I’m just slightly too old to be a digital native. I remember when ordinary people didn’t have mobile phones; I remember having to have the concept of a Blackberry (as in, a phone with emails on it) explained to me as a student; I was in my second year of university when Facebook landed in the UK and we didn’t have a word for social networks; I can just about remember when webmail was barely a thing.
One of the things that has definitely changed with the digital revolution (and this is by no means a new observation) is that we are all transmitters now. We can all publish text and images, in a fairly meaningful sense, rather than that power being restricted to people that a fairly small number of companies think will sell enough copies to make a profit on a full-scale printing run. We can put recordings up online where anyone with a web connection can access them, and we can even produce CDs that look fairly professional from home. Vinyl obviously required a record label, and duplicating tapes required doing each one individually on a twin cassette machine. Remember this?
As a result, we all (and particularly, dare I say it, those who haven’t lived with anything else) have become habitual transmitters of content. We don’t just read magazines, we comment on them, share articles selectively, even effectively write our own articles. We don’t just listen to music, we edit it, upload it to Youtube with new videos of our own devising, remix it, record our own tracks and release them. And so on.
Now I’m not going to claim that people’s time is a zero-sum game – digitisation and always-on technology do at least apparently decrease the amount of unused time in our lives, if we use them that way. But I’m fairly convinced that there is a limit on an individual’s effort and concentration capacity.
Do you remember all that ‘come in … over … over and out’ business on old war films? The reason for that is those old radio sets couldn’t effectively send and receive at the same time, so if you spoke at the same time, even properly tuned in, you wouldn’t manage to communicate with each other.
I think this happens with people. If we’re always busy transmitting, we don’t receive. So people talking to each other are fairly oblivious to their surroundings beyond the conversation; which came into my head as I sat on a late coach last night with exactly two people on the top deck talking to each other – while everyone else at least apparently tried to sleep.
It’s fairly antisocial with people, but a lot more directly problematic for musicians that want to do anything not literally solo.
There are a lot of musicians whose background is essentially learning in lessons or from books and videos etc., playing by themselves at home and perhaps doing the odd open mike or similar slot. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you take someone from there and bring them into a band, or even a jam, then it really shows. Because those people – and some other musicians sadly – however technically able they may be, play as if there was nothing around them whether there are other people playing/singing or not. They do what they’ve learned beforehand, or have convinced themselves is right, and keep going with it even if any experienced group player can easily hear that they’re at odds with the group – usually most audibly when they take an extra bar or two to realise everyone else has stopped.
Slightly counter-intuitively, good jam session people probably spend less time playing, at least to start with. Once you’ve heard a chord progression once or twice then you stand more chance of fitting with it thereafter rather than clashing after a few bars. And the musically experienced know that the one thing that never clashes with anything is silence!
So if you want to contribute better, or perhaps effectively at all, spend less time on transmit and more on receive. Trust me. And be counter-cultural.