The Resurrection (?) of Communal Listening - Future Week


Like the “death of the album” stigma before it, the “death of community” ethos has proven itself to be both a substantive reflection of changing music listening trends, while also utter rhetorical hyperbole. It goes without saying that the advent of digital music files and mobile devices brought with them long-lasting and widespread implications about how people, both as individuals and collective niches of listeners, listen to music.

However, as album sales tanked through the early ’00s and individual downloads of both the legal and illegal varieties spiked, AOR fans cried the end of their medium’s relevance in a fashion that I would argue bears a strong resemblance to the professional right’s squalor over “The War on Christmas.” Yes, just as fewer people are enamored with the suffocating power of the yuletide season, fewer people are also purchasing full-length albums. This still in no way endangers the album as the preferred long form statement on the part of serious musicians any time in the near future, just as no one has to worry about whether one day state house menorahs will offend anyone.

In fact, if anything, the “death of the album” town criers have inspired a more fervent desire to keep the medium alive by the loyal resistance. If there’s a case to be made for the marketing merits of preaching to one’s own choir, LP revivalism on the edges of the music industry should be exhibit A.

Not quite as pronounced as the “death of the album” crowd lies a recent and similar variety of epidemic non-story in cultural analysis based on the observation that the current generation of music listeners have become undeniably insular in their music listening habits. Again, part of the suggestion is undeniable. I could cross link a fancy op-ed like this one to validate the idea, but if you live in a large city, just go ahead and count the number of earbuds you see on your subway ride home and take that as evidence.

Evidence for what? That we no longer live in the hey-day of turntables and listening parties. Sorry, Tom Waits. Gone are the days of gathering around the living room with a few friends and a bowl of hash (okay, that probably still happens) as you take turns picking out vinyl, examining the packaging of each, and talking about their contents. All the while, live music – the ultimate communal listening experience – has never been more popular or profitable.

To place all of this in perspective, I’m reminded of David Byrne’s TED Talk about the relationship between sound and space. The long and short of his speech: Gregorian chants became commonplace in medieval times because the acoustics of European cathedrals complimented the reverberating quality of the music being performed. African hand drums compliment their environment in the same way – they’re perfect for outdoor surroundings (specifically street corners) where the open air kills any reverberation, allowing you to hear the drum as its form intends.

Considering this relationship, it’s almost a wonder that the golden-age of communal listening to recorded music even occurred to us in this hash-and-living-room form in the first place. In the heyday of the communal culture, artists were pioneering studio technology (insert rant you’ve heard a thousand times about Pet Sounds, Alan Parsons, and George Martin here) and in essence, paved the way for music that would not be beholden to any physical space, but the limitless terrain of the internal – and thoroughly insulated – imagination. Hence the term “headphones record” denotes albums whose contents may not be the catchiest tunes, but the intimate intricacy of their construction lends itself to the solitary experience.

Under this light, communal listening that holds audio clarity and complexity on such a high pedestal now appears thoroughly unnatural, comparatively. Over time, music whose complexity demands conversation and analysis is consistently shown to transcend the theater or living room model of consumption at some point. It’s that music that allows us to journey to that lonely place where the listener can come closest to it – inside their head.

Yet despite the numerous apps and lukewarm reception to sharing gimmicks on mobile devices, the strongest push towards reinforcing the long lost communal listening experience of recorded music is a new brand of small, portable speakers for devices.

As should be no surprise, wireless Blue Tooth products like Jawbone’s Jambox, the Pill (from Dr. Dre’s “Beats” series), and the new HDMX Jam speakers are making headway in the marketplace because their audio fidelity adequately fills the spaces where communal listening still exists: dorm rooms, study halls, shower stalls, office cubicles, and more.

Be forewarned that the diaphragms on these speakers may not teem with a full and luscious aural spectrum, but that’s precisely what encourages a crowd to form around them. Instead, it’s the versatility of these devices, proving equally effective in the varying acoustics of different surroundings where people actually gather these days.

HDMX Jam speakers. Image courtesy of HDMX.

Though what they provide may not be ideal for the ardent audiophile obsessed with tape-hiss and analog warmth, the soft groundswell of popularity for these products gives hope for a new community of listeners – an unpretentious folk enjoying a landscape of sound that leaves plenty of complexity to the imagination.

I for one welcome this breed of music listeners, if only for what I see is the real evil in the “death of communal listening” — and that is the undeniable fact that (ahem, cue the Charlie Brown teacher voice) more often is technology driving us apart rather than bringing us together.

All to which I say, if the most pristine audio fidelity — a red herring in just about any musical conversation these days– must be a casualty in keeping the universality of this experience alive, so be it.

After all, isn’t that what headphones are for?