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posted 2 August 07     
Reaction posted 13-15 August 07, 9 Sep 07    

The future (or not) of the album

Think the internet's destroyed the album?   
The CD actually did it a long time ago   

A year and a half after unleashing Fingertips onto an unsuspecting public (that was way back in May '03), I got it in my head that I wanted to augment the MP3 reviews I was doing weekly with an album review section. The Album Bin, accordingly, was born, at the end of 2004.

A page of paragraph-long CD reviews, the Album Bin has sputtered along ever since, with me intermittently pledging to post reviews more regularly, and then that never really happening.

I know that I limited myself by deciding that I would only review albums that I really liked. But I didn't, at the outset, recognize what a mighty limitation this would become. Because what turns out to have kept me from writing a lot of reviews has been, rather simply, my inability to find many albums that I liked enough to want to write about.

So here's me, week after week finding song after song that I really love, but month after month hearing a negligible number of albums that get me equally excited. For the longest time I didn't think about this too carefully, and used this information merely to feel badly that I wasn't updating the Album Bin very often.

But I finally realized there's something bigger going on here.

Lots of songs I love, few albums that I love: this sounds in a nutshell like the problem the entire music industry is grappling with. People are buying songs, not albums. And of course there are many who are not buying at all but simply downloading without paying--and not all of these people, alas, are visiting Fingertips and downloading legally.

As a music fan, you may have read an article or two (or five) declaring the album to be more or less dead, if not now then very soon. (Never mind, for the moment, the fact that there are still tons of CDs being released every week.) For proof, everyone points to the latest generation of music fans, who have little to no interest in buying albums in the way that anyone older than 25 or 30 remembers doing, and maybe still does.

So, yes, folks, it's the internet that has killed the album. Might as well blame Al Gore and be done with it.

Or maybe not. First, there's the simple point that the album may not, after all, die. The main reason I can find in support of the album's survival is, to be honest, the fact that so many techno-zealots believe it's a goner. And techno-zealots are perhaps our single most unreliable prognosticators.

But there's a second and more complicated point to the story because in many ways, despite the ongoing onslaught of weekly releases, the album is already in serious hibernation. I do not, however, see this as the internet's fault. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the record album was gravely injured by something we all thought at the time was giving it new life--the CD itself.

Maybe we should define our terms here. When people speak of the death of the album, they may be talking about one of two distinct things: the disappearance of physical CDs entirely, replaced by downloadable songs only; or, somewhat more subtly, the end of an era in which pop musicians release songs that are grouped together in some sort of cohesive way, in which the entire work is thought out as a whole and feels, as a listening experience, to be a unit of some sort.

I am not, here, concerned that much with the fate of the physical CD, and I don't think that's what most true music fans fret about when talking about the death of the album. They worry, instead, about a musical world in which we are denied the pleasures of pop music presented in a larger format than a single song--a musical world without good albums, basically. Many seem to believe that a lack of a physical product would hasten this day, which is why the two distinct ideas--no CDs on the one hand, no albums on the other--are so intertwined.

To me, however, the ongoing existence, or not, of the physical CD is actually besides the point, because its indisputable existence for the last 25 years has slowly but steadily eroded the idea of the record album as anything that many people care about.

Go back to the basic problem: lots of good songs out there, not a lot of good albums. How did this come about? Not because of iTunes. Because of the CD. Because the CD was actually unsuited to the task of being a record album. To be more precise, the CD as developed and promoted by the music industry became unsuited to the task of being a record album.

Where this story really begins, then, is with the number 74. As developed by Sony, the compact disc had the (
weirdly random) capacity of 74 minutes. Vinyl LPs, by contrast, seemed to max out at around 52 minutes.

The CD's extra-large capacity is something we heard about but might not have noticed much at first. Because when the CD was introduced in 1982, CDs and vinyl LPs had to coexist. Obviously not everyone purchased a CD player right away, meaning that albums had to be produced that fit onto vinyl LPs, despite the CD's 40 percent greater capacity. The decade would end before the CD established itself as the preemiment medium for recorded music.

In the meantime, however, one of the principal ways the music industry sought to convince music fans to start buying CDs instead of LPs was by re-releasing popular albums with extra songs of one sort of another. These would typically be songs that were recorded at the same time but not ultimately included on the album, or alternate takes and/or live versions of album tracks.

This seemed like a win-win: the record company sells the same album, essentially, twice, while filling up some of the "empty space" on the CD (which by the way maybe helped justify the higher price), and the consumer gets a new version without vinyl pops and scratches and hey with a few extra songs. These so-called "bonus tracks" were many music buyers' first encounter with the CD's larger capacity.

