The Thinking Man's Take On: The Album

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As promised, this week’s Thinking Man article is all about the album – in fact, most people a couple weeks ago seemed to ignore the whole singles debate and move straight on to this topic, so it should be an interesting one. Sorry for the delay – I was in Puerto Rico soaking up some sun and catching up on good tunes that I’ve missed over the past 15 years. But now I think I’ve heard them all, so we’re good to go.

Let’s start off with the biggest, broadest, and most impossible question – Is the album dead? There are about a million ways to answer this question, and none of them are right. If you say the album isn’t dead, there are a thousand people at the ready to jump down your throat, citing Flaming Lips, Streets, and Prefuse 73’s who are all using the album format to the fullest extent possible. If you say the album is alive and kicking, crowds of hip hop and pop fans will laugh in your face. Haven’t we heard enough filler skits (not to mention filler songs) to convince us that albums have fallen by the wayside?

The reality is that the album is in the middle of an identity crisis – schizophrenic and multifaceted though it may be. In today’s music environment there are competing factors fighting for and against the album as a concept, as a product, and as a medium. Let’s take a look at the forces hard at work shaping the bifurcated future of the record. Yes, I said bifurcated.

Against:

1. The Medium

It’s tough to argue that the medium of modern music isn’t working. There used to be days (so I hear) when people would line up at the record store on Tuesdays for record releases, waiting to get their hands on some fresh wax, new vinyl records. Later on, people probably waited in line for 8-tracks. Then cassettes. Then CDs. And now…? I’m sure there are people who still purchase Compact Discs. I sure there are also people who still purchase VHS tapes. Long story short, there’s something to be said for the attachment between people, a physical circle or rectangle of tunes, and the format of the album. Even if it is as simple as boiling down to the fact that holding your iTunes album purchase in your hands is nigh on impossible.

The purchase of the medium is also working against the album – maybe even as the strongest fighter in this battle. Song-by-song purchasing and try-before-you-buy marketing makes it much easier to skip certain tracks and go straight for the hits. While some may contend that this actually leads to higher album sales, i.e. that people are more likely to spend money on tracks they have quality tested ahead of time, I would contend that these people are fools. No way does song by song purchasing contribute to album purchasing in any significant way.

Adding to the medium argument is the new-ish concept of Shuffle-ing music. Sure, before we moved into the digital era you could use your fancy 6-deck CD player to shuffle tracks from 6 albums, but we have taken that concept and expanded it astronomically. At the click of a button on my computer, I can shuffle through individual tracks from hundreds of albums, thousands of tracks. And instead of taking up an entire room of my apartment, twenty thousand – think about that number – tunes can fit in my pocket. Who has time for albums when there are thousands of tracks just waiting to be shuffled to? If only there were a player designed to remove the concept of the album. Maybe something small with a clip. Or something that could tell me what song is playing.

A final arrow in the medium’s quiver are services like Pandora, iLike, iTunes Genius, Hype Machine. These wonderful tools are amazing for finding new music or rediscovering old music, but they are about variety and diversity, not about sitting down and listening to a single artist for an hour. And for that reason, the medium fights against the album.

2. The Buzz

The Buzz and the Buzz Cycle have to shoulder some of the blame in the anti-album camp. With so many artists on the market these days, there is a need to build buzz for albums more than ever before. But without a physical release, and with most albums leaking on an unpredictable date months ahead of time, it’s tough to hype up an album as a whole. Singles and promo tracks do most of the heavy lifting, and by the time fans have gotten the album they’re already skipping familiar tracks or just surveying the tracks of the record in 15 second snippets. I listened to Sigur Ros’ “Gobbledigook” a ton before their last album dropped. When it did, I quickly scanned the record, was disappointed that many of the tracks didn’t match the single’s intensity and complexity, and I left it to gather dust. Luckily I returned a few months later to see what I had missed. But how many albums have I left, never to revisit again?

Too many.

Blogs are to blame, promoters are to blame, digital formats are to blame. And finally, we are to blame.

3. The Audience

Going back to the first argument here – twenty thousand songs. Twenty thousand money making songs on the corner. We are completely oversaturated. My dad used to tell me about his relationships with vinyls – buying one or two a month, playing them over and over again until they were warped but it didn’t matter because you knew all the words anyway. I remember a particularly scarring story about having to listen to Inna Gadda Da Vida (the 17 minute version) on repeat because it was the only album on hand for a carpentry project. That type of undersaturation is completely anomalous in today’s world.

