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Listen And Learn

Derek Walmsley

The listening session, where writers are herded into a company office to get the first spin of a new album, is now an everyday – yet still clandestine – event. Big independents and major labels are paranoid about their precious new albums leaking through journalists (anecdotally, most leaks happen before it even goes out to the media) so they operate an odd nannying operation whereby you can come along and hear the album... but there's no chance of getting it into your own hands.

There’s two types of listening session. The first and the most excruciating is where a PR is detailed to sit in with you, giving tedious behind-the-scenes gossip on how the artists got their shit together, all the while trying to keep a sneaky eye on your response to the music. It's like a waiter in a posh restaurant painstakingly explaining all the ingredients to you, constantly checking whether you enjoyed it, and asking if there's anything you need, when all you want to do is tuck in.

But the other type, where the label leaves you alone with the music on a kick-ass stereo and some space to think, can be a privilege. There's still an uncomfortable sense of being temporarily admitted onto foreign terrain – you're ushered into a bustling office, where a label rep politely but firmly asks you to hand over your phone and laptop; they swiftly whip out some legal papers for you to sign to stop you talking about the record online. You're given a room with a stereo and tastefully dimmed lights, the label rep presses play and discretely exits, and you're left to sprawl on a beautiful sofa and soak up the sounds.

The one I went to most recently was loud. You felt the change in the air pressure as the basslines kicked in (so the album quite literally made an impact on writers). Drums become huge, acoustic instruments become monolithic. You get completely lost in the sound, which is fun as hell, but the exact opposite of what you're trying to do when you're critically assessing a new album. The problem is even worse if you've just chugged one of their complimentary beers.

Sitting there, in an empty room with a big pair of speakers facing you, and nothing to do but stare back at them, questions start flying through your mind. Why did they choose this sound rather than that sound? Do they make music with a listener in mind, or just for their personal amusement? No doubt these kind of crises have already been faced by the musicians themselves, day after day in the studio, especially in the case of electronic music. Alone in the room, electronic music starts to sound a little like modern composition, where the arrangement and the detail is amazing, but you're lost for reference points as to what all this stuff is for.

The listening session is a gentle form of mind control. Sat in an office for nearly an hour, you get a touch of Stockholm syndrome: you develop an affection for your jailers, and the music you're stuck listening to. With time on your hands, you rationalise. There must be a reason they've gone in this new direction. Hey, maybe these corny celestial choirs and expensive brass sections make a kind of weird sense! You've already made the long journey down to the label offices on a weekday afternoon, so you don't want the time to feel wasted. The travel, booking your slot, the logistics, already confer a legitimacy on the album. It feels like an event; the album physically exists, and is ready to hear. These are hard facts, and they make you hear the music differently, and more deferentially, than if it were just some MP3 files sent via email. With the whole promotional apparatus in full swing, the question of whether the album is any good or not gets lost in the buzz.

That said, I revel in these occasions, not because you get to hear an album a couple of weeks before everyone else (or because of those complimentary beers) but because it's such a rare opportunity to take an hour to think, to listen, and to ponder music itself. Wouldn't it be better, you wonder, if we didn't all rely on beats so much? What effect does this weird discord have on my nervous system? And as an experience in pure sound it's impressive, unless you happen to have a particularly astonishing stereo at home. The separation between the sounds is vertiginous. The bassline is over here – but the melody is way over there. How the hell do you process that? It’s thrilling but anxiety inducing. This is music with all the reference points gone, a free-float through tonal realms which, like an acid trip, is an experience that’s hard to properly relate to acquaintances afterwards.

As a critical exercise it can be almost useless. You walk away, head swimming with vague sense impressions, but as any good journalist knows, it's the follow-up questions that are the crucial ones, and you can't take a second listen to triangulate the music, the lyrics, the songs titles, and who played what. But for a record company, the propaganda work is already done – the listening session is a marker in the sand, a sign that this album is a serious proposition, and that you better think twice about treating it flippantly.

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...and yet the netlabel scene, which allows free and unfettered access to its releases, can't get any decent coverage or reviews in the music print media, regardless of how good the music is. Maybe journalists should adapt a little to the modern world and how most music is being distributed these days (on websites such as Bandcamp, for example) and leave the old ways behind.

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