By Ben Hope

This article was originally published in the August 23, 2023 edition of The Ayr News.

In 1997, I remember fantasizing about a day when you could listen to any song by any artist any time you wanted. It was such a cool thing to think about in my teen years. Music was everything to me and I just wanted to have access to all of it, whenever I wanted. Now that it’s here with streaming, it doesn’t really feel like anything special. 

Before streaming, it was a process of work (and love) to be a music person because you didn’t want to spend money on something that sucked. You had to research. And learn. And find new music. It was exciting. You took the CD (or record or tape) home. You read through the liner notes as you listened to the music. And then you listened again. And again. Sometimes you listened again just because you had spent money on it. And that was enough to unlock the magnificent possibilities of so much music. Now, admittedly, I’m not a teenager anymore, so I can’t dedicate hours and hours of my time to listening and reading about music, but I still miss the process. 

In my experience, the songs I hear that are instantaneously catchy are also the songs that I usually get sick of. And the albums that took a few spins around the turntable (or CD player) before I heard something magical, something that I connected with, were the albums that never got old. These were the albums I will love until the day I die. 

Streaming doesn’t have the same impact in my mind. When I first started streaming, if I didn’t like something immediately, I would skip to the next thing and say things like, “Music isn’t as good as it used to be.” And it was true: nothing is going to be good unless you invest something in it. I have learned now to give things a chance while streaming. Listen to it. And then listen to it again. But it’s hard. And it’s not as fun as listening to a record because analog music affects your brain differently than digital music. 

First off, analog music has all the beautiful frequencies, untainted and as magnificent as the artists, the producers, and the mastering engineers painstakingly worked to make them sound. Low and warm bass lines. Crisp guitars. Gentle tones. Loud tones. Undistorted tones. Digital music chops up that beautifulness into a bunch of little pieces that our brains then put back together to make it sound like a continuous piece of music. And while it might sound okay, what do we lose as it’s put it back together? Do we lose any of those harmonics that give sound that lovely depth? The dynamics in volume that emphasize important elements in a song? That wonderful low bass that makes it impossible to stop moving? The ability to fall in love with it? 

When you stream, you’ll find yourself saying things like, “It sounded so much better live.” And it did, because it was analog. Everything is better in analog. It’s the difference between going to a fine dining restaurant and experiencing a perfectly crafted flavour explosion or eating a frozen dinner.

And, if your brain is working to connect those little pieces while you’re streaming, it’s not relaxing and giving its attention to the actual listening of the music. With music, I want to enjoy it. And I want to feel it. It needs all of my attention and I want to give it. I’m not a neurologist (although, I’m often mistaken for one), so this is just how I like to think about the science behind streaming. 

Secondly, it might not be the best idea to have the infinite possibilities that streaming offers us. For me, it means there is always something better to be listening to (or watching, for that matter). Sometimes, you find something good but more often than not, you’re just skipping forward (or scrolling), which doesn’t give anything the chance to be good. Is it because the sound doesn’t impact our brains in the same memorable way (any neurologists out there?)? Is it because we don’t give it the proper attention and time to be good? 

And records, CDs, and tapes are tangible things that you think about buying first. Is the band good? Did someone recommend the album? You give the music the time it needs to percolate in your mind before you even start listening to it and it becomes something that means a lot to you. Something you will remember forever. Think about your favourite music. And think about the time you invested in it until it got that good. And while you can probably achieve a similar experience with streaming if you gave it a chance, it’s not as straightforward and it is far too easy to move on. Finite selections make it easier to select the things that you will love.

Finally, the physical aspects of the album are a big part of the experience. Looking at the cool artwork. Cracking open the plastic on a new record with a gatefold. Pulling out the inner booklet and getting excited when it was thick. Reading the lyrics. Reading about the musicians. Reading about how the album was recorded and produced. Checking out the photographs of the band. And all the while, you are listening. And it becomes a memorable experience; a moment in mind. 

I missed that about music and it’s why I started listening to vinyl. To get back the feeling of listening to Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time. Or Led Zeppelin II. The White Album. Definitely Maybe. Rage Against The Machine. Thriller. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. And it changed everything, rekindling a lost love that I hadn’t even realized I had lost from back when I gave music the time for love to blossom. When I talk to people around my age (43…*cough* *cough) who love music, they miss that experience too. And younger generations are missing out on this wondrous thing.

Now I spend money on something that people think you can get online for free. And for me, it’s totally worth it because there is still really, really, really, good music being made today. And it’s fun to listen to the old stuff that awakens nostalgia. And I get the full experience: buying it, opening it up, reading it, playing it, and falling in love with it. 

This is why we opened our shop, Music & Books, in Ayr. We wanted a place in town where you could go to find something new. Or something old that you forgot you loved. To meet other people who love art. And to experience something that is both fun and meaningful.