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    Tim Burgess on listening parties and loving albums

    Tim Burgess, musician
    Cat Stevens

    On 23 March 2020, back when video chats were still a novelty to be enjoyed between our daily hunts for pasta and toilet roll, Tim Burgess, singer, songwriter and frontman of The Charlatans, decided to host an online listen-along.

    The premise was simple. An hour’s escape from the early pandemic panic and unease, through some familiar music and warm memories. Burgess hit play on an album from his own back catalogue and so, simultaneously, did thousands of his Twitter followers, tweeting along with observations and memories. This was how #TimsTwitterListeningParties began, and with a nation confined to their homes and keen to find distraction and comfort, it became an instant hit.

    How much of a hit? Well within days, other major musicians and bands were joining in the fun. In the past 18 months, Burgess has hosted listening parties in the presence of artists including Michael Kiwanuka, Iron Maiden and Paul McCartney. Just glancing at the #TimsTwitterListeningParty hashtag now I can see a breadth of huge international stars not only using it but championing it; Yoko Ono, Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware, Kylie Minogue, Hey Duggee. That’s just this week. And it’s only Tuesday. 

    Now, as the phenomenon keeps going, and the milestone of the 1,000th Twitter Listening Party creeps towards us (Blondie, Parallel Lines by the way) Burgess has celebrated the experience in a new book. The Listening Party relives 100 standouts from the past 18 months of listen-alongs, flanked with stories and recollections from bands, fans and producers. And, on 28 October, as part of our London Literature Festival, he’ll be joining us – along with some special guests – to introduce it.

    But, we couldn’t quite wait that long to hear from the man himself. So we caught up with him virtually to probe him on his own personal listening party highlight, the future of the album, and how he’s largely managed to avoid the trolls that tend to lurk under most social media bridges.

    So Tim, how did you choose the first albums to feature in your listening parties, and how are you choosing them now? Has the process changed?

    The first album we did in lockdown was The Charlatans’ debut album, Some Friendly, and the intention was that the next would be our follow up LP, Between 10th & 11th. But then I saw a tweet from Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos – he mentioned he’d been given Some Friendly as a birthday present – and I realised that other bands and artists were taking part. I sent Alex a message asking if he’d like to host a listening party and it just took off from there. 

    The first people I invited were all in my contacts on my phone. Dave Rowntree and Bonehead came back super quick, and it’s been non stop since then as other bands offered their services, and fortunately a couple of techy folk on Twitter said they’d help with putting them all in a schedule. We passed landmark numbers – 50, 100, 500 – and lots of labels were asking about records, new bands, bands that hadn’t really spoken in a while – a whole community sprang up. 

    Nothing has really changed though, it’s all about the shared experience of listening to an album, whether it’s one that came out that day from a little known artist or one that sold five million copies, and has gone down in history.

     

    Is there a moment from the last year and half of listening parties that stands out for you as a real personal highlight?

    I read an interview Kevin Rowland (Dexys Midnight Runners) did with The Big Issue and they asked him about the Listening parties. Kevin is someone who looks forward more than he looks back and he has always had a difficult relationship with the records he’s made; he’s a perfectionist and would focus on what was troubling him about the recording. 

    But at the listening party, he felt it was a much more communal thing, and he listened in a different way, hearing the positive elements and even enjoying it. And so many members of Dexys joined in, it was a chance for them all to appreciate what they had made together. Reading that interview it struck me what power and beauty the listening parties had.

    ‘Music is quite a leveller, and for an hour or so each evening it was a way of feeling a little more connected with each other before heading back to the real world’

    A huge number of people have enthused about how the listening parties gave them a much-needed focus, or an escape, during lockdown; did they have the same effect for you?

    Absolutely. Ordinarily musicians would head to a studio or go out on tour, and the creative process is informed by what they do each day, but when this most abrupt of time-outs was called, everybody had to reassess their role and contribution. Because the listening parties were at a set time, it was a chance to step away from the news and the confusion. Music is quite a leveller, and for an hour or so each evening it was a way of feeling a little more connected with each other before heading back to the real world
     

    Sadly, the nature of modern social media means anything good still comes with a few trolls in tow. What do you really want to say to those people who tweet you to tell you they don’t like a particular listening party album?

    Quite early on someone mentioned that they thought we had dropped our standards by including a band that they obviously didn’t like, and that was a chance to share some thoughts. We wanted it to be an inclusive thing, and asked that if anyone had anything negative to say, that they should maybe keep it to themselves. 

    Everyone was under enough pressure, and I had invited artists to share their innermost thoughts about their work. Someone tagging them to say they thought their music was awful, would maybe have put other bands from joining in and I felt it was my role to square things up a bit. Everyone seemed to get it and it’s meant we’ve managed to avoid it becoming as toxic as other parts of social media.

    ‘The key to the listening party has been the format of the album; so many people were tweeting to say they were enjoying dedicating time to one record, avoiding any shuffle or algorithm suggestions from their device’

    At the Southbank Centre, we’ve seen from our Art By Post initiative that lockdown offered space for a lot of lapsed artists to return to art. Do you think that similarly the past 18 months has seen lapsed music-lovers return to music?

    Maybe not a return to music, as I think access is now easier than ever via phones and streaming as well as all the regular ways people have always listened. But the key to the listening party has been the format of the album, and in the order it was recorded.

    Playlists have meant that lots of people have veered away from complete albums, and so many people were tweeting to say they were enjoying dedicating 45 minutes or so to one record, avoiding any kind of shuffle or algorithm suggestions from their device. It was brilliant to then see people buying those albums, especially on vinyl, that’s been the best element of the listening parties for me.

     

    You’re clearly a champion of the album, and of listening to them in their entirety. But are they becoming something of a dying art in music?

    I really don’t think so. Streaming and playlists have offered a different way to enjoy music, but vinyl sales are going from strength to strength, and it’s brilliant to see new record shops opening. We’re hoping that the listening parties are helping fight the corner for the album format.

    Tim Burgess, seen from behind, goes to open the door to a vintage car
    screengrab from video: FOR BLOG USE ONLY

    You released I Love the New Sky in 2020, and now you’re already working on another solo album. You’re not a person who’s ever really stopped moving, but have the listening parties brought about an added creative spark?

    It’s great to have paused and taken time to listen to nearly 1,000 albums and it’s hard to tell how that might have affected my creativity. To be honest, I’m often thinking about new songs and strumming a guitar, but I do seem to have been recording more, so maybe a little of that is down to the listening parties.

     

    Lastly, the focus of our Literature Festival this year is friendship. Do you have a favourite track which has friendship at its heart?

    Carole King is one of my all time favourite artists; her songwriting is pretty much without equal. And yes, this is also a plea for her to do a listening party. So, ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ is my choice...

    ‘You just call out my name
    And you know, wherever I am
    I'll come running
    To see you again’

    For me, that pretty much sums up the definition of friendship.

     

    Tim Burgess, musician
    Cat Stevens
    The Listening Party with Tim Burgess

    On 28 October, Tim Burgess invites you to a special in-person listening party in our Queen Elizabeth Hall with guests including Helen O'Hara, Nitin Sawhney, Justin Young and Tim Pope, and chair Pete Paphides.

    by Glen Wilson