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Winter of satisfaction: Sound art goes mainstream

Jon Chapple 19 October 2015
Erica Basnicki

Ladies and gentlemen, professional audio folks of every stripe, grab yourselves a glass of something bubbly and raise it. A season of celebration is upon us, and I am definitely not talking about the weather.
I have been somewhat of a broken record talking about the importance of sound, but this time will be slightly different: This time I am merely reporting what others are talking about and, call me overly-excited, but I do believe we are on the brink of a sonic revolution.

In the last two months at least four major publications have published pieces on the rise of sound in various forms. Publications whose core audiences don’t normally concern themselves with the audible world.

Susan Philipsz was the first sound artist to win the Turner Prize for her piece, Lowlands, in 2010 (a massive victory somewhat marred by the heavy use of speech marks – ‘sound art’ – as if it wasn’t a real art form). Fast forward to last month, when the highly respected visual arts magazine Apollo trumpeted the increasing popularity of sound art, calling it “the next vogue in terms of art experimentation and curation”. No speech marks. Brilliant!

The hybrid blog/publishing platform Medium – a purveyor of highly shareable, quality written content founded by the folks who gave us Twitter – recently hosted an article entitled ‘Why sound design is the next great digital frontier’. In it, author George Webster, director of content strategy at global digital design agency Critical Mass, predicts that “smart brands, smart agencies and smart innovators will be searching for new ways to connect people to products and ideas through sounds”.

In an unrelated piece just over a month later, Fast Company’s Co.CREATE profiled Soho’s Grand Central Recording Studios’ (GCRS) educational campaign ‘Experience the Sound’: a series of in-house talks to sell its clients on sound’s creative potential. As the first studio to create a commercial in the Dolby Atmos format, GCRS is acutely aware of the potency of good sound design.

Finally, The New York Times recently profiled a few of the city’s restaurants addressing the issue of unwanted noise in its dining areas. Though focussed on a very niche market, the article also highlights the fact that poor acoustics is no longer an issue restaurants can afford to ignore. Addressing said sound-sophisticated diners, author Jeff Gordinier explains: “In the San Francisco Bay Area, a company called Meyer Sound, founded and owned by Helen and John Meyer, has developed a system called Constellation in which tiny microphones and speakers are placed throughout a restaurant and piped into a computer so that noise levels can be monitored and adjusted automatically.”

Has this sunk in? The NYT is educating foodies about pro audio. “Brand creatives” (sorry) figure sound is the Next Big Thing. This is more than chance; more than coincidence; more than a pattern. Audio is definitely moving from afterthought to forethought, which ought to keep you feeling warm and fuzzy for a while…

Erica Basnicki is a writer and sound designer.

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