I waited eagerly on the launch of Apple Music. When it finally did, I signed up for the trial and started using it. It was a let down. Yet again, I wasn’t getting the music listening experience I’ve been longing for since my childhood. Worse, I had lost some of the features I already had. This was a surprise to me, given that Apple had recently joined forces with some successful music professionals.
As a young boy, I learned to appreciate the sound of the vinyl discs that played in our house. The sounds were so crisp that they felt even better than listening to a real live performance. I loved touching the sleeves, admiring the beautiful art printed on them, sometime the lyrics other time some back stories. When I liked a track, I would spend hours listening to it repeatedly on a loop, each time trying to focus on just one instrument in order to appreciate how that was played. I would often fantasise that I could hear the players responding to each other with their instruments.
I didn’t listen to music and do something else. I was either listening to music, hence dropped everything else. Or the other way around, in which case I would stop the music from playing or try to block it. I couldn’t tolerate the slightest unrelated noise disturbing my listening experience. This was frustrating for someone who lived in a compound with lots of people around. I could do this for many hours.
If what I considered to be great music were playing, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to chatter and miss out of the delicate sounds. In fact, I think this trait was shared by a lot of people in Mali, where I grew up. You would often see young people sitting around quietly listening to a record, nobody making a sound.
I didn’t understand anything about the pop music culture and the media, I didn’t care what anyone said, I only cared about what I could listen to and touch. In this manner, I grew my own mental model of music, that’s how I would develop an eclectic taste as I could somehow identify signature sounds across multiple recordings from different artists. Without knowing it, I was also growing an understanding of the artists, I could tell if a recording was the original or not, and I was even sometimes sure I could feel the artists emotions through their voice or the way they played. I would envision a recording as a chain of mountains and valleys, I could hear sadness and joy alternating in an artist voice on one song. One time, a Bob Marley music took me to such a roller coaster that I kept talking about it all week. I didn’t even understand the words properly because my English wasn’t good enough.
This was my music listening experience.
As I started making my own money, my Saturday afternoon were often spent in record shops looking for the next exciting album. I would always open up the booklets and whatever the cover was, read up on everything I could, as part of the selection process. I could never tire of this.
As we migrated to all streaming and downloading experience, my lifestyle also evolved and I lost the habit of going to record shops. But I still expected that somehow, the leaders like Apple would eventually bring us the kind of listening experience I was enjoying as a boy. As I listen to a track, I want to be able to navigate to the lyrics (if available), the backstories, the album artwork, see the track listing as it was originally produced, see any collaborations that the score writer or the artists might also have made. With digital, this should have been a snap. Sadly, this never materialised.
What is noticeable is that music listening experience is constantly being dumbed down, the great story telling of yesteryear’s album production is getting lost. Somehow as if none of that mattered. It’s a shame because digital could have made the experience even richer, but it isn’t. If I would make a parallel with painting, you wouldn’t dream of removing any layers from a Van Gogh or Matisse piece of work. Arguably music production itself is also degrading in quality. Pick a Jeff Beck, Radiohead or Kendrick Lamar record however, you’d notice a richness in sound and production. The CDs often come with nice artwork, lyrics. Björk’s Biophilia album is an encouraging experiment, it takes the music experience to an entirely new level. This won’t be a definite trend anytime soon. In the mean time, I do feel that some intermediate steps would be more portable than going down the mobile App route.
I would have thought, if you wanted to sell more music then it’s actually a good thing to teach people how to appreciate music. This isn’t what I am seeing. Instead we’re learning to skim on everything, take things for granted and gloss over effort, all in the rush to show a ‘buy now’ button. If I were an artist I would be livid and would want to take control over the whole thing, down to managing my fan communities, to be sure they can appreciate my work unadulterated.
PS: I am not a music professional. I know nothing about the correct terminology and concepts. I am only telling it as I experienced it.