Read in the newspaper the other day that there's been a trend towards vinyl surging in popularity again and that part of it (according to an EMI exec) is due to the re-appearance of social listening by kids after decades of increasing headphone-oriented seclusion. Perhaps it seems like a strange thing to be happening just as DJs are seemingly giving it up, but it strangely mirrors my own experience.
I was given a 60s portable vinyl player for Christmas 2006 (thank you, dear) and I've since become a total vinyl junkie, while CDs are starting to feel very cheap, flimsy and hard to use by comparison. Vinyl has a greater range of music available, it's much less a strain on the wallet and it's real fun to go hunting for in bargain bins, this weekend so far I've bought 25 of them. And I've totally latched onto the communal listening thing - me and my friends have been listening and discussing records, we've used it as an ice-breaker at parties, and currently it's set up at work where it's the source of much (mostly positive) discussion and the strange vagaries of peoples' tastes in music is readily made apparent. (How can anyone find old-school Tommy Boy hip-hop from 1985 grating?)
In general, though. If indeed kids have gone back to sitting in their teenage rooms listening to records together, fifties style, what kind of an impact will this have on the music? That kind of thing is a bit of an obsession of mine.
First, is it a coincidence we're seeing this in conjunction with a renewed interest in the music of the early-to-mid eighties, like Latin freestyle? By far the easiest-to-access quality music in vinyl bargain bins is stuff from that period - earlier decades have been picked out, leaving largely crap, and in the nineties Vinyl became a DJ-aimed luxury. Cheap, quality goods with a bit of an attitude have always managed to be made cool by the kids, and here we have music that kids can find and be inspired by ready at hand. I'm hoping for a decent Hi-NRG and Italo revival too, but I'm not holding my breath - they may be a tad too square in the end.
Of course, music for listening to together also requires fairly different qualities to those we've been used to in the internet age. The devolution from the album to the single to the 10-second listening experience (which, let's face it, is about the amount of time we judge new music by these days before clicking on) is likely to take a different route. In particular, weak spots, overly harsh contrasts and boring tracks ought to be more stringently punished, as it's no longer just a single instance that has to be interesting and tracks get changed if just one person complains. But mostly continuity probably gets stronger again. I've certainly heard more whole albums recently (as background music at work) than I have for many years.
Music as a conversation starter or a conversation piece places special demands on it, too. Will it have to be relatively mainstream so that everyone can relate to it, or should it be unusual and obscure to promote storytelling? Lyrics could become less important if people talk over the music more. Short songs over long songs is definitely a possiblity too, I think - go in, raise interest, don't let it slide.
In any case, I'm sure there'll be some effect - music history shows how vital a new medium and a new usage can be for changing music. And since vinyl isn't new, nor social listening to records, maybe history can tell us something of what we can expect from this development, too.
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