette — though the cassette player is unplugged at the moment due to spatial constraints).

Notable Absence: I don’t really listen to podcasts. This may or may not relate to the fact that I don’t really listen to much music with words/voices in it. I do listen to a lot of audiobooks.

The Future: I am fine listening in lots of different places and formats. To be clear: I’m not really in any major way disappointed in my listening habits. The primary corrective fixation I have is the failed promise of digital files. I have a ton, and do not revisit them the way I do other formats. I want to have a better handle on my file-based listening. I’ve been on the hunt for a good cross-platform (iOS, Android, Windows in my current case, though it’ll inevitably change) options. I sometimes think a standalone portable device is a good idea for me. The MP3 player, once ubiquitous, is now such an antiquated concept that when I ponder it, my brain translates it into “a Kindle for music.” (I don’t have a Kindle. I’m waiting for when the Paperwhite gets the inevitable upgrade to adjustable warm light.) That said, I don’t really want to carry one more thing.

2 thoughts on “How We Listen

  1. Does listening to music played live by musicians count as ‘listening’? Does listening to myself making music count as ‘listening’?

    1. Certainly. I hope it’s pretty clear I’m talking about prerecorded music, but like I note in the bit up above about generative music in iOS apps, ultimately any discussion of listening can be folded in. My emphasis here, though, is prerecorded music: fixed documents, as it were, arguably with an emphasis on “longform,” in contemporary terms, or its precedent term: the long-playing record album (aka LP). That’s what the initial discussion forum was about, and that’s where my head’s at.

      I can’t say I spend a heap of time watching live streams of people performing, even though the YouTube accounts I follow do prompt and tempt me frequently. I do, though, watch some of those live sets after the fact, which gets at temporal blurring akin to the locative blurring mentioned in the piece. All of which said, if one’s primary experience of listening these days is solely live at concerts, that’s awesome, but sort of apart from what I’m exploring.

      And I’ve been taking guitar lessons for two years, and fiddling with a modular synth for half a decade or so. They’re a big part of my life, and I think I’d put them adjacent to rather than within this discussion. But that’s just me.

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