Thursday, August 02, 2007

In the interest, at long last, of doing a bit more with this blog beyond posting the three weekly song picks, I'm going occasionally to post some other things here that have gone up on the web site. Commentary pieces make a logical--if lengthy--addition to this blog, so given that I've just written a new one, that's what I'm going to post today. Or, actually, I'm going to post the first half of it here today, and then the second half of it in another few days. So it's not too much to read at once, basically. If you really can't wait, there will be a link at the bottom to click to join up with the rest of it on the Fingertips (non-blog) web site. Also, so you know, the full version of the essay has a number of footnotes to click on that I am not bothering to code in here. The essay still works without them.

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The future (or not) of the album
a Fingertips Commentary

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.

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to be continued......
or, click here to finish reading at the Fingertips web site

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