Bonus tracks were also the first stake in the heart of the record album as we know it.

A seemingly small issue, adding bonus tracks to an existing album that had been thought through and laid out without them? Definitely, to music buyers newly enamored of the silvery, futuristic CD in those sleek, hard-shell cases. To talk about spoiling artistic integrity seemed, maybe, quaint.

But this became a slippery slope. Bonus tracks were first a kind of clever add-on (
sort of). But eventually they led to an important shift. The album was no longer the same as the thing you had in your hand, it was something contained on the thing you had in your hand. The vinyl LP was the album; the CD was just a storage medium containing the album, and maybe other stuff as well.

Packaging furthered the disconnect. A stack of vinyl LPs looks like an array of different items; a stack of CDs looks like a pile of more or less identical things. Storage media. Those of you old enough to remember pre-CD vinyl record albums will remember that some music fans sorely complained about how the digital format, so much smaller than a vinyl LP, took away the sensory and sensual experience of the album as something to hold and read and study. By and large this was seen as an aesthetic issue.
But it was more than that, ultimately.

The CD broke the spell of the record album.

Interestingly, we all kind of intuited this before long, even if it was nothing we thought to articulate. The use of the word "album" diminished as the CD era progressed. Instead of saying, "Did you get the new Radiohead album?" you maybe, more often, said, "Did you get the new Radiohead CD?"

Bonus tracks were but the first step. Once music fans had pretty much abandoned the vinyl LP, by the early '90s, the industry found itself released once and for all from the time restriction of the vinyl LP. After which point albums, sure enough, became longer. Quite a bit longer.

While there are certainly individual exceptions to the rule, as a whole, the music industry never makes decisions based on quality, and I never expect it to. To wonder whether longer albums were better albums, qualitatively, was besides the point: longer albums were better quantitatively so longer albums by and large became the rule of thumb. I mean, aren't 16 songs better than 10? Eighteen better than 16? Etcetera.

Price was part of it. I do not doubt for a minute that industry honchos figured they could push $17, $18, and $19 CDs onto the music-buying public more easily if the CDs came with 16 or 18 or 20 songs and lasted more than an hour than they could if artists had only 10 or 12 songs and only 40 minutes of music.

It's one thing to add songs to make an album last 60 minutes instead of 40 minutes. It's a whole other thing to make those 20 minutes really good, not to mention fit in with the other 40. I don't know about you, but my CD collection is chock full of discs that would be truly outstanding if they were 35 or 40 minutes, but seem kind of average at 65 minutes. (Of course, what do we do with these CDs, with our iPods? We upload only the good 35 or 40 minutes, don't we.)

I'm not here to argue with the industry philosophically. These were business people making business decisions. I am here to point out, however, that a combination of technological capacity and business acumen (or not) fostered an age of 60-plus-minute albums that absolutely and positively led to the demise of the very thing that was being marketed. (Ironic, ain't it?)

Thing is, albums really do have an appropriate length. With the benefit, again, of historical hindsight, it's clear that a vinyl LP-length album tends to work as a listening experience in a way that a CD-length album does not.

There is nothing magical about this; it's kind of just ergonomics, in a way: how long it feels comfortable to sit and focus on one somewhat connected piece of music. And the fact that the vinyl LP works for this and the CD doesn't is rather accidental, since
neither the CD nor the vinyl LP were developed with pop albums particularly in mind.

Originally used for classical recordings, long-playing records, when they finally made their way to the market in a pop music setting, were nothing more than the latest collection of a performer's songs, with no particular rhyme or reason to look and feel, or even sequencing. It took some 10 to 15 years between the widespread emergence of the 33 1/3 LP in the early to mid-1950s and the arrival of record albums in the artistic sense of the word--that is, the album as some sort of coherent (though not necessarily thematic) work of art

Circumstances by then had arisen that prompted recording artists to look at the LP as a larger-scale canvas on which to paint their musical ideas. It's well-known that the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson was inspired by the Beatles 1965 album Rubber Soul to produce Pet Sounds, released in 1966, which in turn inspired 1967's Sgt. Pepper, after which the
floodgates opened.

For the next couple of decades, cultural and technological circumstances combined to keep the vinyl album at the center of the pop music market, during which a
great majority of pop music's classic albums were produced.

But in the latter half of the album's heyday, along came the CD, which took its own 10 to 15 years to change how music was being conveyed to music buyers. And here's me in 2007 finally realizing that however many great songs there are out there these days there are oddly few great albums.

