Ringo 007: The Comfort In Listening

harnessing the calming effect of music to help get us through

Hi! I'm Michael Donaldson, and I write about music on 8sided.blog, license and publish music through 8DSync, and make music as Q-Burns Abstract Message. I think about music all of the time. My guess is you do, too.

This is the seventh episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care, a newsletter loosely about music-making and music-listening and how technology changes the culture around those things.

As you might have heard, each episode of this newsletter has a theme song. This week, that song is called “Cahuacho.” Please enjoy the tune (and its EBow solo) as you read this episode’s ramble …

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These times are incredibly odd (to put it mildly), and so this is an odd edition of my toddling newsletter. I haven’t quite settled into the writing rhythm, and putting this episode together was a struggle. The working-at-home aspect isn’t a big deal as that’s where I’ve worked for most of my (sorta-)professional life. But the background hum of uncertainty, concern, and — let’s face it — fear throws new challenges into the mix.

I’m not alone in walking a tightrope between ‘now’s the time to get stuff done’ and ‘take it easy for your mental health.’ It’s an unusual juggling act, at least for me. I miss the days — they seem so long ago — when I would get lost entirely in creative tasks, the mind focused straight ahead for hours. It’s been like that for a while, but lately, the distraction dial goes to 11.

It’s about reclaiming space, throwing that bellowing inner voice off to the side. It’s a modern ploy to call this act ‘mindfulness,’ and I’ve regularly meditated for years, but that’s not helping right now. We need solace and beauty — something that whispers hope. We need art now more than ever.

In my review of Jogging House’s beautiful album Lure, I talk about music as an optimistic glimpse at what’s possible. I quote Brian Eno: “One of the reasons one makes music, or any kind of art, is to create the world that you’d like to be in or the world that you would like to try.” And, in the case of music, the listener experiences a taste of this world by losing herself in the sound.

Pioneering experimental composter Pauline Oliveros called this ‘deep listening.’ Deep Listening originally was the title of an album Oliveros recorded with her ‘Deep Listening Band’ in an empty underground reservoir. The space featured a natural 45-second reverb tail, creating washes of sound out of the trombone, didjeridu, accordion, and other employed instruments. There’s no resisting this immersion in sound.

But ‘deep listening’ was soon synonymous of a “radical attention.” Oliveros explained this interpretation as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.” It’s the opposite of how most people (myself included) stream music: in the background as a complement to our mood, office productivity, or housework. With deep listening, you LISTEN — no other activity is in the foreground.

Deep listening pops up in Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing, which I recommended a few newsletters ago. Odell poses the concept as a resistance to a constant inundation of information and newsfeeds. Oliveros and deep listening also appear in Kyle Chayka’s The Longing For Less, which I’m presently reading. Chayka writes, “Such intense listening is meant to inspire compassion and understanding, a kind of acceptance that goes beyond the noisy concerns of the current moment that usually crowd our consciousness.”

Chayka, citing Oliveros, refers to this listening as “meditating on the organic sounds of nature and experiencing the resonance of unique spaces like caves, cathedrals, or wells.” But our present crisis makes it difficult to go out in public to explore these places. In quarantine, we need to listen deeply at home.

In the Los Angeles Times, Randall Roberts proposes a different take on deep listening: we should do it with albums. Silence your phone and any other potential distractions, set the mood (“Light a candle or not.”), sit comfortably between two speakers or put some nice headphones on, and listen — really listen — to an album from beginning to end. Lose yourself in the sound. Examine the lyrics and the performances. Imagine where the music is taking place. Roberts says, “The point is to listen with your ears in the same way you read with your eyes.”

Though not emphasizing the ‘deep’ aspect, Amanda Petrusich wrote about the reassuring qualities of listening to a favorite album in The New Yorker. (Side note: that article has the coolest gif and I wish I could steal it.) She refers to one album as “a reliable and instantaneous balm, no matter what’s happening to me or the world.” Petrusich also offers this: “The best thing about records is that, even when you don’t have anything left to give, they keep showing up for you.”

I propose we regularly set time aside to lose ourselves in albums. Choose an album and listen without productivity or house chores on the agenda. What should you listen to? A new album is fun, but hearing something for the first time might be too much work. No playlists allowed — only an intentional album song sequence will do. A favorite album or one that’s attached to nostalgia is good. Maybe an album you like but haven’t listened to more than a few times. Or perhaps listen to an album you’ve enjoyed but have only heard in the background while working or cooking or all the other things. Give it the attention it deserves.

Listen. Sit in one place, close your eyes if that’s comfortable for you, and listen with purpose. Pick out all the instruments, hear the acoustics (natural or digital) they’re playing in, follow the lyrics, note how the sequence flows. It could be tricky — sitting still is for meditators, not music buffs. But don’t give up. There will be a moment that you forget what’s going on in this world, replacing it with a “world that you would like to try.” That moment’s why we’re doing this.

What albums come to mind? If you try this out, what albums will you play? Why? I’m so curious. Please let me know in the comments section for this post. I’ll get the thread going with a couple that I’m starting with. These aren’t recommendations, just the albums that are helping us get through this thing. We’re listening together, rooting for each other. It’s what we do.

