Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Reaction to "The future (or not) of the album"

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 (posted here originally on Aug. 2 and Aug. 3) has indeed prompted a number of thoughtful responses, I was moved to give some space to some of them, here--both on the web page with the original essay and here on the blog.

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.

More responses that add to the conversation will be included here as they come in.

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