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Prepare for New Adventures in Hi-Fi
In 2015, the Wu-Tang clan released a single copy of their album Once Upon A Time in Shaolin for sale to the highest bidder. It sold for $2 million
to pharma bro and ‘most hated man in America’ Martin Shkreli, and was later seized by the US government when he was convicted of defrauding investors. Yesterday the latest buyer was revealed to be the collective PleasrDAO, but its onward resale price is unconfirmed - as is the remaining balance of Shkreli’s negative karma and precisely which circle of Dante’s Inferno he will languish in for eternity.
The whole saga reversed the continuous cheapening of music - an art form that everyone claims to love - that has been happening since Napster was invented, and it raised a simple but provocative question: how much is sound worth?
It also asked some bigger questions: what does the way we listen in 2021 tell us about the importance of sound in a world that is ever-more saturated with visual media demanding our attention?
Or, to quote someone much wiser and cooler than me:
“DON’T YOU WONDER SOMETIMES/ABOUT SOUND AND VISION?” - DAVID BOWIE
To try and answer this question: the global video industry is worth a trillion dollars, the audio industry is worth just 100 billion1, even though the time spent on both is roughly the same.
Whilst music has become an £9.99 a month commodity, the high-fidelity equipment we’re listening to it with is becoming increasingly widespread, sophisticated and expensive2 - if Airpods were a separate business to Apple, their revenue would exceed the size of many tech companies, including Spotify.
Pre-2020, the increase in headphone usage meant that audio was becoming a retreat, a way of privatising public space in a world too crowded, anxious and demanding of our attention. To quote Damon Krunkowski of Galaxie 500 in his excellent “Ways of Hearing” podcast:
“It’s like we’re avoiding ear contact.”
Then Covid-19 and lockdown happened.
It may have been a human reflex to retreat away from the deluge of bad news available in visual form and into soundscapes offering the distant promise of escape, but we all got to Enjoy the Silence. Our relationship with sound was morphing pre-Covid, but the pandemic put it on steroids.
There have been plenty of lockdown media hot takes about gaming time going up by 30%, but listening to music edged up by 5%, while podcasts and audiobooks rose by nearly a quarter3.
As well as listening more, the way we listened began to shift in two notable ways:
i) Sound became a reminder of the world we’ve lost. Our cities became silent rather than cacophonous, people were able to hear bird song rather than traffic, and Covid made us all far more alert to what we could hear when the world stopped. This was visible in sonic elegies like Missing Sounds of New York, and its effect is likely to be felt long after in a redrawing of the architectural contract when it comes to what noise we tolerate in urban spaces.
ii) Sound became a means of connecting across isolation4. In the place of individualised and private sonic experiences, music became a public good via mass events like Dua Lipa’s Studio 2054 Live Events, Disney+ Singalongs, the BBC’s Great British Singalong, and all those videos of Italians singing from their balconies and mass Bill Withers singalongs from apartment blocks in Dallas. It was also visible in hyper-local music and radio services like Radio Garden, where you could zoom into radio stations across the planet to hear the sound of the world in all of its glory.
As we (fingers crossed) transition from the pandemic to the endemic phase of Covid, it feels as if media consumption and hardware are combining to place us on the verge of a golden age of sonic experience, with potential in music, theatre, storytelling, meditation, and many other areas besides.
We might be moving into a new Roaring 20s, or a skyscraper mega-wave of entrepreneurialism and investment5, or The Experience Renaissance (more on this later),
But we are in a Sonic Boom, and the evidence is everywhere:
As cultural proof, consider the following:
Sound-driven social like TikTok and Clubhouse becoming respectively, the biggest and fastest-growing social platforms (at least until Clubhouse ran out of steam). One is driven by music, the other by conversation.
Sonic appreciation formats and spaces going mainstream, as evidenced by Billie Eilish taking ASMR mass, podcasts like Dissect and Song Exploder updating VH1 Behind the Music for a new generation, and music destinations like Spiritland repurposing bars as miniature churches for musical immersion.
Sound as therapy and deep listening experience: Calm, Headspace and the resurgence of SoundBaths represent a popularising of the possibilities of sound as a therapeutic tool; Deep Listening experiences like Pitchblack Playback are a return to an ideal of unadulterated and transcendent sound immersion first popularised by Pauline Oliveros’ ‘Deep Listening’ music.
Sound-first cinematic experiences: movies like The Sound of Metal and The Vast of Night are driven by sound rather than it serving as ornamentation, and feel like experiences designed for a massive screen complimented by extremely powerful headphones.
Sound-driven virtual6 and digital experiences which are likely to to allow musicians to reach far wider audiences than any IRL event.
Audio Theatre: the increase in sound-dominant theatre experiences, with examples like Complicité using Binaural sound as an integral way of bringing to life a journey into the Amazon and its effects on time and space in The Encounter7, and the Donmar Warehouse’s binaural theatrical version of Jose Saramago’s Blindness.
Sonic Storytelling: the existing and future growth of audiobooks8 as a type of reading experience - Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Talking to Strangers’ audiobook outsold physical and digital book sales9 2 to 1 - is leading to massive increases in the craft of oral storytelling. Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” adaptation with Amazon was launched as an ‘audio movie’ with incredibly high production values, and horror podcasts are now also reacquainting people with the potential of sound to create dread and fear.
We are all sound nerds and aficionados now.
If you wanted further proof of the increasing primacy of sound, the US military-industrial complex is now attempting to map the planet according to how different places sound, and someone has also now invented a means of beaming sound directly inside your head.
Presenting this as an exclusively modern phenomenon is naive: sound is primal and fundamental to humans. It’s an adage that all great music initiates the desire to fight, cry, dance or fuck (or all of them, dependent on the song), but sound as a sense moves us on a level that nothing else can match.
R. Murray Schafer (Canadian Composer) - “There are no earlids.”
So, to the point: why the fuck aren’t the creative industries doing more with it?
The marketing and advertising industries are predominately visual-first: brands were created so that people could recognise good products without even needing to read. There are designers, illustrators, art directors and other visual thinkers in every creative agency and company, but what about sound?
Do we really think about sound as carefully as we should given that increasing numbers of us experience reality mediated by highly-sophisticated audio equipment and content?
We are visually and verbally fluent but sonically illiterate, often deaf to the role of sound in building brands, crafting memorable experiences and connecting with people.
But there are big opportunities for those listening hard enough. Sound is a psychological trigger, a means of influencing quality perceptions, creating memories, stimulating nostalgia, a targeting tool, an interface, and a way of persuading people that what they’re hearing is true.
Talking about music might be like dancing about architecture, but let’s give it a go: over the next few of these pieces, join me as fellow audionauts to explore three key new frontiers of the sonic boom.
SOUND AS INTERFACE & EXPERIENCE
SOUND AS AUDIENCE SIGNAL
SOUND AS TRUTH-TELLING
Thank you for listening, and if you want to discuss or argue about any of this, I’m all ears.
With apologies to Scott Galloway (who is almost certainly not reading this) for bastardising the title of his piece for this article. https://www.profgalloway.com/the-sonic-entrepreneurship-boom/
There is a time and a place in every marketing presentation written in the last year to reference Travis Scott x Fortnite, and lucky reader this is that moment.
For anyone who didn’t see this, you f*cked up.