Leading me to realize that it is the CD, and not the internet, that steered the music industry back to its earlier, pre-Pet Sounds position: record albums in themselves have no artistic integrity as a coherent whole, they're just a collection of songs for people to buy. Record companies, artists, and music buyers alike have been slowly and steadily over the last 10 to 15 years adjusting their sense of what releasing music is about to the reality of the CD rather than the vinyl LP.

And then the internet came in for the kill.

Because if CDs are just collections of songs for people to buy, and it turns out here in the 21st century that people can, online, buy all the songs they want--or steal them--without buying albums at all, then this is a logical outgrowth of how the music industry began to treat albums on CDs versus albums on vinyl records.

Furthermore, with CDs having stretched albums beyond agreeable length and/or having "bonused" them beyond recognition, it only makes sense that people feel no particular affinity for the collections of songs they're being sold on CDs now that they can make their own collections of songs--playlists, as they are often called in this online setting.

Re-examining my opening circumstance in light of all this, what does it really mean that I've been unable by and large to find albums that I really like? Clearly, as noted at the top, there are no shortage of CDs being released. But with everyone fully adjusted to the CD experience, with the vinyl album experience a quaint relic of the past, I say it's no coincidence that albums with the spark of that experience in their laser-etched grooves are so hard to come by.

And I have to own up to the fact that my feeling that there aren't many really good albums these days is no doubt due in part to my own diminished interest in this sort of album, as fostered by the environment I've been describing. It's an odd admission for someone who always thought so highly of albums, or always thought I thought highly of them.

But I've been pretty happy with my iTunes library, and shuffling through my odd but engaging assortment of songs on my iPod. Lots and lots of great new songs I'm listening to, I have to tell you. And, yes, of course, the occasional great album. I do not mean to imply by all this that no one is releasing good albums at all.

I hope, still, to post reviews to the Album Bin. Occasionally. And I pledge to myself no longer to worry about not posting.

That said, I have a suspicion that we haven't heard the last of the album. And if this turns out to be the case, the album's survival and re-emergence will be grounded in a recognition that the "record album" as often, now, romanticized was a phenomenon born of a time and place and technology and culture that just isn't coming back. If the album is to have a renaissance someday, it will have to be reinvented--and reinvented in a way that is as inconceivable to us in 2007 as Pet Sounds would have been to Pat Boone fans in 1959. The person or people who accomplish this wondrous task will have themselves grown up listening to CDs. Ironic, ain't it?


posted 13-15 August, 9 Sep 07

A discerning few of you may have noticed over time that Fingertips does not offer "comments" sections in any way, shape, or form. To explain that particular quirk would probably take its own "Commentary" essay (and watch out, I'm thinking of writing it); suffice it to say that I am very interested in what people have to say, but I'm not interested in publishing quickie reactions from random visitors--which often turn into their own conversations--on an equal footing with carefully thought-out essays. Just because 99% of all web sites do this doesn't mean it makes sense.

That said, as this essay has indeed prompted a number of thoughtful responses, I was moved to give some space to some of them, here in this kind of random yellow box.

Mary Ann Farley, a talented singer/songwriter (and painter) in her own right, writes to mention an excellent point I completely overlooked:

One thing I loved about the vinyl disc was that it had two sides. When I made both of my CDs, neithier one cracking 40 minutes (My Life of Crime came in at 37), I felt like even that amount of time was too long a stretch for someone to sit and listen to. I worried that the songs further down the list wouldn't get listened to as much, even though they were just as good and placed there for a reason. And it seems I was right.

Just from anecdotal conversations, people tend to talk about the earlier songs on my discs. One friend said he found the music so dense (in a good way) both lyrically and musically, that he could only listen to a few songs at a time in order to digest it.

When I used to listen to vinyl records, I felt like there were two tiny worlds, one on each side, and the splitting in half of the entire work helped me get to know an album intimately. That experience, as you say, is just gone now, never to return, and I miss it.

Visitor Courtney brings up another excellent point that I missed:

Speaking for myself only, I can tell you why the CD changed albums forever for me: Because they make it so easy to skip a song. Records and tapes made it (comparatively) labor intensive to change to the next track. So I sat in my car or my room and learned to appreciate a song that I might initially have disliked, because I was too lazy to skip past it. I was forced to listen to the album in its entirety and to give in to the flow the artist intended (so that even years later, I would always expect track 4 to follow track 3 even when hearing that song on the radio).

I can name only a handful of albums that I have listened to that way since the introduction of CDs. The siren call of that forward button makes it SO easy to disregard a song that doesn't grab you immediately. A song you might learn to love if you gave it a chance.

