What’s wrong with the way we listen to music today

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with the way we listen to music today.

Sometime last century I bought a CD by Tom Waits. I bought it unheard on the basis of the genius that was Swordfishtrombones, the solid sound of his early oeuvre and his performance in the film Rumblefish.

The CD was Rain Dogs

I was disappointed. There was little of the tuneful melancholy of Swordfishtrombones and nothing of the wise-ass early Tom Waits. It was a cacaphony of obscure instruments and self-indulgent experimental mumbling.

I carried on putting in my CD player because there were a couple of tracks I liked, sentimental throwbacks to an earlier period like Time. The point is: I played the CD. In its entirety. What else could you do?

Over time, I changed what I liked about the CD. Being sort of forced to listen to the whole thing exposed me to the new stuff, the slightly more difficult stuff. Nowadays I recognise that the title track, Rain Dogs, is probably the greatest song ever recorded. A work of such transparent superlative achievement I can’t understand why it isn’t top of everybody’s all-time top 20.

When I first heard it I didn’t like it much. Too discordant. Too challenging.

If I had been listening to it using a media player I would have awarded it one star, if that. The track would have been consigned to the netherworld of one-star material that I never listened to again. I would have carried on playing my 4- and 5-star playlist of lowest-common-denominator accessible material.

I would have missed a massive opportunity for a long-term love relationship with a piece of music. All because the software leads me to make snap judgements about a track the first time I hear it.

The moral of the story is: play your one- and two-star tracks more often. Don’t be so selective. I hope artists keep releasing music in a package like an album or CD. If the model we are moving to is for tracks to be made available individually then we will lose the slow burners.

I would never have listened to Rain Dogs again if I had first heard it today.


3 Responses to “What’s wrong with the way we listen to music today”

  1. 1 Stu October 29, 2006 at 22:45

    Well observed Dom. It occured to me the other day that during my 10 minute walk to the tube in the morning with my iPod on shuffle I had listened to the first 20 seconds of 30 songs, rather than any song in its entirety. Shuffle is a great feature for finding long lost tracks from your collection, but it also infects you with a kind of musical ADD.

    Thanks for the tip on Rain Dogs… Swordfish Trombones has long been a favourite too.

  2. 2 Pete Shaw October 20, 2006 at 10:45

    Due the large amount of music that I often skimmed over (on the basis that putting CD in for one or two song was a hassle unless I really loved them) – I have ended up almost entirely playing my iPod on Random over the last few years. This means I get to hear things I’ve either forgotten I have, or like Dominic didn’t like the first time. I then skip things I really don’t like.

    I have then pretty much ignored the star rating and rely on play count as a better indicator of song value to me. I find 5 stars a bit restrictive in conveying my rating of songs.

    Only problem I had was with the actual shuffle function but thankfully random has become, well err, more random over time (and iPod updates).

  3. 3 malcolm October 20, 2006 at 09:19

    Us Tom Waits fans seem to be coming out of the closet. I have only downloaded individual tracks when I have had a requirement for individual tracks (music for a DVD for example, or a quiz). In all other cases it is the whole album or nothing – but you are right, the world is changing but it started changing when the CD came out where you could fit more music on this format than you could on vinyl – which is where the album filler tracks came about (quality control is less important if you dont have to select tracks due to space available). Now whereas on vinyl there may be onw or two duff tracks there can now be several which reduces the albums status from “great album buy it” to “4 great tracks on that album”. Now that space is or will become essentially infinite either we get infinite sized albums or .. and I hope this is where we go to … a reversion to albums of quality songs from some artists and from others a continuous series of tracks over time which do not form part of any one album.

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