In the depths of my basement, lined up on an old bookshelf, I have about 300 vinyl record albums that just sit slowly rotting away as the years go by. There’s also probably about 100 CD’s also starting to gatherer dust as time passes and downloaded digital media reigns. Some of the old rock music is still popular with my two high school aged teens, so occasionally I will take the opportunity to dive down there and emerge triumphantly with an ancient album in hand when a classic old band happens to be mentioned in casual conversation. The kids look at it in the same way I might look at artifacts in a museum; with interest, but no lasting enthusiasm. The pictures are neat; the hairdos are funny, “look at those clothes”— “Was Ozzy ever really that young?”, etc. As for myself, I can remember the entire experience of buying an album consisting of more than just the music. Much of it had to do with placing the record in the player and spending an hour or so listening while poring over the album jacket, which in the more interesting cases consisted of fantastic artwork mixed with news, lyrics and pictures of the band members. Some albums like the Beatles or Jethro Tull had up to 20 pages in a hardcover book form if you had an original or early release. Many contained posters and other promotional paraphernalia along with the recorded music. There seemed to be as much work going into the album presentation as went into actual music itself.
And so, I have some nostalgic pangs when I hear speculation that the very format of artists releasing music in album format might also be heading the way of the dodo or dinosaur. Granted, the advent of CD’s put a damper on album art for the most part, but a group or artist’s music is still presented as a named collection; usually with a theme and sound unique to that particular album. Digital downloading is bringing us back to the “Singles” method of music distribution much as it was in the era of 45’s where you bought your music in a smaller cheaper form, and only received the exact song you know you paid for. There are certainly some advantages to this from a consumers point of view; namely, you get only what you paid for, no more, no less. I can remember every so often buying an album because I knew I liked one or two songs on it, only to be disappointed in finding those two songs were the only good songs on the album.
Blogger ‘aramsinnreich’ writes that the album “is essentially an arbitrary product based on the limited capacity of 20th century recording and distribution technology.”
Having fully adopted digital music myself for all the obvious reasons in the last 5 years or so, I can’t help wondering if sentiments like these may be driving the wave of the future when it comes to musical releases. Artists like Smashing Pumpkins claim they won’t be releasing albums at all any more, with front man Billy Corgan stating,
“People don’t even listen to it all. They put it on their iPod, they drag over the two singles, and skip over the rest. The listening patterns have changed. So why are we killing ourselves to do albums? Our primary function now is to be a singles band. We’ll still be creative, but in a different form.”
Is this ‘sour grapes’ thinking from lack of material, or is it really much more beneficial for an artist to have the freedom of just releasing singles when they are ready?
Nostalgia aside, I can really only think of one thing I will miss about albums and collections if their demise is truly imminent. Many times in the past, I would do just as Billy Corgan claimed and listen to the first three songs and call it a day. But, then one day I would put the album on and either purposely or accidentally (if I was busy doing something else) wind up listening to the whole thing. More often than not, I found I really liked that “2nd to last song on Side 2” that no one ever heard on the radio or anywhere. It was almost like having a brand new album without having to go to the store. If artists are only going to publish hits, these moments will be lost and a lot of good interesting material might go unheard. The “filler” songs on albums were often a means for an artist (for good or ill) to experiment and reach out in a new way.
The 99-cent download becomes a much more convenient throwback to the days of the “Hit Single” which carries many good features with it, but even back in the days of 45-rpm one-hit-wonders, there were still those interesting “B Sides” to listen to.
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