The Lost Art of Listening – Vol. 1: Repetition

7 minutes / Keith Jopling

14.04.2020 / Articles

In these times of isolation and reconfiguration (who knows if final) of our relationship system because of COVID-19, Keith Jopling, founder of the curatorial site for playlists The Song Sommelier, in collaboration with the agency dlmdd, has published a series of reflections under the name The Lost Art of Listening, in which he examines the role of music and listening in our lives (understanding listening as the exercise of listening carefully and consciously to music), and how the impact of this global pandemic it can permanently reshape the ears and minds of audiences across the globe. We are pleased to share with you — Tuesday and Thursday for the next three weeks — this provocative collection of essays translated into Spanish, with the permission of its author.

Familiarity breeds contempt, so the old saying goes. But with music, nothing could be further from the truth. Music is the only medium that lends itself to repeated consumption in order to increase the pleasure and benefits that come from it. Who is bored of Bohemian Rhapsody? Who would not turn up the volume when they hear the opening bars of Tiny Dancer on the radio?

We cannot say the same about movies. Yes, I may have seen Blade Runner 14 times, but that is across a timespan of 30 years and across four different versions of the film. We might re-read our favourite book: every few years. We might become addicted to a game, but always with the desire to make the next level or reach a final destination. But music is an entirely different beast. There are things to hear for the first time on OK Computer no matter how many times you’ve listened to it.
For a while, my preferred method of listening was to sample as much music as possible but then hone in on one record that stuck, and then just play this over and over. The last record that affected me in this way was Alele Diane’s album Cusp. Over weeks, it revealed itself to me to be something of real depth - the quality of those songs, the poise and dignity of the performance, the economical production. The rich textures in the music and the order of the songs on the album became both comfortingly familiar, yet I discovered something different each time I listened. It’s a record I will return to in these strange weeks ahead.
Yet in the streaming era, one of the elements of listening that has undoubtedly been lost is repetition and familiarity - washed away by ever longer playlists, programmed artist radio and the sheer volume of new music crashing down like a waterfall, each and every week. It’s hard to keep up. To really get to know a piece of music really well requires a trade-off against a ton of other music, as well as all the other things we could and should be doing.

As for the artists making the music, their challenge is to compete with the history of recorded music for a listener's attention for the first listen, so you can imagine how hard it is to compete for repeated listening. The acquisition of new listeners and fans has become a science problem for the artist’s marketing teams, if they are fortunate to have them.

We still have formats that encourage us to listen again. Spotify has ‘Recently Played’ and ‘Uniquely Yours’ (and on the desktop, ‘Your Heavy Rotation’ though strangely I cannot find that on mobile). All the streaming players have very similar features. As for good old, traditional radio - it still has a weekly ‘playlist’. But do these do the job of really driving home the repeated listen?

Those streaming menu features prompting us to listen again are hardly tempting alongside the days worth of brand new content you can scroll through in a matter of seconds. Meanwhile when it comes to radio, the notion of a playlist that is played across the variety of shows broadcast across several ‘dayparts’ feels like an outmoded concept. As radio moves steadily on-demand, shows must become more distinctive, with the appointment to listen factor shifting to a reason to listen other than it’s on right now.

This probably means radio shows will play a more distinctive set of songs, rendering the idea of the weekly playlist less vital, perhaps.

Some stations are exceptions of course, notably comfort stations like Magic. But those stations cater for a very specific demographic. Of course, repetition works best if you actually like the track in the first place. And that’s why Magic is so specific in its choice of tracks that make up the core playlist of just 650 songs. It’s guaranteed comforting pop classics and nothing more. Contrast that with Spotify probably serving as many tracks to a single user across the space of just one week.

There is almost no better form of music discovery than realising you like a song, or an artist, that you weren’t quite sure about in the first place. Music can grow on you with relatively low effort and very high reward - again pretty unique in the content world. It’s harder to persevere with a book you are not enjoying than give an album another spin. That’s how Drive-By Truckers ‘The Unraveling’ has become one of my favourite albums of the year and why I will return to Soccer Mommy’s new album a few more times yet. I have a good instinct that the effort will pay off. Songs that grow on you have a potentially even more powerful effect on you in the long run.

One of the true symptoms of streaming culture is that the ruthless nature of the discovery process makes these forms of familiarity less likely. With such an abundance, one can feel in constant discovery mode, filtering and sorting rather than just enjoying. I wonder though, can programming features such as ‘Jump Back In’ become more tuned to what will grow on us, and the recommendations become more insistent: “Keith, according to your listening history you really should give this record more time”. I’d be happy if it worked.

From The Song Sommelier's point of view

One of the pleasures of curating a weekly playlist is the sheer amount of times I will listen to the songs on there (and in the order scheduled) during the process. Familiarity is a discipline that pays off only after you put the work in. By posting just once a week, the intention is that the quality over quantity approach will encourage listeners to really get to like the tracks on our playlists, and that the added content of our editorials will provide some context and reason to listen. We’d be even more delighted to think that listeners then seek out more from those artists they have discovered and go on to give those records much more time.

When it comes to catalogue (what the music industry calls ‘deep catalogue’), the familiarity dynamic is different yet again. It might be that dipping back into the catalogue of an artist that you love is harder these days, especially for those albums that are less familiar to you. Playlists are probably a better vehicle for this than trying to work your way through album-by-album. With Aha for example, I tried to imagine the band’s catalogue from two points of view: the catchy electro pop that they are best known for and the deep, moody, scandi melancholy. For The National, we went with a deep cuts playlist of the lesser known tracks, accompanied by a playlist of artists that might have influenced the band themselves. Re-imaging music catalogues in new ways is critical to legacy artists, the industry and, to fans. Sometimes the best music to listen to, especially at times like these, is the music you know best.

(Originally published on The Song Sommelier)

(Next, The Lost Art of Listening – Vol. 2: Up next)

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Keith Jopling

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