The End of the Album, and are we bothered enough to care?

This past Christmas I got 2 gifts that were at the top of my Amazon wish list: The landmark albums by The Smashing Pumpkins, Gish and Siamese Dream, in their remastered deluxe edition formats. Upon opening the box sets, looking at all the postcard style images from the original album art, the lengthy liner notes, the extra discs, DVD, et al, I felt sonically satisfied. A re-digestion of 2 of my favorite albums that got me through my mopey college years. As a deluxe reissue is prone to do, it brought memories back. Music is amazing in that way. Not only is it an artistic and aural expression, something to amuse and appease the eardrums with rhythm and melody, but it also has the amazing dual capacity of being a time machine; whenever you hear it, you’re immediately reminded of when, where and how you were when you first heard it. It’s a beautiful by-product.

This whole symbiotic relationship made me think how much fun it was waiting for an album/cd on its official release date. Getting a group of friends, and heading down to the record store. It was a great excursion, plus an awesome excuse to put off studying.

This now of course is an archaic concept. And it’s no guess as to why. The moment Internet culture locked in with file sharing, it was only a matter of time to make this whole experience antiquated and unnecessary.

The Internet is a miasma of things both great and horrible, often dovetailing each other so closely that our positions may shift on any given day as to the end result being a benefit or a detriment.

I remember when Napster first reared its head. Suddenly, any song by any band you liked was there for the taking…provided you had adequate Internet speed and that the connection didn’t time out. What for me was the best part, wasn’t finding a full album I wasn’t willing to pay for, but rather all the rarities, B-sides and live performances that simply aren’t in print anymore. It was awesome. I also remember that I was doing this at work, and when I transferred computers I lost everything. That was not so awesome. Sigh. On the bright side, at least I wasn’t fired.

And into this brave new world comes Lars Ulrich and Metallica to spoil the party. The backlash he and his band experienced was legendary in the sheer vitriol they invited. And I certainly didn’t’ feel too sorry for them. Metallica were all multi-millionaires whose glory days of making exciting and vibrant metal were apparently behind them. Their foray into diluted boogie/uninspired alt rock helped undermine their point perhaps, but for all intents and purposes the filesharers’ won and free music was now simply a part of the Internet experience. And the near destruction of the music industry followed.

In the end, it was about presentation, because like it or not, Lars had a point. It was in essence, thievery, but without the (imminent) fear of being caught. IF he had presented it under the guise that while his band can afford to take a hit, that newer and smaller size bands could really wither and die on the vine, he could have probably done some damage control. That and records companies realizing that (a) cd prices had been ridiculously high for far too long, and that like any other media format they should go down in price the longer their existence, and (b) started the idea of online commerce sooner. This surely would have stemmed the bleeding and cut down on piracy. But that alternate universe doesn’t exist, and here we are with the reality. A tepid industry, kept alive through iTunes.

The pleasure of iTunes is obviously its convenience. And that you no longer have to buy a full album to hear the one song that you really like. But that’s also its greatest weakness. Have you ever had the experience of buying a cd/album, and after giving it a listen find yourself not immediately taken with it? But after a few days, your brain wraps around the arrangements/production/lyrics and you wind up touting it as one of your favorites? Yes? No? For me it happens a lot, and I find more satisfaction in a challenging listen vs. something that gets stuck in my head on play one. Which one will last the test of time and which one will you be burnt out on quickly? The slow burner for me is always preferable.

But the buy a single mentality, has in many ways made the idea of an album, or even more so the concept album a withering dinosaurish format. Now with current disposable pop, this makes total sense. None of those tweensters are going to have a shelf live beyond a few years unless they can develop artistically, and that’s doubtful. Why listen to a whole collection that sounds the same from start to finish?

But for Generation X and long before it, the idea of a cohesive set of songs was a very satisfying experience. When you had vinyl, you could open up the big gatefold and check out all the pics/lyrics while zoning out to your favorite tunes. The 80’s brought cassettes to popularity. You could unfold the little sleeve and read all the liner notes while soaking in the new tunes. The CD jewel box really was the best of both worlds and made the cassette a losing investment. More durable, less sound degradation, bigger pictures, & more sleeve art and liner notes to peruse to try to let you get inside the heads of your musical heroes. Plus it could squeeze in more songs due to the disc formatting process, making the average cd have 2 or 3 songs more than a LP or cassette could contain.

If you mentioned a midnight music release party now, people would look at you like you were from Mars. Why bother, when it’s all there with a click of the mouse?

