Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Lament for the Death of the Album

Photo Credit: Kate Wurtzel
The physical manifestation of a recording has always influenced popular music forms. Even today, our musical attention span is affected by the three and a half minute running time of the first wax cylinder recordings. For a long time, the recording industry revolved around this “single" format. Later, however, when the LP evolved, artists started to weave unifying narratives through the lyrical and musical elements of its individual tracks.  Its roughly 45 minute playing length began to be carefully sequenced in terms of a beginning, middle, and end. The album was born.

The album is my standard unit of musical consumption. It survived the portable but ultimately lo-fi trend of the tape and found a home in the late 80s on the CD in a slightly altered form.  Two sides became one, and album lengths tentatively began to stretch to fill an 80 minute capacity.

I had a few LPs and quite a few tapes for the walkman, but the CD was my medium of choice when I became a serious music fan. I began my CD collection in 1986 when they were touted as the ultimate in indestructible lossless hi-fi (lies, lies all!). Record enthusiasts bemoaned their lack of analog warmth, but we scoffed and thoughtlessly hit the “next track” button without fully understanding that this action laid the seeds of the album's demise.

Today, I almost always listen to an album from beginning to end. I never skip tracks, and I try to consider the context and potential of each individual song as it relates to the larger work. I find great satisfaction in this practice.  For example, When Wayne’s World just about beat Bohemian Rhapsody into the ground in 1992, I always found that the song was still profoundly moving nestled towards the end of Queen’s truly classic album A Night at the Opera.  I still do.

From my perspective, then, it seems that the Mayans were partially right about 2012. The apocalypse is coming.  Major labels are considering discontinuing CD production this year, which is a disturbing but unsurprising announcement. Simultaneously, streaming music services such as Spotify and (a major resource of this blog) Grooveshark have come under fire by what it is left of the music industry.  Their transparent desire to maintain the status quo, now the downloadable MP3, squeezes out music consumers using outdated, shortsighted, and intimidating methods.

Feels like Napster and the CD all over again doesn't it?

More to the point, although I am attached to the physical object of the CD, I might be able to let go of it if the delivery device is sufficient.  After all, I’ve already begrudgingly accepted a future of MP3s filled with slushy hi-hats and guitars compressed past the point of distinction. If I can see artwork, organize songs into albums, and enjoy tracks that segue together without a startling bump, I'd probably be relatively satisfied.

On the other hand, perhaps I’ll just revert to the trendy solution of purchasing a turntable to play "high-end" vinyl at exorbitant costs like I did when I was in sixth grade.  That'd be real cool.

Of greater concern is what this wholesale switch to "softcopy" will mean to the integrity of the album as a creative format. Without the constraints of a physical object, be it LP, CD, tape, or 8-track, the organizing principle of the album will most likely dissolve. Sequencing and unity will become pointless if there is no longer the expectation to refine 45-75 minutes worth of music into something cohesive.  Songs will be published as online, playlist-ready singles without consideration of a larger narrative potential. What was once like writing a novel essentially becomes more like blogging.

Some musicians, like the Flaming Lips and their recent “24-hour song” 7 Skies H3, will undoubtedly explore the limits of this freedom (the "hardcopy" version of this project is a USB drive mounted inside a human skull - promo shot to the right!).  It is also possible, however, that the music scene will, by and large, crumble into a deluge of unrefined “singles,” drowning out more unified and cohesive efforts in a sea of shortened attention spans.  As a representation of an artistic endeavor that is cultivated over a span of time, the album is very quickly headed towards anachronism.  Abandoning the CD format seems like its death knell.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love A Night at the Opera. When I listen to it, I enjoy hearing it in order all the way through because it definitely tells a story. (Though I will admit the romantic in me has to listen to "Love of My Life" two times in a row before moving on to the next track.)
    I love how they end the album with God Save the Queen because it makes it more like a live show (where you'd be very likely to hear a national anthem). I'm glad you mentioned it in the blog!
    If the music industry completely moved from albums that tell rich stories (like this one), we would be losing something precious indeed.