What Are You Listening To?

A while back I was listening to a Boiler Room conversation between Jack Adams (aka Mumdance) and Olly Peryman (aka Fis) when I was struck by the latter’s outlook on music. During the chat, Peryman reflects fondly on choice moments his dad listened to music; moments that, since the passing of his wife, had become rare due to the demands of managing the family alone. Adams goes on to recall his first meeting with Peryman, when he simply remarked that he’d been listening to what was around him on the way to Adams’ house.

Cue sighs of “not another mindful hippy,” but bear with me. It struck me how rare it is to decide to actually listen to music rather than to see it as a time-filling distraction. I began to ask myself: is how we listen to music more important than what we’re listening to?

I’m a consumer. By continuing to buy CDs and fervently collect records, I’m a materialistic one to boot. You might be thinking - is he passionate about music or has he just passionately indulged in something to keep him busy? Looking at my shelf, there are plenty of records I haven’t listened to in ages, so I guess you might be right. No doubt though, I’d still be in this predicament if I was subscribed to Apple Music or Spotify, only worse, since I’d have access to more music and the added ease of listening to new music at any time, in any place. 

Nowadays music is one of the most passively consumed art forms in existence. Visual pieces such as Frank Ocean’s ‘Endless’ and Bjork’s virtual reality exhibition at Somerset House bridged the visual and the auditory in a way that encouraged intimate audience engagement, but these successes are nigh on impossible for less financially mobile artists to imitate. Instead, they have to come to terms with the knowledge that their music is being consumed, more often than not, on laptop speakers, or through tinny headphones on a crowded commute. 

Poster for the Tate's Wolfgang Tilmans exhibition.

Poster for the Tate's Wolfgang Tilmans exhibition.

This year’s Wolfgang Tillman’s exhibition at the Tate Modern featured a room dedicated purely to listening to his favourite album on a good hi-fi system. It was a comment on the sad fact that, despite the time artists spend painstakingly recording, mixing and mastering their albums, most of their work will be listened to through an inadequate medium. Painters, sculptors, photographers and graphic designers have museums to exhibit their studio pieces in, but this doesn’t apply to musicians. There is no space for us to hear music ‘as it was intended’, only venues to hear live performances, the individual experience of which can be inhibited or enhanced by a wide variety of factors. Too often we treat music as a soundtrack to the main event, rather than as an event in and of itself. 

It would be easy to blame streaming services for this lack of attention we give music. The sheer quantity of music they bring opens up a floodgate through which a colossal swamp of tripe flows, drowning out the quality and leaving us gargling the muck to stay afloat. But we also have to hold ourselves accountable. Think how many times you’ve plugged in on your commute and - as if you’ve just taken some of Mustapha Mond’s soma - found yourself able to zone out from the monotony of the journey or the chaos of a swelling crowd? We expect to be distracted all the time and music has been hit hardest by this attitude, forcing it to become a numbing pleasure lacking any connection with the listener. We’ve stopped noticing the difference between when we’re actually listening to it and when it's just...on.

Sam Kidel. Disruptive Muzak

Sam Kidel. Disruptive Muzak

Sam Kidel, ahead of his Disruptive Muzak show at Cafe Oto, spoke to The Quietus about muzak, a term which originally signified ambient music for capitalist spaces, but which Kidel argues can now be an umbrella term for any music used to sell. By Kidel’s redefinition, muzak can be heard blaring through the speakers at TopShop, soundtracking the unveiling of the newest Porsche on TV, or interrupting the flow of a streamed Spotify album. No matter whether it’s created specifically for this function, or whether it’s been approved by a commercial artist, the intent is still the same: music is used as an aide to consumption. Imagine if galleries suddenly went pitch black during exhibitions to announce the latest Netflix series. Unthinkable. Yet for some reason, when it happens to our favourite album, we don’t bat an eyelid.

So how can we improve the way we listen? For me, radio has been an important remedy. When we listen to the radio, our experience is entrusted to a host much like the curator of an art exhibition. Streaming service playlists are generated for a functional purpose; they provide us with only what we ‘want’ to hear, to umbrella songs by sound or mood with the added convenience of skipping through them as you please. With radio we inevitably have to sit through songs we don’t like and the sign of a good host is someone who has the guts to play an eclectic range and present it in an inviting way. We don’t expect to walk into an art exhibition and like every single stage of the artist’s work or every picture, yet we might still come out of it at least acknowledging what the artist was trying to do. Equally, with radio, we’re forced to actually spend time with the music, giving it space to breathe, and ourselves opportunity to listen and to critique.

I think back to how I’d chat about music at school: my friends and I would slate one album, go wild over another, share CDs, split earphones, watch the music channels together. The engagement was there because music wasn’t being used to fill a void. If one person hadn’t listened to an album it didn’t matter because a friend had and, if it was noteworthy, they’d pass it on. People tend to reflect more fondly on their teenage tastes than their later ones because now they listen to music alone, either as a cure for their angst on a commute or to fuel their drab productivity at work. Their music isn’t discovered, it’s handed to them on a plate, or rather in a McDonald’s bag and scoffed on the train. Kidel poignantly references Theodor Adorno, who spoke of music as “a distraction from shared pain”, reflecting that we all need the comfort it provides. I’d argue that music can do both: it can be comforting and stimulating, its subject matter ripe for discussion amongst friends, its emotion keenly felt and shared.

Whether we buy music or stream it isn’t important, but how we choose to engage with it is. Just as cinemas and exhibitions prohibit phones, let’s try and do the same with our music and limit our distractions. It may mean that we get through less music, but it will help us, collectively, to stop seeing music as something to be ‘got through’, like a box of Chicken McNuggets, or a Netflix binge. This way, we’ll stop music from becoming the life-numbing drug that it was never supposed to be.