Thursday, January 03, 2013

Who still lives the long-playing life?

In the fifties and sixties pictures like this one were staples of the greetings card trade. The teen couple whiling away their time with a limitless supply of long-playing records was a dream of the age.

The figures reported by the music business yesterday weren't altogether bad. People are buying downloads in greater numbers than ever (at this stage in the game it would be surprising if they weren't) but they're buying the tracks they want and leaving the rest at the side of their plate. It's a singles market, the singles often elected by the buyer at the point of purchase, not by the industry. Volume sales of both digital and physical albums declined by 11% in a year. People spend less time listening to one artist for a sustained period. The record industry is heavily invested - financially, creatively, nostalgically and emotionally - in a format, the 45-minute album, which the first business consultant off the rank could tell you appears to be an obsolete medium.

One of the reasons it's obsolete is because the grandchildren of the couple in the picture above don't set aside the time for the sustained listen which the long playing record demands. One of the things that helped the long playing record flourish was that there was such a thing as not much else to do. Entire days of it. Rushing into that vacuum came all those huge selling records of the 70s. You'd come back to your student flat every evening and play the same fifty albums again and again, not least because there was no radio in the place and certainly no TV. There were great albums, of course, which is one prerequisite for an albums boom, but there were also plenty of time, which begged to be whiled away in album-shaped denominations.

That's the thing that strikes me about all those end of the year lists of ten (ten!) albums of 2012. Who's actually listening to all these albums all the way through more than once and where are they getting the time? If they've elected ten then presumably they must have listened to fifty all the way through more than once.  How? With more TV and radio than ever before and the advent of the Great Time Waster the internet? I can only conclude that it must be their job or they don't have a job. How else could they clear the time? And do they still sprawl on the carpet just like the couple above?


  1. I was trying to explain this to my nephews over Christmas. I asked them when they had last or had they ever listened to a whole album by an artist from start to finish, in the artists chosen order, in one go? They said they hadn't (they're 13 & 17).

    I then explained that the tracks that mean the most to me are not the singles or ephemeral pop tunes but the album tracks that had revealed more to me over repeated listenings. Caroline No off Pet Sounds is a fine example of this. Also due to their listening behaviour they'll never have the joy of listening to What''s Going On or Songs in the Key of Life or Dark Side of the Moon, The Ninth Wave by Kate Bush etc etc

    It's not my just being middle aged but I do feel this generation are missing out.

    My latent feeling is that it's all to due with the fact that most kids nowadays don't buy music. To them it's a free (if illegal) commodity and therefore holds no or little value to them.

    When I was young I used to work evenings in the week and on Saturday I'd go and buy an Album or two. Knowing what I'd had to do to earn that money, when I got back I'd sit down on my own or with mates and we'd listen to the whole album and then discuss it. Was the NME or Sounds right in their review etc

    Bottom line, recorded music has no value to most of the youngsters today. It's something that just exists...

  2. David I wonder if basing this argument on sales is a big problem? I think the type of music fan who historically listened to full albums on a regular basis downloads their music for free and so is not included in those figures.

    From my experience people, and not just young people, are listening to more music either downloaded illegally or through spotify. And more than that - are listening to more varied music as a result.

    Another factor is the rise in sales of vinyl. Four of my friends got record players for Christmas and I think there is a growing revival of your Saturday morning ritual of listening to records.

    Not to disagree with what you're saying entirely - but sales are always a tricky measure of things in music.

  3. Is there a useful comparison to be drawn here with classical music?

    It's surely unthinkable for someone to listen, let alone perform, one movement from a symphony, or a string quartet. The listeners make a commitment to hear the whole work, as its composer intended, with all of its musical/emotional highs and lows.

    I don't know how classical enthusiasts listen to those works at home - probably not sprawled on the carpet - but it does suggest that there remains the ability to commit to buying and listening to a musical work, be it Beethoven's 5th or Dark Side of the Moon, from beginning to end.

    We've seen recent live performances of great rock albums from beginning to end, just like classical performances of works. Would it be such a bad thing if the great rock albums achieved the status of classical compositions, and we left the "singles" download market to X-Factor winners and their ilk?

  4. Neville, I think you're right. We spent hours listening to records because we'd invested so much in them. Alastair, you may be right that people are listening to more range, which probably means they're not listening to any one thing quite as intensively. Vinyl sales as statistically insignificant.
    PK, I don't think the singles market is all about X Factor winners. People are just as likely to download a single track by Coldplay as one track by Girls Aloud.

