In the wake of last month’s Emily White fracas, I know that folks on both sides of the debate are still a little touchy. I don’t mean to ask this question (“Is music worth your time?”) in order to be antagonistic; I know that music IS worth your time! But as someone who’s admittedly most comfortable with one foot in the old world and one in the new, I’m curious how the factors which play a part in the evaluation of music’s worth and significance are changing along with our means of experiencing that music.

This is what it must’ve been like to listen to music in the 70’s, man!

A couple nights ago, my friend Rob held up a shiny new 180 gram vinyl album and asked me, “Hey, have you heard this Leon Russell record?”

I had not, so he put it on and we listened in amazement. The songs, singing, musicianship, and recording quality were all top-notch. I scanned the lyrics and read the liner notes as the record played. When side one ended Rob got up, turned it over, and we listened to the rest of it with a kind of old-school (or so we imagined) reverence and awe. Two music geeks worshiping at the temple of Hi-Fi.

While this might sound like the windup to yet another article about how vinyl sounds better, how the production techniques of yesteryear were best, how vintage gear is the only way to go, how they don’t make musicians and songwriters like they used to, and how the almighty album format should always reign supreme— it’s not.

Oh, I can wax nostalgic with the best of ’em (pining for a time before I was born!), but I’m also aware that when we look at the past, we have the benefit of time’s great sieve to parse out the gems from the junk– leaving us with the most memorable stuff, the best written/performed/recorded stuff– the stuff that makes us say, “They don’t make music like they used to,” even though it’s not true.

No, this post is about something Rob said to me before putting on the record. He said, “I spent $28 dollars on this, mailed away for it, and couldn’t wait for it to arrive.” That comment set the mood for a kind of listening experience I’d not had in a long time– and one that I really miss having, drowning as I am in a sea of MP3 singles, YouTube clips, and hyperactive Spotify-ing.

At Rob’s house, the music we were listening to together was good on its own merits, sure. But what made the listening experience magical (in a kind of contact-high sorta way) was a combination of that quality with a couple other important elements: anticipation and investment.

Now. Now. Now. Free. Free. Free.

In the digital era, when music costs us nothing and can be instantly accessed, we’re able to discard it as quickly as we can acquire it. And because there is no risk, no cost (besides a few deletable bits of memory on a hard drive and a few seconds of your time), there seems to be very little pressure to delve beyond our surface impressions of a song or artist. Does it meet my immediate need? Does it achieve what I expect music to achieve according to my existing tastes and standards? If so, great. I’ll keep that song in my iTunes library. If not– NEXT!

But when I think about my absolute favorite albums of all time, few of them gave me that hit of immediate satisfaction. They had to grow on me. Or, perhaps more accurately, I had to grow towards them over repeated listens.  I was willing or pressured to give those albums repeated listens BECAUSE I’d spent money on them; I wanted to get my money’s worth– and if I wanted another album I would have to wait until I’d saved up enough money!

Sometimes, of course, I’d give an album multiple chances and still end up frustrated that I’d thrown $15 down the drain. But sometimes, something on the 4th or 5th spin would grab me and not let go. To be as melodramatic as possible, it was like some semi-profound mystery of sound had revealed itself. A sweet reward for my patience and persistence!

How has the listening experience changed?

The optimist in me believes that music will always serve a sacred, connective role for us– it’s just that the WAYS in which we experience that sacredness, that mystery, and that interconnectedness through music will continue to change. So, out of sheer curiosity, I have a few questions for the music fans of today and tomorrow:

1. What current pressures/opportunities exist in the process of music consumption which encourage listeners to “let an album/song/artist grow on them?”

2. If you spend less time and money (or no time and money) acquiring music, do you find yourself devaluing the listening experience as well? What circumstances create value for a listening experience?

3. Do you have experiences with music that feel… sacred? When? How? Where? etc.

4. Does a sense of anticipation (for a new album, single, artist, etc.) play any part in how you experience music?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to comment in the section below.

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[Abstract musician image from Shutterstock.]