You’re listening to it wrong

18 Jan 2011 0

My (new) new year’s resolution is to attend a Classic Album Sunday, where music geeks sit and quietly listen to an album from start to finish without interruption. I love the idea of sitting politely with a bunch of people and just listening to all of Hounds of Love, without pausing or skipping or answering the phone or putting the radio on instead.

This BBC article on the phenomenon asks whether the rise of music downloads and the iPod’s ‘shuffle’ function is killing the art of the album. Some people think so – Radiohead were famously absent from iTunes until a couple of years ago because they didn’t want their tracks to be sold separately. Eventually they realised they were fighting the tide (and I wonder how many of their fans bothered waiting until 2008 to download their favourite songs legally). Garth Brooks also resisted taking the plunge, but he too seems now to have given in. Pink Floyd have fought court cases over the issue.

The debate about the relative merits of the two approaches to albums is a bit of a yawnfest: clearly most records work as a whole or as a group of bits, and a four-minute song has no more or less artistic integrity than a 60-minute LP. For me the interesting question is, why do artists, or labels, or fans think they can dictate how people enjoy stuff?

To publish something is to make it public. At that point, the author has to surrender some of their control. It doesn’t really belong to them anymore – and in the digital age this is more true than ever. Whether it’s an album, a book or a painting, it becomes part of people’s lives, and they’ll do with it what they will. Attitudes and technologies that go against this (DRM on downloaded songs, region-coded DVD players, artists insisting that anyone listening to only part of their album is doing it wrong) will either be ignored or resisted by the audience.

The way we buy and listen to music now puts the listener in control, which on the whole is a good thing. And shuffling songs is only the tip of the iceberg of the mashup and remix culture that flourishes on the interweb – particularly on YouTube. Once you put something out there, people are going to enjoy it their way, and if that isn’t the way you intended, you’d better get used to it.

The alternative is for your stuff not to become part of people’s lives.

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