Interesting premise, huh?
We have all heard stories of beautifully set up systems, with no stone left unturned, with it’s owner proudly selecting playback media from a list that includes female “jazz” vocals, percussion (especially Kodo drums!), and sound effects, all from boutique labels. Clichés often are exaggerations, but most take root in truth.
Art Dudley, in an intriguing opinion piece in Stereophile, entitled “Snob Appeal”, covered a wide range of topics, but this particular quote stood out for me:
“The world is full of people whose appreciation for music doesn’t run terribly deep, and one can’t deny that audiophiles account for some of their number—especially those hobbyists whose attention is focused on such things as spatial effects, and whose record collections aren’t really collections at all but merely accumulations of technically well-made recordings, most purchased on the recommendation of whatever guru “discovered” them. I think a bottle-cap collection has more artistic value than a wall full of records that are all on audiophile labels, but that’s just me.”
(Dudley does emphasize that Audiophiles are not snobs for liking better sound, just to be clear.)
Where this interests me is in relation to the nonstop chatter we hear about the industry declining. And there are so many views concerning this. We hear about the excitement surrounding portable DAC units, the uptick in headphone interest, and the proliferation of great sounding entry-level gear. On the other hand, we also confront the reality of high-end audio dealers closing and with new gear hitting the market that seems directly aimed at the proverbial “one percent”. Yet, when preaching to the converted, stagnation and the inevitable tail-chasing ensues.
As an audiophile who came to the hobby with a passion for music, my early and uncompromising Beatles obsession lead me on the path of musical discovery through the genres. I was able to take flight and get lost in music with an old Aiwa cassette boom box, a Sony Walkman, and then on a modest two-channel system consisting of hand-me-downs (a pair of Rogers LS3/5a’s, an NAD integrated amp, a Sony CD changer, and Monster Cable).
It was only later that I got into the “gear” for gear’s sake. However, when I came into contact with other audiophiles, I was astounded at their almost tribal tunnel-vision with regard to equipment worship, setup, and the fierce defense of one belief system or another. Unfortunately, these tended to be people with a decidedly technical bent, suffering the inconvenience of music in order to “enjoy” their systems.
I still encounter self-styled audiophiles who have not purchased a new recording in twenty years, who lean toward releases that are on, what Art Dudley calls, “guru approved” lists, and those who have waved off the very notion that there are talented musicians producing recordings today. It seems that they would rather have pins stuck in their ears than attend a live show, because, as I have been told, they would have to suffer with “bad sounding” P.A. systems and be in a room with other people.
Another group that gets a bit of airtime are what I might call audio “formatists”. These are people who obsess over the particular format the music is released on, as opposed to the artistic merits of the music itself. These folks will pass over music they may actually enjoy unless it is (fill in the blank) – DSD, 24 bit PCM, Vinyl, SACD, or tape. Formatists are having a field day with DSD.
The good news is that there are a decent number of audiophiles who are also musically curious. It is my experience that they tend to have more modest systems, because, quite simply, they have different priorities. And this brings us back full circle. As I see it, the audio industry and community fail to celebrate music as an art form. In the end I guess it is not surprising, with the hobby being heavy on the testosterone, geeky specifications and measurements, that it tends to attract a large numbers of pseudo engineers – as opposed to artistic types – who would rather discuss the technical attributes of their speakers than how their systems connect them to the music.
Unfortunately, I think this kind of musical incuriosity is one of the major factors involved with the lack of interest and participation by younger folks. Because the younger generations have a voracious appetite for music, using the music as a gateway is perhaps the only way to truly pique their interest.
Why aren’t we telling these vast, uninitiated that while there is nothing wrong with consuming music in AAC or Mp3 format via computer speakers or cheap ear buds, there just might be a better way to enjoy your favorite albums? Make it a suggestion, not a condemnation. Shouldn’t we be focusing on music and the pleasure that it gives? As a rabid tea drinker, years ago some folks suggested that I try loose leaf tea steeped in purified water as opposed to the microwaved tea bags in tap water that I usually drank. With very little extra effort, I was quite taken at how different the experience was.
This is, and has been for a decade, a golden age for music lovers who seek emerging artists driven by passion and integrity. Recordings on labels such as Asthmatic Kitty, Merge, Rough Trade, Jagjaguar, Nonesuch, Anti, DapTone and countless others, are as essential to my music library as any of my Led Zeppelin or Miles Davis. And with infinite ways to be exposed to new music online – via Spotify, Pandora, Last FM, YouTube, Bandcamp and a lot more – it takes significant stubbornness to be stuck in a stale musical bubble. Thankfully, we live in a unique era of “try before you buy.”
One can also use online music and audio forums to discover new sounds. I regularly receive and make suggestions on the Steve Hoffman music forum, and have encountered some amazingly well versed members who are generous with their knowledge. I recently posted about Jake Bugg, a terrific young artist who just released his second album. I received an email from another forum member thanking me for the suggestion, and better yet, he took his thirteen year old daughter to see Bugg live, which turned out to be a bonding event.
Bruce Springsteen, recently appearing on Jimmy Fallon, shared: “There is an enormous amount of great music today that relatively few people are hearing.” He admitted to using online resources at all hours of the night to find new music that “lights him up.”
Now that’s what I call Musical Curiosity!