Music: It’s all about the context, y’all…

I read an interesting article from the imitable Stewart Lee last week, in which he commented on how the increasing availability of previously inaccessible or forgotten artists is changing the way their music is being enjoyed (you can read the article here).

With Spotify,, Grooveshark, Soundcloud and other online music streaming sites & blogs, you can access almost any artist or song you want, in any order, at any time. There are even websites such as Musicovery which will find music to fit whatever mood you’re in. All these channels not only provide a great way for you to enjoy the music you love, but also create in roads for new artists and genres that you’d probably never have discovered otherwise.

cassettesThe Magic of Mix CDs

In the past, people mostly found their music by watching listening to a handful of radio stations (each with their own heavily distilled playlist), shows like Top of the Pops, or tips from friends. I’ve always been a big fan of mix CDs and still like swapping them with friends but definitely love that the internet has completely opened up the possibilities for me to find new music.

Despite the obvious furore surrounding royalties and copyright, I’ve always been of the opinion that these new opportunities for music are, overall, a Good Thing. Yes, I mourn the loss of some brilliant record shops and the lack of control artists have over their work if it gets torrented or blogged – but I also don’t think that taking away some of the power from multi-national record labels is a tragedy for music or musicians. I say this as a music-lover and not a music-maker, I hasten to add.

Appreciation vs Apprehension

In Stewart Lee’s post, he says something that really resounded with me;

‘the instant availability of everything ever means I am consuming something that was never aimed at me, from a time and a place I have no connection with, and yet I am nearly enjoying it.’

I have certainly stopped and thought whilst listening to Sandanista! by The Clash, or one of Chilean activist Victor Jara’s rebel cancions that whilst I enjoy these songs, will I ever appreciate them in the way they were intended? Does music lose anything outside of the context it was created in or for?

Jimi-Hendrix-at-Woodstock4In the same way that I’m aware that my repulsion at High School Music sing-alongs is hardly surprising considering it was not in any way intended for my demographic, am I just as guilty for not fully understanding ‘All Along the Watchtower’ because I have no concept of what it was like to live through the political and cultural upheaval of the ’60s?

The trouble with Shuffle

As well as thinking about how much the meaning of a song can change according to generation, the manner that we get our music nowadays can play a large role in changing the way it is received.

Instead of listening to an entire album on a cassette or CD, most people now listen to music on MP3 players or on their computers, giving you the option to shuffle tracks or listen to an album out of sequence.  Alongside the Genius functionality in iTunes, Spotify and among others also allow you to play ‘Artist Radio’ which shuffles songs from your selected artist along with songs from similar artists.

I find these methods very handy for discovering new music, but I’m also not sure if it’s sometimes the best way to appreciate a song, especially if that artist has gone to the trouble of crafting an album and agonising over the track order and album concept, only to have selected songs whipped out and jammed in to another randomised playlist.

The singer-songwriter Adam Green once remarked that it didn’t matter what order he put the songs in on his latest album as people put their iPods on to shuffle anyway. This enraged one of my musician friends so much that he actually sat down and organised the songs in to the best order he could, as he still believes that the sequence of tracks plays a large part in how that album is interpreted. I’m inclined to agree with this; every time I make a mix CD the majority of my time goes in to the order of the tracks – more so than the selection of said tracks. As one of my favourite literary characters (and one whom I indentify with more than I’d like to admit) Rob from High Fidelity says of making mixtapes:

mixtapeThe making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem.’

Appreciating the Music

Overall, I think that the best thing about music is that it transcends culture, age and gender. As much as you may have your music preferences, there will always be certain songs that bring people together and make you tap your feet or hum along irrespective of your background or tastes.

In this new era of music distribution not only do we have unprecedented access to all genres of music old and new, but the choice to consume it how we want, and as long as we’re still appreciating music for the craft that it is and treating it with the respect it deserves, I don’t see a problem, whether your prefer your tunes shuffled or just as the artist intended.

So; keep paying for your music, go to gigs and share your band tips with your friends. The best thing about music is how personal it is and we should never lose sight of the most important relationship; that between an artist and their audience, not listening to what a record company exec tells us we should like.

2 thoughts on “Music: It’s all about the context, y’all…”

  1. really good insights! im a singer/songwriter who has been wrestling with these questions myself (esp. since I make and sell my music). But I would agree with you that overall what the internet has done is a good thing. Quality is still a good filter, and there will always be ways to capitalize on talent for people who are smart—even if file sharing has made music practically free to anyone. Really interesting point about shuffling songs vs. listening to albums all the way through. I actually just started a video blog that deals with some of these same questions from my perspective as a musician. thanks for the post!

    1. Glad you liked! I was particularly worried that it wouldn’t come across that well to musicians but good to know that you think about the same things, thank for the comment! 🙂

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