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Jazz Corner: The Music Listening Culture Then and Now

Listening to music these days is an almost solitary exercise

Sunil Sampat Apr 08, 2019

The YouTube Music (YT Music) application seen displayed on a Android Sony smartphone next to a vinyl record player. Photo: Guillaume Payen/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

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Music today emerges out of so many devices; desktops, laptops, cell phones and tablets all deliver music on command. And such is the power of the individual that almost any music ever recorded commercially is available from the touch screen. That is awesome power at one’s fingertips, literally. Music ‘on the go’ is the trend.

It wasn’t always so and our contemporary convenience with a music library in one’s pocket has come at a price. Let’s look at how the ‘listening culture’ has changed.  Broadly speaking, we see three basic areas of change: the medium from where we source our music, the way we procure our music and the social repercussions involved.

In the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and even the Eighties, if you lived in India, only a limited choice of recorded music was available. (Perhaps, it should be added for young readers that there was no Internet in those decades and there was absolutely no question of downloading or listening online.)  A very limited number of albums were released each year. After the Indian economy was liberalized in 1991 all imports were open and international music was freely available. The recorded audio cassettes in particular made access much easier because of low cost as well. CDs came a little later but they were expensive, thus limiting their numbers in one’s collection. Then came the Internet and”¦ you know that story!

Looking at the Fifties scene, there were music stores selling 78s, a shellac record to be played on a gramophone. They had just one song on each side of the disc, typically three minutes long. Due to this time limitation, a lot of early studio performances had a cut off of three minutes for the artists! These shellac records were heavy and fragile. The fidelity from these was also quite poor.

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The entry of vinyl brought about a sea change in the way one bought and heard music. First the 7-inch diameter EP (extended play) came onto the scene soon followed by the very popular 12-inch LP (long playing) record, now popularly known as vinyl. These were building blocks for music collections. They also created a culture of “Hi Fidelity” sound and with it new generations of audiophiles. Listeners started a love affair with “Hi Fi” equipment which could be very expensive. Turntables, amplifiers and speakers became a rage.  Also, they occupied a lot of space. The sound reproduction from the upper ended equipment was close to ‘live’ or ‘auditorium quality’ and added greatly for listening pleasure.  There is a funny line from a movie of the Fifties, Once More With Feeling where it was said about an audiophile’s high quality sound system, “his Hi Fi is so high, half the year it is covered with snow!”

In India, buying recorded music was a ritual. One went to a music store and asked to listen to music one might purchase. The attendant would patiently play almost any number of albums one cared to sample before the purchase was made. In some of the larger stores there were private booths with comfortable sofas for the prospective clients. It could compare to browsing for books or even to the process of buying a saree from checking out a selection.

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There were several positives from owning these records. For one, they usually had wonderful liner notes on the back of the album cover which described the music, detailed the personnel in the band and recording details. There was a whole story that went with a record. Some CDs also followed this trend and provided booklets with descriptions. One also had several tracks from a particular band or artist on the album as opposed to just a specific chosen track played today through a device and a Bluetooth speaker or on a laptop.

Not everyone had all music available to them. This fact encouraged social ‘listening sessions’ with groups of friends. That certainly made for more attention paid to the music and its nuances. Music listening could be a whole social scene and reactions to an album could be discussed, rather as in a book club meet.

Listening to music these days is an almost solitary exercise. As with many other spheres of life, technology has made a sea change in people’s approach and habits.

Vinyl listening is back with a bang. It is a big industry all over again with high ended discs and equipment back in demand. Maybe some of the listening habits will alter as a result. At this time both the hardware and software is expensive, thus making it popular with a niche audience.

April also celebrates Record Store Day. Wonder if it will revive the old fashioned music stores which have diminished to the point of extinction.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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