One of our totally excellent readers sent me this interesting link. The article is entitled, “The day the album died? It may be soon” and acts like this is a bad idea. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It notes that the song-swapping craze created a demand for songs. Now that this basic approach has gone legit, duh, people still want to pay for good songs they like, and only for that.
“It’s a song economy now,” says iTunes spokesman Chris Bell. “Consumers have come to expect it through illegal file sharing and CD burning, and we’re making sure every song is available for individual downloading.”
The article’s author bemoans this overwhelming display of consumer rationality, and inadvertently displays a rather silly and bigoted misconception of what is and is not good, as well as getting a key part of the chronology wrong.
In the ’50s, rock ‘n’ roll revolved around the 45-rpm single. Albums – if record labels even bothered to put them out – were just ragtag compilations of unrelated singles.
First, the 45-rpm single dominated until the mid-60s. In other words, the golden age of rock and pop, the early Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Motown, Stax and countless others, was the age of the 45-rpm single. You could get by just buying the singles. You didn’t need the albums. But if you bought the albums, far from being “ragtag” the better albums in the period from, say, 1964-67, were compilations which contained several songs good enough to be singles and a bunch of others songs almost good enough to be singles. The “filler” was often oddball tracks which had their own quality or humor. The Beatles’ “Help” or the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” are good examples of this period. Not one really bad song on either of them. Also typical was the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” which had several brilliant songs, a few decent ones, and a few humorous throw-aways, but you got your money’s worth. And the Motown albums of the era were incredible – the odd tracks were usually covers of hits by other Motown artists (some really great) or of other hits of the day, again, often very cool, or interesting even if terrible.
The author then tells us:
Spurred on by free-form FM radio, musicians started writing longer songs and weaving whole albums around a musical or lyrical theme: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Who’s rock opera, Tommy (1969), Marvin Gaye’s socially conscious What’s Going On (1971). Suddenly, rock ‘n’ roll was no longer just a random parade of ditties blaring from an AM car radio. Thanks to the album, rock was an official art form, worthy of being analyzed on hi-fi stereos and dissected in The New York Times – just like jazz or classical music.
This is all wrong. What began to happen is that the business side of the music industry got control of what had been a revolutionary and bottom-up musical explosion. They began to package bands and albums and tours to support them. The deathless glory of the mid-60s singles era this writer disparages as “a random parade of ditties.” Yeah, and Renaissance Florence was just a bunch of random daubs of oil paint on canvas. These few years were a maelstrom of innovation and creativity, which to this day remains incompletely understood and incompletely mapped and cataloged. The number of compilations of 60s bands which had only regional hits, for example, is mind-boggling, both in terms of quality and quantity. This phase ended, for a variety of reasons too lengthy and sad to detail here, and was replaced by a much more cynical, money-driven, predictable, mechanized process. Selling albums, bigger pieces of plastic, with mostly filler on them, became the mainstay. That plus arena-sized shows. All a total scam. As to Rock suddenly becoming, “respectable” and analyzed by the New York Times, that is all nothing, dirt, scraps, words to carve on the tombstone. CDs made all of this worse. With 60 minutes to fill, you just got more filler, most of the time.
One of my great hopes is that the rise of the Internet and modern technology will restore the well-crafted song to its just primacy of place. It is long overdue.
The refocus – customer-driven, fan-driven, on SONGS not albums – may portend a new age of greatness in popular music. The incentives are there, and getting stronger: Write good songs, or you have nothing to sell.