"The idea is that we get to have our own portable, personal listening environment, while still staying connected to our surroundings." Images supplied by harman.com

Day-stream Believer

17th November 2017

The way we listen to music is evolving… Lisa Botwright takes a closer look

When was the last time you listened to a piece of music? Perhaps you streamed a podcast through your phone while you were making breakfast? Or you found yourself singing along to the radio in the car? But when’s the last time you really listened… when you sat down to savour an album from start to finish, or when you chose to forego your evening’s fix of Netflix for an hour of Nirvana?

The way we listen to music has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades, arguably because of our increasing appetite for quantity over quality, for an instant fix over delayed gratification. Companies such as iTunes and Spotify now mean our homes can be filled with more music than we can listen to in a lifetime, but, as Mike Edwards, UK Product Manager for international electronics company JVCKenwood says, “When you can have everything anytime, then you take it for granted.”

So how exactly are we listening to music in our homes? And how did these new trends evolve? “Fifteen years ago the home hi-fi market was very simple,” says Mark Hockey, Senior UK Marketing Specialist for audio manufacturers Harman. “There were three clear departments: Separates for the audiophile, Minis and Micros for the mass market and Portables.” I nod, remembering the late 1990s Micro system I bought for my first home: a compact silver and blue system for playing CDs and radio, with no dauntingly complicated set up as needed for separates. It sat neatly and unobtrusively on a shelf in my sitting room, and I thought it was a thing of beauty.

“With the rise of digital music, around five years ago, things were starting to look a lot different,” Mark continues. “And now, as we move from physical media to streaming, the market is hardly recognisable. The separates market has shrunk even further and is now incredibly specialised, the mid-market has completely changed over to portable, and portables are now turning into ‘wearables’…” More of this later.

“In the past, people invested in a hi-fi system with stereo sound, and sat down to listen to music,” Mike Edwards offers. “When MP3 [a digital music format for compressing sound files to make them easy to download and store] came along, it changed everything. People stopped listening to high quality sound. They got rid of their CD players and started to download everything onto their iPods. Docking stations came along, with mono speakers – and they were convenient and neat, but ultimately boring.”

Mike believes that as well as overwhelming us with choice –“Spotify opened the window in allowing us to access different types of music, but confused people as to what to listen to…” – it also changed our expectations. “Popular music became even more processed as a consequence of this poorer sound.” He argues that quality went down even further “when young people realised they could get around having to pay for music and started downloading from free sites.”

Digital listeners have a choice between downloading from somewhere like iTunes, and paying for each piece individually, or streaming unlimited music from a site such as Spotify, and paying a small monthly fee: perhaps the cost of one CD a month, in return for access to thousands. Personally, I adore Spotify, along with millions of others, and often channel my inner-1980s-teenager by making up playlists on my laptop – just as much fun as making up those mix tapes on cassette back in the day. I find the choice more exhilarating than bewildering.

Artists such as Taylor Swift and Radiohead are critical of Spotify, however, for the arguably paltry amount of royalties they pay out, and believe that this stranglehold fails to incentivise or support emerging new talent. In 2012 Swift pulled her back catalogue, arguing that “valuable things should be paid for… in my opinion music should not be free.” However, she’s since come back on board, ‘as a thank you’ to her fans.

The concept of cheap and unlimited music is justifiably debatable, but, as music journalist David Touve says, “Imagine that the world is comprised of only two possible fans… one of those fans will buy a download today. The other fan will enjoy music through a streaming service for years to come” – making the point that over time streaming may end up being worth just as much to the artist as an individual one-off sale.

Falling CD sales and royalties might have heralded a disaster for the music industry, but it’s fighting back with a renewed focus on performance. “People now consume music live; it’s becoming even more popular than going to the cinema,” Mark tells me. And although cynics might argue that it’s simply a way for money to be recouped through ticket sales, it’s had an enormously positive knock-on effect on the way we connect with music. “One of the reasons we’re buying more vinyl is because it represents what the artist is achieving,” he enthuses.

Mike also believes that the turntable resurgence – a huge trend in the last couple of years –  is down to people becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their music system once they’ve heard their favourite artists play live. “Vinyl means returning to the concept of music as an experience; the act of taking a record out of its sleeve and listening to it. A lost generation, who now understand what music’s all about, are coming back.”

Ultimately, however, despite their shared enthusiasm, they both believe that turntables are likely to be a temporary fad, and that people are reluctant to re-fill their homes with the clutter of records and CDs. So, what will the next new thing be instead? I’m keen to hear their thoughts on how we’ll all be listening to music over the next couple of decades…

“I believe that connectivity is a revolution waiting to happen,” declares Mark. He’s talking about voice-activated speakers placed in key living spaces in our homes that seamlessly allow internet-assisted control over all aspects of our domestic lives: home entertainment certainly, but also over our heating, lighting and even our online shopping. High quality speakers, such as Harman’s new JBL Link series can now deliver immersive stereo sound as fast as you can say ‘Okay, Google, play me…’

There’s also a burgeoning appetite for higher quality streaming, and Mike is gratified by the greater demand for the new high resolution streaming sites, such as Tidal and Q-Buzz, where the music – for a premium, at the moment – is staggeringly good, studio quality. “Once people are listening to better quality music, then they’ll be investing in better quality hardware to play it on, like high resolution headphones. ”

Mark sees our busy lifestyles as a reason that headphones are so popular. “Sadly people have less time to listen to music, and that’s why portable music has taken off; it means they can listen to it when they do have time, such as on public transport.”

But there’s also a big market for people who invest in quality headphones to use at home; which, if they’re wireless, also brings the convenience to move seamlessly from room to room, indoors to outdoors, as they listen to music. For this audience, the brand new ear-free and hands-free ‘wearables’ might just be the perfect alternative. Mark shows me something that looks like a Star Trek visor, but explains that it’s meant to be placed around your shoulders, creating an intimate sound bubble. And yes, it’s pretty comfortable. The idea is that you get to have your own portable, personal listening environment, while still staying connected to your surroundings. ‘Wearables’ are as convenient as headphones, but without that ‘closed-off’ feeling. You can still hear the phone or the doorbell, and talk to those around you.

There will always be a market for the richest or most dedicated music lovers to consume their artistic predilection in the most technologically-advanced and aesthetically-pleasing way possible – £77,000 separates anyone? Yes please, Harman – just as there will always be a demand for cheap and easily accessible ‘background music’.

What’s incredible is the amount of choice out there, in between these two extremes, that allows us to tweak and improve our own individual listening experiences. “It’s all about making the most of your collection,” concludes Mark. “Enhancing that experience to enjoy your music properly…”

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