  5. I must be one of these anachronistic bastions of the lp format. I do mostly listen to albums all the way through, in the car generally I use a CD player to listen whilst driving, on the train (I'm a daily commuter to London from Kent so have a couple of hours a day approx of dedicated listening time), even at home sat on the sofa whilst reading a magazine or in the kitchen whilst cooking I'm still a CD all the way through kind of guy... study my Spotify listening often that'll show listening to most if not all an album.

    That is me I suppose - I know my daughter has random selections often coming from her iPod. For me though there is something in the album that still works for me - even myself in my humble amateur outputs aim at producing "an album" for my legions (10s!) of loyal fans.

    Interestingly my top album of this year was Rush Clockwork Angels which is *hushed tones* a concept album... so almost demands to be listened to as a complete work.

    But there is no point being King Cnut against the tide of progress/change is there?

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  7. I've been thinking the same thing about those Best of 2012 lists. The best record I bought in 2012 was Late for the Sky (after Mr @prodnose tweeted about it earlier in the year). Most of my impulse downloads are oldies, and I don't think I could even point to 10 albums released in 2012. Not to say I didn't buy 10, but you just don't live with them like you used to.

  8. Checking iTunes, it looks like there are 23 albums I listened to more than 5 times in 2012. Of these, 9 were listened to more than ten times. 22 were released this year. This will nearly be all mobile listening (commuting, travelling, walking). But then I ONLY have new music (and podcasts) on my iPhone. Older stuff gets deleted.

  9. Somehow I managed to find several good-to-great new albums this year that I like and know pretty well from beginning to end.

    It's not easy though, most of my listening is done in the car, at the gym on an iPod, or (when I had my own office) at work. At home not as much, at least not when the kids are jumping around and making the record skip. Little bastards.

  10. I couldn't sleep in the small hours of this morning. I put on a CD copy of the first XX record and lay on the floor and listened to it all the way through, and really enjoyed the experience, in a way that I wouldn't have, had I been channelling it through my headphones on the walk into work.

    Music is increasingly used as wallpaper - something's that's there in the background while you get on with something else. In reality you get out what you put in. The more you actively listen, the more you hear.

  11. On the other hand, for anyone willing to participate in the 'whole album' experience there are a lot more opportunities available than back in the days when the LP format was the only option.

    For example, when I was growing up in the early 70s our family only had one 'record player', thus of necessity listening to music was a dedicated and often more communal activity. And that was the only way you could choose to listen to a particular album. Even a car radio was a luxury back then, never mind the cassette players and later CDs that would allow drivers to choose what they listened to.

    Now, of course, opportunities to play chosen music are everywhere, with facilities to play CDs and MP3s on computers, CD/MP3 players in cars and complete portability with iPods and mobile phones and other devices capable of playback.

    Thus I'm usually playing music when at my computer, in the car (which I spend a lot of time in at work), during my daily one-hour walk to the shops, on the exercise bike etc. Therefore there's no need to rely on what was the more portable and available radio in the past, so it's more possible to always choose what to listen to rather than the mixed bag that always comes with a radio station, not to mention the commercials and endless cackle that seems to characterise so many stations these days.

    So for those wanting to listen to albums properly I'd say there are more opportunities than ever, although of course a big factor is also the individual's lifestyle - a student will have more opportunities than someone with a wife and kids and in employment, for example, but that's always been the case and isn't really relevant to any change in formats.

    One point of difference now is perhaps that the listening experience is more passive than it was back in my young days, so I'm generally not so engaged with what I'm playing, and it's more background music that it was in the past. Of course, that's also because it's more ubiquitous rather than the more limited and dedicated experience of the record player and stereo back in my younger days, and again this will vary from person to person.

  12. I have a theory that listening to albums in the olden days was inextricably linked to the study of the sleeve. You were in your bedroom (or the living room while your parents were out), and because the record player wasn't portable then neither were you for the duration of the record. So all you had available to do was look at the sleeve, ponder it, admire it, read the lyric sheet etc etc. All of which ingrained the experience of listening to that album deeply into your mind.

    And none of that really applies any more, unless you resolutely stick to vinyl.

  13. Well, I still keep up with new music, and I thoroughly enjoy getting LPs from my local record shops or from digital sites and I make time to sit and enjoy them instead of watching TV or reading people's Twitter feeds..I'd much rather listen to music...I can't get enough of the stuff. In much the same way as people go Fishing, or Knit or go to Football's a hobby!.

  14. My favourite contemporary pop star is Solange Knowles, Beyonce's sister. I "own" (i.e have downloaded via i-tunes) a grand total of two of her songs, recent single "Losing You" and the other one "I Decided". There's a picture of her last album on our fridge which I downloaded from the internet because it's a cool picture but I couldn't imagine wanting to listen to the actual album all the way through.Two songs and a pic. That's enough for me. A great thing. But perhaps not great for dear old Solange.