Not only are we oversaturated, but we also have short attention spans. I’m not sure if it’s a chicken and egg thing, but the reality is that we don’t let albums grow on us anymore. A difficult track to listen to can often morph into an all-time favorite if we give it enough spins. But we rarely do that anymore. We have the world at our fingertips at almost all times, and for that reason we spend less time lingering over albums that have become good friends. We search for the next big thing before we’ve even finished listening to the current big thing. If I didn’t have an hour long commute to work, I wonder if I would ever listen to albums end-to-end anymore. Which is a shame.

OK, so those are the forces pushing the album down the mountain, but what Sisyphusian strength is supporting the record on the slope? You might see some familiar names here. The biggest album proponents:

1. The Medium

Digital format, although distancing music from physical and tactile relationships, has given the music industry a financial and creative boon – production and release costs have dropped like the stock market, allowing labels to take bigger risks and cast wider nets while artists release riskier and less polished works. Rap mixtapes have become an integral part of the hip hop game, employing recycled beats, low production values, and rarely-if-ever physical releases. Mike Skinner of The Streets has been releasing tracks for the past couple weeks on Twitter via zShare. Del The Funky Homosapien released a high quality digital version of his latest album, as did Girl Talk, Radiohead, Trent Reznor and Saul Williams, and the list goes on. Because less money is being staked on printing and pressing, releasing conceptual or edgy albums becomes a lot more feasible.

Additionally, the medium has allowed for nearly universal access. While it’s almost guaranteed that your local Tower Records wouldn’t stock the latest Wavves album (for the record, I don’t really blame them), anybody with an internet connection on this green globe can check him out. Whether you’re looking to get into early Fugazi, classical orchestra recordings, or something that Lil Wayne recorded in his crib last night, you can get it online – allowing fans to find albums (often for cough cough affordable prices) and listen to them. Here the try-before-you-potentially-buy argument swings in favor of albums, as I’ve undoubtedly bought albums I would never have been exposed to were it not for blogs, websites, banner ads, Hype Machine, or even Napster. So the digital medium is totally an album proponent.

2. The Buzz

Similarly, buzz works in favor of albums when it does build. Sure, it’s more common to hear buzz for a single song these days than it is for an album release, when album buzz happens (see: Animal Collective, Dark Was The Night) the hype gathers speed impossibly fast. In those cases the album becomes the fad – everyone has to own it or have it or have listened to it in its entirety in order to fit in and feel good. It’s an interesting turning on its head of the peer pressure game, pushing people to take their time, stop and smell the roses, and listen to a full record while smelling those roses. Buzz, I think, is one of the least understood concepts in the music biz/world, and may end up being the death/savior of the album. If no one hypes up albums, fewer people will buy them – but if the buzz describes a single as merely a precursor or integral piece in the puzzle of a full record, then perhaps it will whet the appetite rather than quelling it.

3. The Audience

One thing that this combination of universal access and try-before-you-buy capabilities has created is the concept of the uber-niche. Something that people constantly strive for on the internet is finding their audience – and with the internet there is basically a promise that an audience exists somewhere for everything. One of my favorite blogs deals just with bad cake decorating. There are blogs for moms, blogs for sports fans, blogs for moms who are sports fans. There are probably blogs for fans of moms who are sports fans.

These niche audiences mean that when an artist is ready to drop an album, someone will be there to catch it. No matter what certain artists do, I will be there to listen to it front to back. These niche audiences – and the ease of reaching them – allow albums to flourish, inviting artists to make what they want to make, pouring everything into a collection of songs, without the fear that it won’t be well received. It may not be a hit with the masses, but it will appease delirious followers, and when the buzz plays right, that can combine with low production costs to make a brilliant piece of work. There may be fewer examples of a smaller artist reaching the mainstream with an actual album worth listening to, but when that diamond does shine through it is anything but rough. Which makes it all worth it.

Truly, only time will tell what happens to the concept of the album, and the concept album for that matter, in the next few decades. As long as artists don’t do stupid things like trying to release albums on flash drives (hi Ringo!) then the album might have a fighting chance. It’s a bit like the slow food movement, the album is – less easily consumed, involving more hard work, but for those who take the time to indulge, well worth the time spent. Delicious.

Chris Barth writes a weekly Thinking Man feature here at Pretty Much Amazing. You can read his more succinct daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.