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Yesterday, Bandcamp was a hero of the day, especially in the eyes of artists and indie labels. The platform waived the 15% cut it usually takes on music sales, paying out the full amount of any revenue to the music-makers. This action was a show of support to musicians and bands losing income due to canceled tours and concerts. Most artists on Bandcamp directly manage their accounts, so the money goes straight to them. Additionally, Bandcamp pays out via PayPal within 48 hours.

This move was a savvy and welcome show of goodwill from Bandcamp. It had the side effect of amplifying that the major streaming platforms aren't doing that much to help.

Artists and labels joined in with gusto. Musicians and bands uploaded special releases for the occasion (and even I joined in), making Friday a sort of digital 'Record Store Day.' Many labels maintaining Bandcamp accounts also pledged to forgo their contractually mandated cuts, delivering all of Friday's sales income to their rosters. The artists and labels promoted this show of support all over social media. And the news was shared and re-shared by fans, industry executives, and people excited by the cause. You couldn't look at a social media feed yesterday without seeing several Bandcamp mentions.

I can't say for sure, but I have a feeling this event brought a lot of first-time users to Bandcamp. The platform was not only discovered by new listeners but also artists, uploading their first releases. I bet Bandcamp was already on your radar, dear reader, but know that it's still a niche platform — most music listeners and artists don't know about it or don't know enough to use it. Now, many are discovering that there is an alternative to an artist-unfriendly streaming model. And that model has worked hard to make us believe it was the only option.

I'm not implying that Bandcamp is the only alternative out there for artists, but its discovery opens eyes to the fact that other options exist. And that it's possible to have choices more closely aligned to the needs of artists and their fans. That's encouraging and might be the spark to ignite a movement.

As of 10 PM ET yesterday, Bandcamp reportedly pulled in over 3 million dollars. All of this will go directly to artists and labels. And what did I buy yesterday? Mostly some weird but lovely ambient music.

If you're an artist or run a label and are curious about Bandcamp — or you use it and would like some new pointers — check out this terrific primer by Peter Kirn titled Bandcamp Can Save Us All Over Again. And if you’re wondering why Bandcamp does what it does and what that means for the music industry moving forward dig into this Twitter thread from the Future of Music Coalition (click it to go deeper):

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I was sad to hear this news about the passing of British dance music stalwart Jonty Skrufff.

Here's a quick story: It's 1998. Freshly signed to Virgin UK (via Astralwerks), I was flown over to London on 3-days notice and plopped right in the middle of the major label publicity machine. I was unprepared and super nervous — imposter syndrome levels to the max.

One of the first days there, I was at the Virgin Records office (intimidating) and put in a room to do interviews (also intimidating). How this worked was journalists came by, one-by-one, and interviewed me for 30 minutes each — back-to-back interviews for most of the day. My brain was spinning and confidence waning after each questioning that I presumed had gone badly.

So it was the last interview of a long day, and I'm feeling deflated. And in walks Jonty. I vaguely knew who he was — I'm not sure if he was doing his Skrufff-E email newsletter yet, but I had read his dance music pieces in Muzik and the early web-hub Dancesite. And, unlike 95% of the other journalists I spoke to, he already knew about me. He knew about the Mephisto singles, my connection with Hardkiss (he knew a lot about the burgeoning '90s San Francisco electronic scene), even my Eighth Dimension label. Jonty knew his shit.

Though we had never met before, we talked like old friends, and he asked different questions than all the others (the same questions over-and-over was the worst part of that day). I was finally at ease, and then, when the time was up, Jonty turned to me and said, "I think someday you could be as big as Moby."

That sounds like a funny thing to say, and you might even be giggling right now, but on that day, those words were what I needed to hear. My confidence got a much-needed boost and, thanks to that exchange, I was able to handle everything else Virgin threw at me over the next few days.

Jonty and I corresponded on and off over the following decade and inevitably lost touch. As it happens when old acquaintances are gone, I wish I made more effort to regularly say 'hi.' And to thank him for that interview. R.I.P., Jonty.

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I'll leave you with a quick and pleasantly distracting podcast recommendation. The team at Reply All tackled a curious mystery in a recent episode. There's a guy who heard a song. He's sure he heard it on commercial radio in Arizona in the '90s. And he can't get it out of his head. The mystery? There is only one frustrating shred of evidence on the internet that this song ever existed. And that shred is someone else asking if anyone can identify (supposedly) the same song. Crazy, right? Even crazier is how well the guy remembers the mystery tune — lyrics and everything — and how the team utilizes this to recreate it from scratch. And, without spoiling anything, I'll reveal there's unintended metacommentary on how nuts the major labels were in the late '90s. It's transfixing — for me, hearing this might have qualified as deep listening. [link]

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I hope you enjoyed this episode of Ringo Dreams of Lawn Care. ‘Labor of love’ is a cliché but it’s appropriate here … this thing, this Saturday routine, has turned into something that fits that bill. Thank you for the opportunity to create this newsletter and send it to you. As always, let me know if you have any comments or questions or need someone to write to in this challenging time. I’d love to hear from you. You can learn more about me, what I do, and contact me with your comments here.

As always, if you know anyone who would like this newsletter then please pass it on. And as much as social media makes me all wobbly, sharing Ringo on your favorite social site is also appreciated. There are some cool moves planned so I’m into getting the word out. Your help with that means a lot more than you know.

Thank you so much for reading. Stay safe and tight and keep checking in with the people you love. And listen to lots and lots and lots of music. See you next week! 🚀