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Music and chatter is everywhere

August 19, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about input—tapping, clicking, typing, Swyping. Swyping is done with an iPad app that lets you “type” with one digit, never lifting the finger (or other digit) from the screen.

Simplified input is necessary for the small yet powerful devices many people carry with them. Audio input is rising in popularity, in particular audio-to-text conversion, so you can speak to your smartphone and have it behave appropriately.

Audio output is also more popular, at least as a marketplace. It’s hard to imagine audio output becoming more ubiquitous in our society. We’ve been suffused with recorded music for years. Someone’s output is another’s input, and to my ear, it can’t be escaped.

Music and chatter is everywhere—I don’t mean Live! music and chatter but rather the piped-in stuff, making an invasive background in otherwise pleasant surroundings, much like Muzak.

You’d think with the iPod-and-earbuds model, the world would be quieter, but not yet. One might argue we’re rebuilding a lost oral tradition, but in such traditions there was a place for silence.

Part of listening involves silences. I’ve listened to a few audiobooks on long drives, and they included careful pacing and wonderful pauses—silences that would be called “dead air” in a broadcast medium desperate for your attention.

Audiobooks are a growing marketplace. Multi-taskers report “reading” more books than ever using their various digital devices. You know there are opinions every which way about whether listening to an audiobook while cooking dinner constitutes reading a book.

I must conclude it does, or at least it falls within the same range of attention given to printed books. Reading includes everything from Wallace Stevens’ “The house was quiet and the world was calm / and the reader became the book …” to hunkering over a fat paperback in a roaring subway.

If you read a book on the beach, are your eyes always on the text or do they rise from the page to survey passersby? Tell the truth. We can’t see what goes on behind those sunglasses.

The ubiquity of digital devices, especially smartphones, has permitted a rejuvenated market in audiobooks, which was stagnant for many years. There seemed to be a natural limit to the percentage of potential listeners willing to mess with the clunky technology of cassettes or CDs.

Digital audio publishing has produced new ideas, such as selling both the audiobook and the ebook together along with the ability to switch seamlessly between them as you proceed through the book. For many people, once they’re done, the book is equally with them whether read or listened to.

If you’ve tried audiobooks, you already know the importance of the narrator. You will not get far in a book “spoken” by a computer or monotonous reader. There are superstars of narration, and each listener has favorites based on preferences and needs.

I’ve noticed that older listeners often prefer male voices, not for reasons of patriarchy but for the audio spectrum. Higher pitches often disappear first with hearing loss.

But I digress. Consider that audiobook publishers put out 4,602 titles in 2009 and 13,255 in 2012. In the same way that some new books come out only as ebooks, some titles have come out only in audio.

Narration is also expanding into multi-part performance, not universally appreciated by long-time listeners yet one of many new options.

Ours is a world of ten thousand things. We must choose.

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