How I Listen

The Lost Art of Listening [Volume 1]

As activity grinds to a halt across much of the world, the time spent in isolation can be a good opportunity to listen to music in a more focused and intentional way than consumers have been able to up to now. In this 5 part series, Song Sommelier founder Keith Jopling looks at the role of music in our lives generally, and during this difficult time in particular.

The world is suddenly dealing with something strange and unprecedented. As society presses pause, this series of writings by Keith Jopling, founder of playlist curation site The Song Sommelier, examines the role of music and listening in our lives and how a once in a lifetime outbreak of Covid-19 could shape the ears and minds of audiences across planet earth forevermore. If you are in quarantine, isolation, working from home or social distancing, perhaps this is an opportunity to listen differently, and listen well.

This collaboration will bring you five articles on how we listen today, the impact of the streaming era and how we can all practice the lost art of listening. We’ll journey through themes of repetition, familiarity and heavy rotation through to sequencing & segues, attentive listening and audio quality. The end of the week will culminate in The Song Sommelier’s music manifesto.

The Song Sommelier animated logo

Happy listening all, and stay safe at home.

VOLUME 1: Repetition

Familiarity breeds contempt, so the old saying goes. But with music, nothing could be further from the truth. Music is the only medium that lends itself to repeated consumption in order to increase the pleasure and benefits that come from it. Who is bored of Bohemian Rhapsody? Who would not turn up the volume when they hear the opening bars of Tiny Dancer on the radio?

Yet in the streaming era, one of the elements of listening that has undoubtedly been lost is repetition and familiarity – washed away by ever longer playlists, programmed artist radio and the sheer volume of new music crashing down like a waterfall, each and every week. It’s hard to keep up. To really get to know a piece of music really well requires a trade-off against a ton of other music, as well as all the other things we could and should be doing.

A modern living room with a record collection

As for the artists making the music, their challenge is to compete with the history of recorded music for a listener’s attention for the first listen, so you can imagine how hard it is to compete for repeated listening. The acquisition of new listeners and fans has become a science problem for the artist’s marketing teams, if they are fortunate to have them.

We still have formats that encourage us to listen again. Spotify has ‘Recently Played’ and ‘Uniquely Yours’ (and on the desktop, ‘Your Heavy Rotation’ though strangely I cannot find that on mobile). All the streaming players have very similar features. As for good old, traditional radio – it still has a weekly ‘playlist’. But do these do the job of really driving home the repeated listen?

Those Spotify features are hardly tempting alongside the days worth of brand new content you can scroll through in a matter of seconds. Meanwhile when it comes to radio, the notion of a playlist that is played across the variety of shows broadcast across several ‘dayparts’ feels like an outmoded concept. As radio moves steadily on-demand, shows must become more distinctive, with the appointment to listen factor shifting to a reason to listen other than it’s on right now. This probably means radio shows will play a more distinctive set of songs, rendering the idea of the weekly playlist less vital, perhaps.

Some stations are exceptions of course, notably comfort stations like Magic. But those stations cater for a very specific demographic. Of course, repetition works best if you actually like the track in the first place. And that’s why Magic is so specific in its choice of tracks that make up the core playlist of just 650 songs. It’s guaranteed comforting pop classics and nothing more. Contrast that with Spotify probably serving as many tracks to a single user across the space of just one week.

There is almost no better form of music discovery than realising you like a song, or an artist, that you weren’t quite sure about in the first place. Music can grow on you with relatively low effort and very high reward – again pretty unique in the content world. It’s harder to persevere with a book you are not enjoying than give an album another spin. That’s how Drive-By Truckers ‘The Unraveling’ has become one of my favourite albums of the year and why I will return to Soccer Mommy’s new album a few more times yet. I have a good instinct that the effort will pay off.

Person in a record store holding record over face

One of the true symptoms of streaming culture is that the ruthless nature of the discovery process makes these forms of familiarity less likely. With such an abundance, one can feel in constant discovery mode, filtering and sorting rather than just enjoying. I wonder though, can programming features such as ‘Jump Back In’ become more tuned to what will grow on us, and the recommendations become more insistent: “Keith, according to your listening history you really should give this record more time”. I’d be happy if it worked.

From The Song Sommelier’s point of view

One of the pleasures of curating a weekly playlist is the sheer amount of times I will listen to the songs on there (and in the order scheduled) during the process. Familiarity is a discipline that pays off only after you put the work in. By posting just once a week, we are hoping the quality over quantity approach will encourage listeners to really get to like the tracks on our playlists, and that the added content of our editorials will provide some context and reason to listen. We’d be even more delighted to think that listeners then seek out more from those artists they have discovered and go on to give those records much more time.

When it comes to catalogue (what the music industry calls ‘deep catalogue’), the familiarity dynamic is different yet again. It might be that dipping back into the catalogue of an artist that you love is harder these days, especially for those albums that are less familiar to you. Playlists are probably a better vehicle for this than trying to work your way through album-by-album. With Aha for example, I tried to imagine the band’s catalogue from two points of view: the catchy electro pop that they are best known for and the deep, moody, scandi melancholy. For The National, we went with a deep cuts playlist of the lesser known tracks, accompanied by a playlist of artists that might have influenced the band themselves. Re-imaging music catalogues in new ways is critical to legacy artists, the industry and, to fans. Sometimes the best music to listen to is the music you know best.

My heavy rotation this week:

The Song Sommelier’s genre playlists,

such as Riff Raff and New Troubadours.

Recent albums to try:

Liz Lawrence ‘Health & Safety EP’

Soccer Mommy ‘Color Theory’

Old albums to revisit:

The Church ‘Starfish’

Lost classic album from Australian cult indie band you can find on streaming services

Prefab Sprout ‘Steve McQueen’

80’s classic recently remastered on vinyl

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4 Comments

  1. Great article! I love that you mentioned a-ha – a band that in the US, is synonymous to their signature hit single “Take on me”. The general perception of the band is that they did nothing else – which is a shame because in my humble opinion, “Take on me” pales in comparison with some of their moodier songs such as “Summer moved on” (which is both moody and radio-friendly).

    As an online radio broadcaster, I do see the value of repetition in luring a listener in – in a way that Spotify and other streaming services do not necessarily lend themselves to because of their skip functionality – which makes it impossible for a new artist to get that complete first listen as they compete with the history of music.

    The bit of this article that I struggle with has to with this notion of abundance of choice. While admittedly, there is a lower bar that one needs to circumvent to release new music, it also means that along with great talent comes a lot of mediocrity – something I find myself wading through on a weekly basis as I check out the New Releases playlist by Spotify.

    Last, but not least, I will give “Starfish” by The Church a chance. The only song I ever liked by them was “Under the milky way” but perhaps I need to revisit the album.

    1. Thanks for the comment glad you enjoyed it. Check out our Aha playlists – a labour of love. With choice – you are right there is more music with a lower quality bar – along with more music of a higher quality as well. It’s more of everything, which is harder for discovery, but much harder for familiarity. For radio, the job is to respect and maintain the classics and nurture the next classics. Leave the middle ground to the streaming services that surface it all through data and demand. Tastemakers will always be needed!

      1. Thanks a ton for the response Keith! Do you get a sense that consumers do not value the role of tastemakers anymore? More importantly, do you feel like terrestrial radio is doing a good job of nurturing the next classics?

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