Die, ALBUM, die!

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.

9 thoughts on “Die, ALBUM, <i>die!</i>”

  1. Pouncer, I don’t say “albums” will go away, if only because it makes sense for bands to record a bunch of songs at the same time — efficiencies of going into the studio for an extended stay. I don’t think it will make sense for people to manufacture lots of plastic disks and warehouse them. Sell the songs electronically, and let people burn their own disks if they want. What I do say that singles will regain relative importance, and I hope preeminence and the focus will again be on getting hits through high quality, catchy songs which have to be competitive in a very open and discriminating market.

  2. I’m sorry, but the movement to a singles-based distribution (especially on the model of iTunes or the new Napster) only reinforces the dominance of the big labels that are churning out the filth we are subjected to on a daily basis. The digital singles market (so far) is a far more restricted choke point for sales than an online album seller like Amazon or even my local record store (try finding a Junior Brown song on iTunes)

    Good bands have little to no problem filling up 45-60 minutes with quality. Plus, an album that properly flows from one decent song to another (without the complicated rock opera arrangements of some artists) is vastly superior to a collection of decent to good songs.

    Of course, the customer getting what they want is a good thing, and if the sale of digital singles satisfies a customer desire, then huzah. However, I doubt very much the death of the album will bring back the glory days of pop-rock. It will only ensure the continued dominance of pop-princesses and boy bands who will always have a top spot in the distribution channels.

    On the other hand, the continuation of the pop-princess world will gurantee that Britney Spears will perform at the 2008 VMA awards naked, mounting a goat, performing her latest single, “Being a filthy ho earned me a billion dollars”. And I would not trade that priceless future moment for the world.

  3. Hi Lex,

    I apologize for not making myself clear. I meant to suggest that, regardless of the distribution channel, there will be a niche for “concept albums”, or a bundle of songs and stuff unified by some sort of linked theme.

    So you download all of the “Sgt Pepper” songs.

    We agree that plastic media (tape, vinyl, CD, whatever) is liable to go away. But an “album” is more than the songs.

    A person might download only one song from the musical “Oklahoma”, but more likely one wants the entire score, and all the songs. You download ALL the music, plus, perhaps, related image and text files — just as the physical vinyl album included printed photos, lyric sheets, and cast biographies. So, as download speeds increase, file compression gets better, and encryption gets stronger we might see a single “album” file that includes in the bundle the MP3, JPG, PDF and perhaps other types of coded entertainment all tied inextricably together.

    Or the “Hayseed Dixie” album might include all the rockabilly cover versions, plus extracts from the original AC/DC versions, plus, oh, I dunno, photos of Paris Hilton in her coveralls from “Simple Life”. Or MTV-style music video. Who knows?

  4. Pouncer, I agree that from time to time some bands will have the talent to produce groups of songs which are all decent and that really do cohere and belong together. Sergeant Pepper is more than the sum of its parts, as is the Velvet Underground and Nico, or Pet Sounds, or Pink Flag or even Rocket to Russia or a few other gems. On the other hand, Tommy and Quadrophenia really are larded with junk most people probably skip — and those are both pretty darn good albums. It is hard to make a whole album-worth of good stuff. Even the best bands rarely pulled it off. The number of albums worth listening to as whole albums will always be small. On the other hand, the number of bands capable of recording good versions of their few best few songs is pretty large. As the often-prescient David Bowie said in the article I linked to, the fans will be the ones cutting and pasting in the future. Bands can announce, “hey this is an album, we think it is a concept, it all goes together, respect it as a whole”. The fans will decide if they are right. I also agree that all the ancillary stuff is part of the whole experience. But that can be sold separately, as is increasingly happening anyway. Sometimes it is more cool to have a bands t-shirt than to own the album. Why? I don’t know, but it has been a long time since I was 14 years old. Bands may do something like sell “preferred” fan accounts, which gives you first access to photos or other goodies, either electronically or even in a box in the mail. This happened with the Beatles in the ’60s, with their nutty Christmas message 45s. Such gimmicks could come back in a big way, which would be fun. The bands that succeed in the future will fall into two categories. First, the ones with big marketing muscle, Britney-like, to appeal to casual consumers who want to buy the hype out of peer pressure or whatever. Those who actually care about music will avoid starvation by using technology to create supportive communities of loyal fans, and also supportive communities of like-minded bands to cross-market.

    Captain, I agree that if iTunes were to remain a quasi-monopoly provider that it would remain simply one more level of control. I should probably have been clearer. I anticipate a much broader decentralization, driven by demand. If you can go to iTunes for songs for your iPod, the day is soon coming when you can go to a band’s website directly and buy their songs to download directly from them, or from alternative sources other than iTunes. Another scenario is that iTunes becomes a central vendor, like eBay, but allows people to sell through them for some fee. I am not sure how it will evolve. But I do think that top-down control is going to harder and harder to maintain, and this will drive the process I am talking about. Of course, I may be blinded by optimism. But I have found that most of the time, techonological change is empowering and positive, so I’ll cling to my vision for now.

  5. The tyranny of the album has burned out artists and stunted the development of many more.Before “signing” to a record company artists used to pay their dues and accrue an original repertoire,the goal was a hit single.With the advent of the album culture that original repertoire was exhausted almost immediately.Two or three album deals are beyond most artist’s capabilities,certainly in the accountant driven timescale demanded.Touring,interviews,personal appearances,not to mention hedonism, all eat into the ammount of time required for songwriting.Most artists have had it by album three.
    The return of the single would provide an achievable objective more in line with the transitory nature of popular music.Cheap good quality recording equipment and the internet provide an ideal medium for music and modest sales, on an international level are more sustainable.
    Prince handles record sales and merchandising through his fan club,whilst he isn’t exactly Mr Average,it is a model for aspiring musicians

  6. Peter, thanks very much for weighing in. These are very good points which add force to my basic argument. The whole “album” mentality and business focus has been bad up and down the line. I did not know that about Prince. Agreed, Prince is not Mr. Average, but for all his eccentricity he has managed to get away with doing it “his way”. His model is more likely the way of the future than the crumbling monstrosity which is the music industry as of the closing minutes of 2003.

  7. Slight correction Prince doesn’t have an official fan club but has a website which has membership.
    http://www.npgmusicclub.com/ is his official site.This operates very much like your post says, selling recordings only available to members.
    Prince owns his own recording studio Paisley Park,so essentially he owns 100% of the action
    Obviously he started with a much broader base and stronger financial position than most,but it’s the way to go.
    Happy New Year to you.

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