Yes, absolutely, a crucial point. I didn't think of it in part because I never developed the habit, somehow. To this day I rarely if ever use the "next track" button; I forget it's even there, I feel rather sheepish in admitting.

Courtney notes that the iPod has aggravated the problem:

Now I don't even pretend to listen to an album as a whole. It gets dumped into my library and I listen to it when it finally pops up in shuffle mode.

Talk about breaking the spell of the album! This reality didn't occur to me either, so thanks to Courtney for bringing that up. I didn't think of it because of another idiosyncrasy of mine--namely, I do not by default upload CDs automatically into iTunes; I pick and choose and only put songs in my library that I like. This does require a bit of familiarity with the album on the one hand, but on the other hand it obviously results in me dismantling the album and never really hearing it again either. So, different approach, same results.

Visitor Chris writes in to point out that my quick summary of the album's rise in the mid-'60s overlooked the fact that jazz artists were most definitely recording albums as "cohesive musical statements" back in the '50s. Absolutely true, and I might have made it clearer that I was grounding the entire argument in the pop world. Still, this makes me wonder why the likes of Brian Wilson or the Beatles or any other thoughtful pop musicians of the day hadn't already looked to the jazz world for inspiration on the matter.

Chris also notes, rightly, that even as the album focus grew through the '60s and into the '70s and '80s, there always remained a reasonably strong concurrent focus on songs and singles on the pop side of things. Finally, he observes that while things have changed over the last generation, he does not see the album dying out any time soon:

I think maybe the cd was an agent in the trend away from the great rock albums of the 70s, but a focus on albums is still quite common in many realms of music. I keep encountering great new albums in metal, jazz, country, and rock music. I'm actually surprised that the album form is still doing so well despite all the pressures against it. I think there is hope that artists will continue to want to put the effort into creating albums and that dedicated listeners will still want to hear them.

Lucas Jensen, on the other hand, notes that there are genres of music that might do better to abandon the album format entirely:

Wouldn't a lot of R&B/rap artists be better if they didn't have to make or be judged by albums? I love Beyonce for a song or two but not a record because I think her singles are tops.

Lucas, who promotes indie artists for the Athens, Ga.-based Team Clermont, then wonders if the shift to digital distribution isn't damaging music in a way that goes deeper and further than merely killing off the idea of the record album:

Moving music away from the physical realm hasn't been properly addressed philosophically yet in my eye, but I think something is being lost in terms of permanence--when music is easily tradeable and deleteable it will become disposable. Someone's year of hard work goes down the drain because you didn't like the way it sounded at the beginning and deleted it.

I agree with this idea that lacking a physical form renders music more disposable, to the harm of artist and listener alike, and definitely to the detriment of the pop music album such as it used to exist much more commonly. It's worth noting that in our digital age you don't even have to delete a song literally to delete it effectively--bringing us back to Courtney's observations about how the "next track" button often leads her to ignore a track for good simply because it didn't grab her quickly enough.

And yet more recently, Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum writes in with a heartfelt, and playful, defense of the "next track" button.

He begins by emphasizing how pop music, unlike other genres, has a particularly vibrant relationship to the single.

The single celebrates internal cohesion--oh to find that perfect centripetal pop structure, that jewel-like song! The single travels well; it fills a convenient length of conversation and attention; you can't often play an entire album for a friend, but you can say shh, wait, just listen to this next song...

Because the single is so important to rock music, Jeremy notes that in some cases a good album may be nothing more or less than "a fantastic and well-arranged collection of singles"--in which case, he argues:

Perhaps it's sort of okay if we hit the Skip Track button. Perhaps that's just an expression of the capitalism of aesthetics, in which songs need to work hard to get our attention, and then earn our love. The single is a quick stab of wit, a one-liner, an aphorism, while the album is a wonderful opportunity for a sustained conversation--but the album asks more of a commitment. The Skip Track button says: I like you, I do, I brought you home and everything--but I don't want to take things too seriously yet.

While I'm charmed by Jeremy's creative defense of the skip track button, I would still contend that in general it has done more harm than good; let's just say I tend to feel funny about things that work to undermine our collective ability to pay attention for longer than three minutes. And I know for sure that there have been countless songs over the years that I might easily have rejected had I not given them the good long chance that vinyl LP listening kind of sort of forced us to give songs, back in the day.

Comments on the essay are still welcome. Any that continue to add measurably to the conversation will be added here as they funnel through the home office.

"The Secret...okay, a different one" - posted 24 Mar 07
"Foulplay" - posted 16 Jul 05
"14 Arguments for the Elimination of Pop Music Critics" - posted 10 Feb 05
"Alarmed" - posted 16 Mar 04

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