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Have changes in listening habits
impoverished music likers?

by Mark Fleischmann

October 1999 -- The act of playing a vinyl record must seem oddly comic to all but the over-fortysomething listeners who still engage in this odd ritual. In my own case, it starts with the disc carefully removed from the innersleeve -- middle and ring fingers on label, thumb along the rim -- and placed on the turntable. Then, audiophile clown that I am, I spray the LP with ions from an anti-static gun and brush it clean under a bright light. Cueing lever up, tonearm over outer groove, lever down, slowly, painstakingly. Volume up. Then I retreat to my armchair placed in the stereo sweet spot and go into another world. But only for about the 20-minute length of an LP side.

Younger listeners (for heaven's sake, cries a voice within, I'm only 42) are less fastidious and more carefree. They pop a CD in the drawer, or a cassette into the dashboard, or strap on an MP3 or MD player and go out jogging. They can listen a whole lot longer than 20 minutes. Soon the sweet spot will go the way of surface noise when DVD-Audio and perhaps SACD usher in a new era of 5.1-channel listening. Even before then, there's a freedom in today's style of listening that I never got to enjoy as a kid. Because people can listen in more places, and while doing more things -- driving, cooking, living -- the sheer quantity of listening has gone up.

But what about the quality of listening? I'm not talking about the quality of music (I hate older people who deride younger musicians) or even the quality of sound. I mean the quality of human attention brought to bear on listening. All these new options make background listening easier than ever before. Foreground listening, therefore, takes up less of the music lover's life. Is it even possible to be a music lover -- as opposed to a music liker -- under these circumstances?

In a recent chat session on his favorite subject, LP vs. CD, my colleague Michael Fremer agreed with my suggestion that foreground listening is shrinking. We hypothesized that the switch to CD may account for the change. In the world according to Mikey, CDs aren't as involving as LPs, so people spend less time listening to music with intensely focused attention.

I've thought about this some more, though, and I've come to a different conclusion. My feeling now is that technology, in this instance, hasn't driven a change in the way people listen. Instead, larger economic forces have moved people to listen differently, less intensely, and in more places besides that armchair in the sweet spot. Technology, far from being the instigating force, is simply an enabler.

Work, family, and listening

There are only so many hours in a day. As work pressures increase, there's less time for everything else, whether it's spending time with the kids or listening -- intensely -- to music.

"For most American families, time available for nonwork or family responsibilities has decreased," according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor. "A 1999 Council of Economic Advisors report estimated that working families [with] children ... have fewer hours per week to spend with their families. If time for sleep, grocery shopping, cooking, and so on is subtracted, little time is left to spend with children or spouses.

When married people have trouble finding time for something as essential as child rearing, it's harder than ever for a responsible adult to justify hours spent in front of the stereo doing nothing but listening to music.

Alone but together

Many people have less time, or no time at all, for the kind of listening that excludes all other activities. This has to be having an impact on what kind of music we listen to and what kind of listeners (and people) we are becoming.

For me, listening to music was never a solitary pastime, even though I've it mostly alone. The communal part started happening in high school, when I found a friend who liked the same obscure bands I liked and we instinctively began to share our enthusiasms. In college, I found another music-loving friend. Since then, throughout my life, the most enduring friendships I've formed have been with my music buddies. The first of these relationships started in 1972, the most recent one last year. Guys who trade tapes turn into my closest confidantes. My very best friend has sat beside me at more concerts than we can count.

My music buddies and I are all over 40 now. I have lots of younger friends but rarely talk about music with them. Not only are their tastes different, they were arrived at differently. Will future generations have the same opportunity to forge lifelong friendships that I had, the same chance to learn how to share, or will changes in listening habits isolate and impoverish them?

I'm beginning to wonder if one of the things I love best about my life, one of the things that's really kept me going, is about to go away -- if not for a childless individual like me, then maybe for my peers with families. I'd love to read some posts on the message board telling me I'm dead wrong, but unless I'm mistaken, I have seen the future and it shrivels my spirit.

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