The degree to which we take this for granted is perhaps best demonstrated by how little is written on the subject. Of course, since the 60s we've all but drowned in writing about recorded music of every conceivable variety (although I rather wonder whether the advent of the Internet is bringing an end to the oddly lauded practice of dancing about architecture) but with honourable exceptions like Evan Eisenberg's The Recording Angel, little has been written about how our engagement with music has changed as it has been increasingly mediated through recording. I have a couple of brief thoughts on the matter.
Attention. It's often said that live music has 'something' which recordings lack. A friend of mine once nailed what it was: your attention. There's a painful truth here. When did you last sit down and listen to a record and give it your full attention? I'll admit freely that I do it rather too rarely. Of course, that's a function partly of a busy adult life (certainly in my youth I listened to records with no other distractions for quite literally for hours on end). But without phonography, the kind of secondary listening we all take for granted today would of course be impossible.
Apart from anything else, secondary listening surely changes the kinds of music we listen to. Take my last.fm profile for example. It's obviously representative of my listening generally - it must be by definition. And for sure my top artists are among my favourite composers and musicians (although Stevie, much as I love him, would not make the top eight were it not for my oldest son Joe's 70s soul obsession, but that's a whole other post about metadata and shared devices; you'll be looking forward to that.) But here's the rub: the music I've listened to the most closely in the last few years, the music which has had the most profound impact on me - extreme technical metal - is all but absent. Because however you look at it, Meshuggah just ain't background music.
Which neatly segues to my second observation, about...
For several years in my capacity as the BBC's Head of Music Interactive I would attend several Proms each summer. And my overwhelming response to each concert would be disappointment, no matter how good the performances, and for one simple reason: a live orchestra, unamplified, is just not loud enough. Yes, yes, I know that's a philistine position (though nothing on my own Proms-and-philistinism scale; I've seen the Firebird performed twice at the Proms in the last decade and what with that finale I left the Hall on both occasions with Yes' "Siberian Khatru" running through my head and had to slam Yessongs on the minute I got home. This will mean something to men of a certain age and disposition. For the rest of you, here's Spotify.) But for all the philistinism of my position, I don't think I'm unique. You'll hopefully see from the aforementioned Last profile that I'm not exactly a classical music unsophisticate. It's simply that a classical music recording played LOUD is so immersive.
Frankly this post is just glancing off the surface of this particular topic. I bring it up here as it strikes me that what we're really talking about here is a disruptive technology, a technology which has changed human engagement with something more than that engagement has changed in millennia. And disruptive technologies are something which fascinate us at Unthinkable.
One last thought. Remember that we're talking here about a technology which is less than 150 years old. In the 24-hour history of human noise making and utterance, phonography takes up maybe the last five minutes, to borrow a cliché from natural history. Think about that the next time you read about the death of music (for which read "death of the record industry"). In the last century, the way we listen to music has changed in truly unthinkable ways. But changes change too, and for that matter, some things remain constant. It seems unlikely to me that the organising of sound by one human being for the listening pleasure of another is likely to end soon. Change? For sure. Die? Oh come on....