The Attention-Span Gap

Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio,
The Attention-Span Gap

Every month, it seems, this magazine and other industry oracles lament the younger generation’s apathy toward high-end audio. The stated culprit is always the same: lack of exposure to good sound. I grant you that exposing our youth to the rewards of great sound is a necessary ingredient to changing their receptivity toward it. However, exposure is not a panacea. That’s because there is an equal culprit undermining the creation of a broader high-end customer base: waning musical attention spans.

The phenomenon of shrinking attention spans is not new; indeed, it’s been going on for centuries. Consider that back in the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras audiences thought nothing of settling in for several hours of live music, be it in a concert hall or a church. This was the “Concert Generation,” if you will, and its membership was by no means limited to gentry.

The advent of recorded sound had a marked impact on listener attention spans. While recorded media didn’t exactly impose a time constraint on listening sessions, it “suggested” certain lengths. For example, the LP suggested a listening session that fell within its roughly fifty minutes of playing time—long enough for many classical works. This length became further ingrained as new works, such as rock and jazz albums, were conceived from inception to conform to the recorded medium’s time parameters.

Most TAS readers, including myself, are of this “LP Generation.” As we grew up, we thought—and still think— nothing of dropping a stylus onto the lead-in groove and plopping our heinies onto a sofa to revel in an album’s worth of music. But by this time the multi-hour listening sessions of prior generations had already become the exception rather than the rule. Our attention spans had been re-jiggered to a new norm.

Three things conspired to erode the LP-centric listening paradigm. First, pop/rock radio stations became an important medium in their own right. These stations didn’t play entire albums; they played songs. Second, the introduction of the CD—for all its ability to hold more content—made it much more convenient for listeners to select less content, such as an individual track. Finally, the rise of the 45rpm “single” allowed young music lovers to purchase just one song—often the best one—from an album. These trends heralded the end of the LP Generation and the beginning of the “Song Generation.”

At the Song Generation’s outset, albums still flourished— there is always some overlap between generations. Radio stations played—and record companies released—songs primarily as a means of promoting associated albums. Meanwhile, CDs made it easier than ever to listen to a full album. Gradually, though, the Song Generation became accustomed to listening to a song or two by an artist rather than an entire album. After that, it was time to move along to something else. For this generation, the musical attention span had waned to just a few minutes.

Apple’s introduction of the iPod and iTunes solidified the Song Generation and was the death knell for the LP Era— at least for the non-classical genres young audiences tend to consume. Here was a medium designed and devoted virtually exclusively to the sale and playing of songs, not albums. Indeed, with the help of iTunes, the notion of an album has become something of an anachronism. What is its purpose, anyway? Today, albums are commonly released primarily as marketing vehicles for touring events.

Yet for today’s young music consumers, even three minutes is too long to sit still and focus on just one thing. And since songs can’t get any shorter (without becoming ridiculous), multitasking is the only solution. Thus we have entered the “Multitask Generation,” whose membership feels the need to also be doing something else while listening to music.

That something else could be watching a related video, doing homework, playing an on-line game, or being on the go. Music alone no longer suffices. The rise of the Multitask Era also explains why so much music today is consumed on YouTube, which conveniently provides a choice of accompanying videos. Similarly, music award shows are no longer about the music but rather are about unique, attention-grabbing performances. Exhibit A: the Grammys.

 Now imagine a member of the current Multitask Generation buying a high-quality (not necessarily expensive) stereo system for the purpose of sitting in one spot and doing one thing for a relatively lengthy (by today’s standards) block of time. Not gonna happen. I don’t care how exposed this person has been to better-quality sound, this scenario simply does not fit the current short-attention-span, multitasking lifestyle.

So what is the high-end industry to do? First, it must understand that exposure to good sound is a necessary but not sufficient precursor to creating a new customer for traditional sound systems. High-end designers must pursue avenues that somehow address the attention-span issue.

One way this can be done is by introducing high-end components that allow listeners to multitask. The Astell&Kern high-res portable players and AudioQuest DragonFly were revolutionary not just because of their sound and packaging, but because they brought high end to the new consumer’s lifestyle rather than trying to force the opposite. Not coincidentally, both products have been huge hits. Several high-end manufacturers have taken the hint. Recent trade shows have seen a proliferation of audiophile-quality ’phones, ’buds, and portable DACs.

Still, more can be done. Audiophile-quality source material must be youth-friendly and digestible in small bites. As it stands, every high-res site sells full albums of mostly rock classics and jazz rather than popular songs. Get with the times, people! My daughter wants to put a high-res download of the latest Carrie Underwood hit on her AK100.

Finally, just as movie theaters found it necessary to move to 3-D and IMAX to differentiate the viewing experience from an iPhone screen, so too must audio systems better differentiate themselves from iPods and ’buds. The first step in this direction, ironically, has come from LPs, which distinguish themselves from iTunes with a presentation that is distinct in ways both sonic and physical. That makes LPs “cool” in the same way that IMAX is cool.

Yet while the resurgence of LPs is encouraging, motivating the young crowd to buy audio systems—and to sit and listen to them— will probably require still further sonic differentiation and an even higher cool factor. At the risk of piling on ironies, one potential route would be yet another presumed-defunct technology: multichannel sound. Imagine offering Multitaskers a 3-D, all-enveloping musical experience. Now that’s something they might sit still for. Heck, 3-D seems to have worked for the movies.