Rediscovering Music

The power and influence of music over my life cannot ever be understated. It is where I have gone to when I have been happy; it is what I have embraced when I was depressed; it is what I have sought when I felt helpless; it is in the lyrics that I have found my advice; it is that one thing that has never ever deserted me; and yet there is always more to explore.

Without a doubt, I owe my passion for listening to music to my dad who went out of his way to buy music systems with whatever it was we could afford at that time. Right from the age of 6 or so, I have always had at least one stereo system at my home to listen to music. And I always made the most use of it. God knows how many cassettes I have played on a loop for hours together. And God alone knows how much money I had spent on buying them. Come to think of it, before the advent of the internet, listening to music was not just an act, it was always an experience.

Listening to the song or the release of an album on radio or watching it on TV, pestering my mom and dad to get me that album, going to the store and getting lost in the myriad of choices and having to settle on one cassette or CD with a heavy heart, coming home with great anticipation of what the new album would have in store for me, removing the cover and taking the liner notes & lyrics out, admiring the album art, putting the cassette or CD into the stereo, hitting play and letting the music take me places.

THAT was an experience.

And then the internet came and with it, the mp3.

In hindsight, I cannot really find fault with the mp3. If anything, it suddenly made me discover a lot more music than I had ever imagined I could. It exposed me to metal – the perfect form of expression to my then rebellious mindset – and it provided me more albums than I could listen to. It had sufficiently good quality and I was more than happy to not have to spend a single dime on any of it. This would eventually become the norm in the way I listened to and discovered music for the next decade of my life.

My ‘experience’ of listening to music would eventually be reduced to staring at my computer screen, a few clicks, a few mins of ‘downloading files’, opening the ‘file’ and then listening to the songs – or should I say ‘playing the files’ – while my mind was elsewhere surfing the web.  No sense of anticipation, no wonder at the joy of holding something new in my hands, and no admiring the album art. Maybe I would play the files a few times and then I would either move them into the recycle bin or I would have them join the growing list of songs I never played because I just liked to play what I already knew. (Hey I never paid for them so don’t really have to listen to them, right?)

I do not particularly remember ever complaining about it to be honest. That was largely because every single person around me did the same thing and had similar ways of listening to music. Nobody expected to pay for music and did not appear to be disappointed that they never really owned anything. It appeared to be an acceptable trade-off : the ability to listen to music for free in return for not really owning anything. And I do not recollect having any thoughts to the contrary either. Piracy was here to stay and with that came the mindset that free access to music was a fundamental right. After all, all the musicians are rich buggers who wont really mind missing out on their next million, right?

I had that mindset even until after I started working here in the US and started making enough money to buy CDs. It was only by accident that I found a Borders store closing down and they were having a sale. That was when I first paid for music in more than a decade. I think I bought 3 albums the first time and then I kept going back to the closing store as they kept increasing the discounts every 3 days. In the end, during a span of 2 weeks or so, I had visited the closing sale about 4-5 times and had purchased about 12-13 CDs. I did not know it then but that was just the beginning.

Those who know me well know the influence Steven Wilson has had on my taste in music, my thinking and my opinions in general about music. After I watched Insurgentes, I developed a strong desire to start a collection of music-  a physical collection, not a collection of files. Following this, when I eventually started buying music, I bought myself a vinyl player. Then when I moved to my own apartment and started living by myself, I bought a JBL 5.1 home theater system. Then I started collecting records and CDs.

This was the time when I finally started to listen to music again – and not just play files. I was now going to record stores in all the cities I went to, digging through hundreds of old and new records, smiling with great joy at finding a great album, going home with great anticipation, opening the record and placing it on the player, admiring the artwork and letting the music take me places.

Listening to music had become an experience again.

It is only when one experiences something more fulfilling do they realize what they had been missing out till then. This has certainly been true in my case with the way I listened to music over the years. There is something truly rewarding in the actual physical act of going to a record store, spending hours on a lazy Saturday afternoon digging through old records and CDs, driving back home, opening and placing the record in the player and holding the artwork in your hand while you watch the record spin. It actually means something to listen to music that way.

There are strong arguments online and offline about the sufficiency in the quality of the mp3. But to me it is no longer just about the quality of the compressed mp3 files as compared to the analog vinyl. It really is about the complete experience of listening to music that brings the sense of wonder and discovery back to the fold. To me, there is no joy in going to iTunes online, typing in a search word for an artist, click a few times to download ‘files’ and listening to the songs on a device the size of my two fingers which may or may not display the ‘artwork’ on a 2″ screen.

The argument of convenience has never worked for me – definitely not with regard to music. And I just feel grateful to know that there are many like me – including many many musicians and artists – who feel that music should not just be listened to as a playback of files, but as a fulfilling experience that brings the joy of wonder and discovery back to one’s life.

I currently own about 200 vinyl records and some 100 CDs. I recently upgraded my JBL 5.1 to a Bowers and Wilkins 686 series speakers (I replaced the front two JBL speakers with the B&W 686 and kept the other JBL speakers and subwoofer) at a cost of about $850. It is a lifetime investment which I strongly believe I have already reaped the returns and then some more. The clarity has brought me to tears on a few occasions. But I still listen to Pandora and the mp3s I ripped from my CDs at work (and during travel) on my Klipsch earphones. I discover new artists on Pandora (which would have been otherwise an almost impossible job) and then go buy their CDs/records. I buy CDs from Amazon when I know I will have a hard time locating them in stores.

There really is no boundary I can draw which I can use to define the way music should be listened to. However, I CAN speak from the perspective of having experienced the extremes in the way I listened to music – and the vastly different levels of satisfaction and fulfillment it has brought me over the years. I will continue to buy CDs and records, will continue to explore new artists and sounds on Pandora, and will definitely continue to experience the joys of letting the music take me places – like it has always done. But I will never get sucked into the warp of convenience over quality and completeness of experience.


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