The Lost Art Of Listening

As a species often terrified by silence, we tend to do our very best to fill most moments of the day with sound. We are a generation that walk from A to B plugged into our music machines; it gives the walk a rhythm, why would we not? It has, however, become increasingly apparent that our day-to-day listening experiences are no longer dictated by artists and their albums, as they were as recently as ten years ago. Spotify and YouTube playlists, Soundcloud running orders or lucky-dip iPod shuffles have become the new controlling agents, taking us here and there across the musical spectrum, often at the whim of little more than a computing algorithm. Would it then be fair to say that the art of the album is lost?

In an interview with Jungle, the boys gave me an insight into the thought process behind compiling their self-titled album. “We are in an age of playlists and that’s where music is going, ultimately. ‘Busy Earnin’, for us, sits in a place on the record that makes sense but if you go and put it in a playlist we have no control over that.” In an era of digital music consumption, the world wide web has given us so much in terms of our ability to share music but has decreased the emphasis on a track’s locus and its context. Busy Earnin‘ is the third track on Jungle‘s twelve track album. It finishes in F minor and slips flawlessly into ‘Platoon’s’ G minor key signature – a natural progression and no haphazard coincidence – these artists clearly put serious thought into their album’s running order.

Influenced by the music of their childhoods, Jungle discussed Pink Floyd as a musical reference point: “I have always bought and listened to albums from a really young age, whether it was finding Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon‘ in my parents’ record collection and just sitting down and listening to that as a journey”. “’Dark Side of the Moon’ really flows; we wanted to do that with this record”. The concept of a musical journey with one artist seems almost alien to the youngest generation. We have forgotten that an album can begin with an air of melancholy and through the subtleties of chord progression or a switch in tonality can have the listener dancing with strangers by the time it ends. We live in the age of the radio edit. A popular artist is now often given three minutes, four at the absolute maximum. That is 240 seconds, in comparison to Dark Side of the Moon’s 2,580; now that hardly seems fair, does it?

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Jungle discussed with us the difficulty of writing for an audience that contextualises their music with DIY playlists: “If our track was on Spotify it wouldn’t make sense because it would be constantly pulled out of context, so you have to write these songs that start and end. The only way you would be able to do that continuous thing would be if it was on a format that people couldn’t bastardise”. The shortening of a song supposedly makes it more commercially viable. Apparently the public’s attention can only be held for three simple minutes before our appreciation dwindles and the track becomes white noise. I contest this – very much. The radio edit of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ begins with the third verse of the original. It is cut and pasted, reshaped and compressed, all in the name of commercial viability. If a Picasso didn’t fit in Le Louvre would we trim its borders? Would we fold over the empty spaces in the corner because no one looks at those anyway? No we would not. Such an extreme transformation of an artist’s work would never take place in any other sphere of artistry, so why is it happening in the music industry?

So now we know the specification; your song must be 3-4 minutes long and must begin and end within that framework. Once complete, its listening context is completely out of your hands, and it could equally easily end up in a playlist next to Dylan, Taylor Swift, or Chumbawumba. But while it might seem that a musician’s power is dwindling, there are those who have the opportunity to counteract this trend and revolutionise the experiences of young listeners: the DJs.

The DJ mix is the twenty-first century’s epic. Just as The Doors relayed their message of‘The End’with 11 minutes and 40 seconds of glorious progression, so the DJ is re-establishing the importance of the prolonged listening experience. A mix flows; that is the point. Unlike a playlist, a mix is not an amalgamation of different tracks brought together by sub-genre. Rather, it is montage of sounds compiled in accordance with the musicality of an individual. They have the wherewithal to determine how the listening experience begins – whether it be with a recognisable sample, a simple bass-line or a complex beat. They decide when it builds and when it fades. The modern-day ability to flick on a song at the touch of a button encourages impatience, and attending a DJ set is a rare exercise in submission for younger listeners, who have wrongly been told the customer is always right. The unique pleasure of losing your agency and being guided through a musical maze of twists and turns has not been lost. Everything is in the DJ’s hands, and all within the time spectrum they have settled on. In an industry of restricting commercial viability, the mix is allowing the (almost) lost art of the musical journey to flourish.
To music lovers everywhere – next time you contemplate listening to a pre-determined playlist…don’t. Instead, trust in the artist and listen to a mix; rather than your mood choosing the music, let the music guide the mood.