Why We Must Tell Everyone That Streaming Music Is Not Enough

Music is among the most ephemeral of all arts. When it is written down, it’s in code, a code only understood by the kind of people who made the stuff in the first place, and that might explain why most music in most cultures is not written down with any real degree of precision. The thing only exists in the air.

It is air. Moving air.

We need air to breathe and we need air to hear. I recently discovered that the Italian verb sentire means both to hear and to feel. You could say hearing is feeling with ears, but new revelations indicate that sound acts on our whole bodies. Hearing and feeling become one in the same.

Music inhabits the air, but that air becomes thick, thick like gravy from the seventies, like the smell of a thousand perfume counters. The air from the speakers of your phone is not big enough. You would not date someone an inch high: don’t listen to music through phone speakers. Where is the love?

Headphones can make you feel surrounded by music, but you are then cut off from people around you. It’s a solitary experience, and it’s one I like a lot, but….it’s not a gig.

Recently I made some notes about a gig I was at. I had some fleeting observations, you know, mostly about why one note or gesture over another….but the shaking air all but smashed them and I wrote nothing down. Music is not an absolute, at least it wasn’t that night. Music is the people that it gathers together. To listen to a record is simply to imagine such a crowd around you. Tonight they are here. Sometimes music seems to play time backwards, the people that come somehow summoning the sounds. It radiates experience outwards into memories but with a seasoning of the new. Ghosts live and breathe. If you were there you would know, tonight you would know.

I stream music. A lot. I did a whole series of solo gigs in lockdown where my source of tunes was mostly from a streaming service and a search engine. Streaming is like looking in the footnotes of the Mona Lisa, like sky diving by sitting on a chair and having a friend scroll drawings of the sky past your face. It’s an indicator of a future experience. When you make a lot of money, you say: “I don’t know what I want to do, but when I do I’ve got the finances to pay for it.” The problem is, the finances pile up and the dreams fade away.

We have become used to an all-or-nothing approach to everything. It’s either all live music, wax cylinders and crackling vinyl or it’s a brave new world where music of the future will be released in a gas through the streetlights and suburbs of cities, towns and villages, perfect, odourless, soundless. And it will probably be Beethoven, James Brown and Neil Young because new music will be too expensive to record. Perhaps….we already have enough of it. I mean, how many “playlists to aid work concentration” does a person need?

But we only “have enough” if we regard the final “product” as the thing that matters. But it’s not. It’s the making of it, and the witnessing of that making by the people who crave the soul-comforting, mind-sharpening, puzzling sound of air moving through the world. Music is still communal, and all those people sitting in front of you on the bus with their earbuds in, they are longing for it too, but they are, in the meantime, making do with what has been made convenient. Music’s online availability, utopian perhaps in its early days, has removed the glamour of its scarcity. Rareness breeds value, but music is now lying half eaten in the street, a bag of chips discarded because the prospect of a sausage is a new taste sensation.

It’s not enough.

Eyes and ears and, I suppose, arse.

The modern day Travelodge shower has two things that of potential comfort; warmth and wetness, like the womb.  A return to that time before we had to deal with things other than ourselves.  Against the bare, nearly-white walls of the bathroom, a rush of hot water transports me to such an interior world, blocking out the concerns outside this place, leaving me alone with my thoughts.  It then transports me, feet up and arse first, on to the floor of the bath.  That noise – the sound of hitting the bath arse first – it’s a new sound to me.

Two things occur to me at this point (oh ok, sometime later); I am a bit over sensitive to sounds of all descriptions, and I am frequently unaware of the position of my body in relation to its surroundings.  I find this when I am looking at visual art.  I go to galleries from time to time.  I have no idea what I’m looking at or, more precisely, if I am actually looking at it.  I am here, it is there, somehow something goes awry in the space between us, me and it, and I wonder if it is my lack of awareness of spatial relationships.  You have to know where you stand, and to take an interest in that place, and the places of all the things around you, and to see potential beauty in those relationships.  An object in space is an object in space, and I sometimes struggle to see how it is better than or worse than another object in another space.  This is all highly embarrassing.  Sorry everyone.  At least I don’t say it is rubbish, I trust people that know better.  So I just keep looking through the things that pass for my eyes, eyes that probably miss a huge amount of whatever is in front of them.  In meditation, certain schools of Zen Buddhism say enlightenment is not something to wait for, or something that descends on you; enlightenment is the fact that you are sitting.  I keep looking and try not to expect to understand anything.

For me the experiencing of art is not about the brain, it’s about the senses.  It’s not intellectual, not in essence.  Art comes in through the eyes; yes, the brain then gets to work on experiencing the music’s structures, whether explicit or hidden,  making judgements about it, or finding “connections”, common themes, relationships to other arts, what it might be saying about something else.  Of course, structure in music can be a profoundly moving experience, whether planned or improvised, simple or complex, but without the sounds it is merely a description of itself.  Writing, for instance, was another art form that eluded me somehow.  I understood it was good, I understood people were saying important things, life changing ideas were being expressed.  But that side of it is more like philosophy, politics, sociology, other things I have no real grasp of.  Writing as an art became clear to me when a friend of mine advised me to read Shakespeare aloud.  Writing is sound, it comes in through the imaginary ears that can hear the equally imaginary voice that reads inside your head; that voice has no sound, and yet it never changes.  But to read aloud makes it tangible, makes the air move.  I like the air to move, and things to vibrate, which is why digital pianos are so horrible to play – no buzz through your fingers.  Just blind trust, trust that the places you learnt to put your fingers will send out some disembodied data that might, at some later stage when you are not wrestling with the sheer impersonality of the experience,  be reminiscent of the vibrations a piano can create in the air.  It’s all about quality of vibration.  Once that physical, tangible excitement gets across, then the brain can join in and explore the finer details.

I therefore fail to understand why some musicians are aghast when people don’t like their music.  Perhaps I go too far the other way when this happens to me, offering condolences and support where possible, apologising for the inconvenience, giving out biscuits and handing out warm coats.  This is not to be misinterpreted as thinking one’s own music is no good.  It’s just acknowledging that, between me standing here and you standing there is a lot of air, and it’s buzzing, and that is exciting for me (hopefully, and more often than not) and might not be for you.  I like sound.  Crickets on a Summer evening, conversations, chords, running water, it’s all soothing to me somehow.  Maybe you like other things.  Money.  Or sport.  Or going to gigs, endlessly waiting for them to make sense…

And so, lying in the bath, musing on what might have happened if my head were at the other end by the taps, two thoughts arise.  The first, suddenly grateful for my own life, the second wondering what the bath, a potentially huge and resonant instrument, might sound like.  And I began to drum, the rhythms between my thumb and fingers transporting me again, this time to my habitual place of comfort, back home.