Friday, August 03, 2007

The future (or not) of the album
a Fingertips commentary
part 2 (see 8/2 for part 1)

The CD broke the spell of the record album.

Interestingly how 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?

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