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9 August 2019

Dancing in the dark: why people are paying to listen to albums in full, blindfolded

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

One night earlier this week, I sat, blindfolded, in the back room of an east London bar and listened to Primal Scream’s seminal album Screamadelica for its full 62 minutes.

On the sofa next to me sat a woman whose son, perched beside her, had bought her tickets as a present because the 1991 record is one of her all-time favourites.

In front of me were a middle-aged couple who, once they realised there were some spare seats available, lay down, with their blindfolds on, so as to enjoy the full sensory experience on their backs. “The memories!” the woman called as she sat up after the album had finished, whipping off her blindfold. “Oh, the different places I’ve listened to that record!” 

Further down the row, two men who arrived separately turned to each other and struck up a conversation about the acid house music scene that inspired the album. They showed no sign of leaving once the lights came up. 

Album listening events, or “parties”, as they are sometimes called, are, in principle, nothing new. For years, record labels have been hiring out bars and drowning music journalists and industry execs in free alcohol while playing new releases in full. Official premiere evenings, where fans gather together to listen to an album played out loud in advance or on the night of its release, are also popular. Just this week Bon Iver hosted similar events in 61 international locations for their new album, i,i

But ticketed public events that play albums that anyone with an internet connection could easily listen to at home are tapping into something different. They’re proving wildly popular: the ticketing app DICE reports a 375 per cent increase in the sale of tickets for listening events between 2017 and 2018. Since we are only halfway through the year, a DICE spokesperson told me, we can’t yet compare like for like with 2018, but 2019 sales are on track to match last year’s numbers. 

There is something about this album listening experience, at events that require you to sit quietly, turn off your phone, close your eyes and concentrate on nothing but the music, that speaks to our current age of dwindling attention spans. “We’re all looking for ways to try and give ourselves some space from the intensity that is modern life,” says Ben Gomori as we sit down to chat after the Primal Scream playback, of which he is the organiser. 

In 2016 Gomori, a DJ and producer, founded Pitchblack Playback after he attended an album press preview that was held in a cinema, accompanied by visuals which acted as a focal point for the audience’s concentration. The cinema seats were comfortable, surround sound provided an excellent audio experience and everyone was focused on the music to an almost meditative degree. “I was like: I want to hear all my favourite music like this,” he tells me. Since September 2017, Pitchblack Playback have sold over 8,000 tickets, with a further 6,000 people on waiting lists. They run at least once a week in London and have also launched events in Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles.

Most imperative to Gomori is the quality of the sound, which he tests at every venue before agreeing to use their space. Gomori aims for an immersive experience: “By that I mean that the sound is not just coming from the front. If you’re in the middle of it and it’s coming at you from all sides, you get this 3D experience of the sound really enveloping you.”

This means that not every album, no matter how popular it is, fits the concept. “We don’t tend to do stuff that is straight-up rock or straight-up dance, something that is all on one level. The best stuff has a bit of contrast, light and shade, loud and quiet, interesting production, a great sense of atmosphere.” Screamadelica, with its strutting confidence, whirling percussion and stark contrasts – complemented occasionally by the Overground trains that rumble over the bar – fits the bill perfectly.

The roster of albums on Pitchblack Playback’s listings is pretty exhaustive, attracting fans across genres. The following night Gomori hosted a playback of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and events featuring records by Robyn and Jeff Buckley are coming up soon. The company’s “gold standard” is Tame Impala’s Currents, which Gomori tells me they’ve just put on for the seventh, eighth and ninth times, with each event selling out. “The production is absolutely stunning and it fills the room – it’s got a wide stereo mix,” says Gomori of the 2015 alt-rock record. “It’s also such a cohesive album: a story runs right through it.” He names Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino and Radiohead as other guaranteed big-hitters.

Before I arrived at the event, I imagined it would be full of East London millennial hipster types so perplexed at the amount of choice available to them on Spotify, they simply had to pay someone to take that decision out of their hands. But of course, original Primal Scream fans are well into their fifties now – this is not just a millennial gimmick. For most attendees, the appeal is obvious: if you love an album wholeheartedly, what better way to spend an evening than listening to it played, loud, on an excellent sound system, with no interruptions?

I ask Gomori who his typical attendee is and he shakes his head. “It really doesn’t work like that,” he says. “We get people travelling from outside London to our events, who are in their fifties and sixties. We get young audiences looking for innovative, weird experiences. It’s a really broad church. It’s for all fans of music who appreciate a good listening environment.”

To sceptics, Gomori likens the concept to going to see a film at the cinema. “You want to see it and hear it in the best presentation possible. You want great surround sound, great crisp picture… that’s what we’re trying to do, but with albums.” Put it like that, and it doesn’t seem so wild after all.

Jason Edwards, the Head of Music at DICE, has watched the popularity of such events rise tremendously. “In the age of streaming and airpods, there is something hugely romantic about fans having the chance to experience recorded music as it was intended,” he says. “Plus, how many millennials have room for audiophile-level sound systems at home even if they could afford it?”

He also points out how album playbacks might be helping smaller venues in an increasingly challenging industry. “They need to be busy as many nights of the week as possible. If there’s not a live show on, why not take advantage of an amazing sound system?”

Tickets to Pitchblack Playback events average around £8, while DICE, which also sells tickets for similar events at London’s Shacklewell Arms and Looking Glass Cocktail Club, reports an average of £6.35 per ticket. For far less than the price of a live gig, fans whose favourite musicians may rarely or no longer tour have the opportunity to sink, undistracted, into every tiny detail on a record, and meet like-minded fans afterwards. 

And what of the blindfold? With mine on, blocking out the light from the fire-exit signs that stop the Pitchblack Playback from fully living up to its name, I gladly sank into Screamadelica’s transcendental euphoria.

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