Buying albums like Achtung Baby, Dirt, Siamese Dream, The Downward Spiral, Superunknown, or any other number of alternative rock landmarks on opening day was a lot of fun, a mini-event. After making the initial trek to the store then you could have some folks over, play the tunes, have some drinks or whatever got you going and all get into the groove together. Or just hit the highway when gas wasn’t insanely expensive and let it rip at explosive volume. Road testing music is always a good idea, the soundtrack of your life only improves with speed and rolling vistas out your window.

But thinking of it now, as nostalgic as I get for that era, I’d be hard pressed to have the time or patience to do it myself. Who has time to go listen to an album from start to finish with everything else that’s going on in one’s life? Internet and smart phones have made all our attention spans go out the door. In addition to the Pumpkin’s I have gotten a hold of some Pulp and Cure reissues as well and had a blast looking back, but as far as any new release is concerned I don’t think I’ve extensively pored through any liner notes in recent memory. And part of that is because they don’t really make them much of an essential element anymore. Artists can save $ that way and be more eco friendly by not sweating the packaging.

But the funny thing is that as much as our shorter attention spans and Internet driven speedy consumption works against the album format, artists are still drawn to it. It’s a nice finite way to develop concepts and create a stylistic body of work. Jamming on one song brings ideas that may sprout in another, which has a nice organic binding effect (Check out the great U2 doc, “From The Sky Down” to see a beautiful example of this in action. During a jam session on Mysterious Ways, you hear in the back the Edge futzing around on a guitar solo. The band rallies around that sound and it becomes the song structure of “One”.). The songs on an album belong to each other. Each collection of work doesn’t exactly jibe with the next one, making it a unique set of circumstances thus diversifying a body of work (unless your AC/DC or The Ramones, where diversity is not only unwelcome it’s unneccesary). The creative process doesn’t just stop and start as a general rule. Once the juices start flowing it gives a nice natural ebb and flow until it feels complete.

Older artists have made dramatic statements about how they are fine with shedding the album format, as its time has come. Ian Astbury of the Cult, one of my all time favorite vocalists, often prone to dramatic, exaggerated statements said this a couple of years ago in a interview with Doug Pullen of the El Paso times:

“There will be no new album. I don’t think we’ll ever see a Cult album. Albums are dead. The format is dead. iTunes destroyed albums. The whole idea of an album. Albums were established in the ’70s and ’80s and into the ’90s, but they’ve been dead for a long time. Nobody buys albums. It’s been proven. It’s an arcane format, as much as the 78 rpm or writing sheet music for an orchestra. It’s an old form and, for me, it’s much more about if we have a great song we really believe in, then we’ll record it and release it.” And: “For me, the idea of making albums is dead. The idea of spending a year and a half in the studio arguing over agendas and trying to fit into a format that’s settled before we started the creative process (is unappealing).”

Back in a 2008 Chicago Tribune interview with Greg Kot, the equally outspoken and mercurial Billy Corgan had a similar viewpoint about the end of the album format as we know it:

“We’re done with that. There is no point. 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, to create balance, and do the arty track to set up the single? It’s done.”

Both the Cult and Smashing Pumpkins are releasing new albums in 2012. Is it a testament to the conceptual gestation I just mentioned, or the need for their generation of fans to have something tangible in their hands given the sentimental attachment we feel towards the art form? I think it’s a little of both.

But some younger bands seem to have the same affinity. Bands as stylistically different as Mastodon and M83 release albums that are conceptual in nature (Mastodon’s latest notwithstanding). M83’s latest is actually a double album! A format that is even more unpopular than its counterpart.

In the end, I think the album will remain with us, just in diminishing returns. It no longer has the hold it once did, but it’s too cool of an experience to let it go completely. I look forward to hearing Astbury and Corgan backpedal from these statements, and perhaps elaborate more on why there’s still the need for the album format to endure. They’ve both got the gift for gab, and I’m sure they’ll make their cases, and diehard fans are always forgiving of grandiose statements that didn’t pan out in exactitude, as long as they make up for it with a great set of songs.

About SLIS

Middle Aged Gen-Exer obsessed with Alternative rock, metal, cult movies, comic books and cable TV.

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7 Responses to The End of the Album, and are we bothered enough to care?

  1. Jason Kothmann March 17, 2012 at 2:35 am #

    I think the vinyl album will continue it#39;s upswing because it will last much linfer than a stupid file. I still have all my vinyl, but about half of my downloads are lost in the ether. Artists will gravitate toward vinyl again because it#39;s the only lasting proof of their work.

  2. Michael Taylor March 17, 2012 at 3:19 am #

    I think there#39;ll always be a place for it, but the event of getting the album and absorbing has now been shortened and it just doesn#39;t feel as special. Life just seems to move too fast for people to get that excited about that type of experience to the same degree as when we were in high school and college y#39;know?br /But it#39;ll always be cooler to have a hard copy of something, but I don#39;t think a lot of folks have that attachment anymore?


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