Does how we listen to music affect our consumption of it? And is our experience changed by whether we listen on our own or with others? VINYL STATION, a venture between Metal at Edge Hill and Bido Lito! makes us think about these questions, gathering music fans together to listen to exclusive LP releases in whole. Glyn Akroyd speaks to some of the minds behind the concept.
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Aldous Huxley
Do we still listen to music and, if so, how? In these days of downloads, shuffles, multiple-choice everything and goldfish-like concentration spans, is instant and ephemeral aural gratification the only game in town? Hit me (with your rhythm shtick) and move hurriedly on to the next album, the next artist, the next genre, the next fleeting mood.
Aldous Huxley thought that everything we do is a distraction, that we are afraid to be still, to be silent. And if silence, as Huxley posited, is simply too scary a form of contemplation for most of us, then maybe music can provide a suitable anchor for our flights of fancy and terror, allowing us to circle around a fixed point without drifting too far out into stormy, existential waters. The act of meditation is, after all, often accompanied by the sound of bells, chanting, or incantations which help to focus the mind.
This is not to suggest that the average muso settling back to listen to the Eagles or Napalm Death or Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is doing so consciously and exclusively in search of enlightenment. Sometimes you just wanna get your rocks off.
In order to further explore the idea of not only listening to music but sharing the experience, we here at Bido Lito! have joined forces with Metal to present Vinyl Station. Metal are based at Edge Hill train station, a unique space from which they run multidisciplinary artist-development programmes, public art projects and events. Vinyl Station is the brainchild of Metal director Shaun Curtis, and will take place every second Monday (starting on 13th July) at Metal’s Edge Hill station home. The evening will be hosted DJ Bernie Connor (the genius behind the glorious Sound Of Music podcast), with the idea being to present a new piece of music to an audience gathered for the express purpose of listening to it and then discussing the music and the experience.
If you are thinking that this sounds like an exercise in po-faced musical snobbery, think again: we can assure you that no evening hosted by the forthright, jovial and encyclopaedic force of nature that is Mr Connor will be po-faced. This is an exercise in passion. All the leading protagonists share an absolute conviction in the ability of music to bring people together and a belief that the development of multiple-format listening has in some way diminished the communal listening experience. “The Walkman changed the way we listen to music forever,” states our own Craig G. Pennington, “taking music out of the shared ether and confining it to the private space between our ears.” I asked Connor what attracted him to the project and it quickly became obvious that the shared experience was a major draw: from his declaration that he “hates listening to music through headphones” (I get the impression he feels it would be selfish to hog those grooves all to himself) to his confession that he was “something of a dictator” in channelling his contemporaries’ musical tastes (a revelation which ends with him declaring “no, no, I wasn’t really a dictator, I just love the music so much, I love it so much I could burst sometimes, I just want to share it”).
So, how will the Vinyl Station records be selected? Shaun Curtis states that the event will “play albums that no one in the audience will have heard before, to collectively tap into that immediate response you get from the first listen”. Record companies have shown a real interest in the project and are only too willing to proffer advance copies of their artists’ latest work. It is Pennington’s opinion that getting people “out in the open” to prompt an “immediate and visceral reaction” to the music will make a refreshing change from the filtered, ‘Like’-bait opinions of today’s online personas.
And, in turn, who is Vinyl Station for? According to Curtis, the audience profile is “wide open: it’s about sharing great music and not about fuelling any muso snobbery or elitism”. Connor concurs, railing against the ‘it’s for me’ culture and claiming “it’s everyone’s music, no one owns it”.
I ask Connor if sitting and listening to a piece lends itself to a particular style of music? “No no no, it doesn’t matter. I’d rather listen to house music at home on my stereo than in a club; I can hear the music rather than just a thud, thud beat with some gurning idiot next to me – y’know, it just depends on your mood; it’s all mood music.” That neatly highlights the project’s emphasis on the listening experience, with the lack of gurning idiots hopefully allowing people to focus on the music. “It’s about showing respect to the art of the album,” states Curtis, “by presenting its music in an environment that’s most sympathetic to getting its message across.” Creating the right mood will be essential to the success of Vinyl Station, and Curtis hopes to build on Metal’s experience of running Film Station, their free fortnightly film programme, to create an immersive experience for the listeners. With Connor at the helm the discussions should be just as entertaining as the music.
So, why vinyl? “Vinyl Station sounds better than CD Station or mp3 Station,” quips Connor. “You could hide the player behind a red curtain and no one could tell if it was vinyl, a CD, or an mp3 and, what’s more, no one would give a fuck! It’s about the music.”
Much is written and spoken about the supposed vinyl resurgence (UK vinyl sales reached one million in 2014 for the first time since 1996, and there is now a vinyl record chart). There is no scientific evidence that vinyl sounds better than CD: the science states that from the same master the information transferred to vinyl or CD is more or less the same, and let’s not even talk about compressed digital downloads (paraphrasing BBC’s The Thick Of It, Curtis suggests that listening to music on a laptop is the equivalent of “making coffee in a microwave”): it’s just not the same. But so much for science, why do many people prefer vinyl?
The word vinyl is derived from the Latin for wine (vinum) so the etymology is immediately pleasurable. The spiral groove that runs from the outer edge to the centre of a disc is found again and again in nature: spiral galaxies, nautilus shells, cyclone patterns, and it would be easy to get all mystically misty-eyed about vinyl. This is partly because people seem to find it so hard to actually explain why they like vinyl, why it’s worth the cost, the care, the time. Mario Aguilar (Gizmodo, April 2014) believes that “Vinyl has always offered a more intimate experience. There’s something wonderfully interactive about putting on a record, listening to a side, and then flipping it over to hear the other side. It makes the listening experience something in which you are constantly physically and emotionally involved”.
At a time when our down time is becoming more frenetic than our working hours, it’s little wonder that taking the time out to listen to a whole album on any format is increasingly rare. However, to take time out to listen to vinyl is surely one of life’s little luxuries, a Japanese tea ceremony of precise rituals played out before the secular altar of turntable, amp and speakers.
And perhaps that is where the vinyl listening experience comes into its own, the focus and dedication that listening to an album used to be bestowed with when the format reigned supreme. That collective, singular and communal act of listening never translated to the CD, mini-disc or digital space. Sure, we could all sit around and stare gleefully at an iPod dock while enjoying its audio wares, but – aside from the prospect being in itself particularly shit – maybe the physicality and ritualistic nature of vinyl listening lends itself perfectly to that collective experience.
The difficulties of making time to actually sit down and listen are jokingly reflected in Curtis’ statement that, “for us to carve out that space we’ve had to construct Vinyl Station”. And in doing so he has assembled a willing, passionate group of supporters to present a forum which Connor has already delightfully christened an “out of focus group”. Lend them your ears and add your voice to the debate.