"Instead of waiting for royalties to trickle in from sales, musicians were happy to get paid upfront for licensing their music to advertisers and to TV and movie soundtracks. A distracted listener was better than none at all."
Is such a listener necessarily distracted? Welcome to the future, friend, where the kids can multitask like emmer-effers, where music and images go together like Thomas Mars and Sofia Coppola, and where it's possible for soundtracks to spawn sum-greater-than-parts type moments on screens both big and nano.
Even if you're not willing to swallow the brave new world argument, consider that to characterize such a listener as "distracted" is to imply that twenty years ago we were somehow always hyper-focused while listening to music and never did so while driving, having sex, or cleaning the house.
In truth, our very lives became music videos long before the advent of MTV, and I'd be willing to bet that most musicians wouldn't have it any other way. Would David Byrne mind, for instance, that I wasn't giving my full attention to "Psycho Killer" the first time I heard it because I happened to be making out with someone, or would he smile, knowing that his song achieved a more vivid, visceral status of memory because of that experience?
Was I distracted?
Purists have characterized the average listener as distracted since the advent of recorded sound itself, but music—live and recorded alike—has always been enjoyed by humans while in the throes of various other activities. So, while listening to music is, of course, a sublime practice on its own, music can also heighten and make memorable a thousand other phenomena, including visual art. This is no comprise, either for the director or the musician. On the contrary, it's often transcendental.
Some artists leverage this natural rapport in astounding ways. David Lynch has taken his exploration of image and sound to such potent extremes that he has now gone fully through the looking glass, collaborating on entire albums' worth of music with the indie set. Beck, the grandson of visual artist Al Hansen, used the morphing, spectral animations of Jeremy Blake on his Sea Change tour as accompaniment to the music. When I saw that show, I remember feeling overcome with the confluence of beauty unfolding all around me.
Was I distracted?
And, if you're talking about trusted curators of music like Wes Anderson, Alexandra Patsavas, or—I'm not afraid to say it—iPod ads, I would argue that not only is the listener not distracted, he is exceptionally sensitive and attuned to the music being played.
Even in less hip and skillful hands, however, an image no more detracts from a sound than one note in a chord detracts from another. In this sense we are not distracted listeners, but newly dazzled, capacious ones—ever more willing to appreciate multiple experiences and artworks the same time, ever more able to interpret how those layers resonate and create meaningful friction between one another.
Can you handle the data? I think you can.