Intimate listening experience celebrates timeless albums

By ARTS & CULTURE EDITOR

Music lovers of all ages visited Saturday Audio Exchange Oct. 23, to listen to Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin in its entirety—without cell phones or verbal distractions—on professional audio equipment with complementary drinks and chocolate cookies. This listening experience, aptly titled Classic Album Sundays, has slowly become a worldwide phenomenon.

Colleen Murphy started Classic Album Sundays in 2010 in the U.K., and it now spans seven cities worldwide, including Chicago, London, Oslo and Kansas City.

The business model is simple: Groups host classic album listening parties allowing attendees to experience music through high-quality audio equipment for $5 with music fans old and young.

Chicago’s Classic Album Sundays offers a new way to discover music and connect with other music lovers, according to host Sam Willett, a self-proclaimed music nerd and journalist who founded the local chapter.

Willett, who worked for music blog Consequence of Sound, said he discovered CAS in 2015 when he went to a show in New York City. 

Soon after, he decided CAS needed to come to Chicago. Transistor, a gallery and audio store at 5224 N. Clark St., agreed to provide the location and audio equipment, and CAS Chicago was born. Willett moved the gatherings after the first three events to Saturday Audio Exchange, a high-quality audio equipment store at 1021 W. Belmont Ave., for more space.

“Having in-depth and intimate listening sessions could not only expose other people to what I feel about music but also allow me to achieve greater depth in my passion for music,” he said. 

The listening events, which Willett compared to a book club, usually have 20–25 people in attendance. Chicago’s first event in March, which highlighted Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk, was packed, and Willett remembered people laying on the floor in Transistor.  

During its first year, CAS Chicago, supported by Dark Matter Coffee and CHIRP Radio, hosted seven events and played several modern, classic records such as Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead and Daft Punk’s Discovery. The next CAS event, which will stream on satellite radios worldwide,  will be Nov. 20 and will feature Loveless by My Bloody Valentine.

Willett said one of the most important elements of CAS is its “no cellphone” rule. Taking away technological distractions opens up opportunities and makes people more present, he said.

“Excusing cellphones from the experience allows you to gain complete focus over the music and try to instigate a new emotional reaction within yourself, even one that you did not know existed, especially if it’s an album or artist you have never listened to before,” he said.

Andy Zimmerman, Saturday Audio Exchange owner, said the business is trying to host more events to increase participation, especially from younger audiences. CAS Chicago is a positive way to interact with the community and let people know the store is still active with events, Zimmerman said. Especially because millennials tend to buy cheap audio equipment online, Zimmerman said it is important to hear music the way it was meant to be heard.

“We raised a generation to think that music sounds good enough, not good,” he said. “What happens is when people hear really good equipment and realize there is something beyond their MP3 player, it is an amazing experience for them.”

Chicago is just one arm of CAS’  expansion. Washington D.C. now has a CAS chapter that Joseph Lapan of Songbyrd Music House started in September. The record store has hosted two events so far and has already seen a steady turnout, Lapan said. A long-time fan of CAS, he said it is in line with other programs Songbyrd hosts.

Lapan said CAS is recreating ways to listen to music, giving people a new perspective on the art.

“[CAS is] evangelizing the idea of paying attention to great music and hearing it in high quality and treating it with some reverence,” he said. 

Although the Chicago organization is young and makes only a minimal profit, Willett said he hopes to spread CAS. Zimmerman applauded Willett’s dedication and passion to organizing the events.

“I’ve never met anybody with the passion [Willett] has…My goal is for him to grow out of my store,” Zimmerman said.

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