A reader writes:
I can’t be so sanguine about the demise of the album as you are. Yes, recordings were originally short one-offs, but the LP represented a real breakthrough in that it organized the individual tracks in a way that allowed them to speak to one another, and thus increase their impact. A bad song, when thoughtfully integrated into a good album, can be marvelous (e.g. “Within You Without You” on Sgt. Pepper). I don’t think I’m being purely reactionary about this; there is a real beauty to a well-ordered series of songs that will necessarily fall by the wayside if we lose the album as it is now constructed.
To strike a more reactionary tone, I do worry about the ability of people to maintain interest over time. A couple of years ago, the studio (I don’t know which one) sent “Almost Famous” back because it went over their mandatory 2 hour time limit. The resulting cut was a lesser film by any standard (other than brevity), but that didn’t seem to matter; the important thing was that the American viewer wouldn’t have to sit through an overly-long movie (it ended up clocking in at 2:02, so they fudged a little). Unfortunately, I fear that they know their audience well. Reducing the duration of the units of our music would only exacerbate the attention span problem.
Let me suggest a middle road between albums and pay-per-downloads. Perhaps what we will see is the return of the single as a discreet item (or, in this case, series of ones and zeros), but with the continued existence of the album as well. This way artists wouldn’t feel the need to record filler when they only have one good idea, they would simply release the song individually. This could be a good thing. Remember, “Yesterday” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” originally apepared as singles. Then, when a big idea strikes them, they can record a whole album, and even allow fans to only be download it as a whole. It would immediately be pirated on a per-song basis, of course, but it would at least be initially concieved and marketed as an album, thus preserving the integrity of their vision.
I hope I’m right. I would hate to think of future composers being forced to create in snippets.
I actually think something like the two-tier plan my reader envisions is bound to happen. In fact, it’s on the verge of happening already, as individual artists start marketing music through their own Web sites (about which more later–I know about some interesting new sites-in-the-making).
But I do want to take gentle issue with my correspondent’s use of the word sanguine to describe the way I feel about the prospect of life without records. I’m not saying that the album-as-art-object is a bad thing. On the contrary, I’m passionately attached to more than a few such objects (including the ones I mentioned in my original posting). I simply don’t think this kind of mass-produced art object will long survive the transition to a fully digitized, Web-based recorded-music economy.
People often take for granted that I approve of the cultural trends I describe in essays like “Life Without Records.” Sometimes I do, sometimes not. Most often I don’t know what to think about them–yet. The only thing I’m sure of is that they won’t go away, which is why I’m more interested in describing them than judging them. We live in the midst of a blur of onrushing technologies, each pulling its individual train of unintended consequences. I’d much rather try to puzzle out the possible effects of these technologies than complain in advance of having fully experienced them. If anything, I’m temperamentally disposed to be a Luddite, but I absolutely refuse to let myself succumb to that pointless temptation. To be a Luddite, after all, is to renounce all possibility of shaping technology-driven cultural change. I started “About Last Night” for the exact opposite reason: I wanted to try to use a new technology in order to help sustain and enrich the great tradition of Western art.
Early in the life of this blog, I posted an almanac entry by Marshall McLuhan which (allowing for a certain amount of poetic exaggeration) sums up the way I try to look at technological change. It’s worth repeating:
I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening, because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me.
Neither do I.
P.S. Another reader writes:
I’m enjoying this whole topic of the demise of the record, even as I mourn its passing. While I know the folly of remaining in the ostrich position, I have to side with those who would hate to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Even before I tried my hand at recording, I always loved the concept of an album being a collection of material, like a painting or an opera or a good meal. It’s part of the challenge of translating the live performance – making the shape and serving it all up so the listener can enjoy a fuller experience, if that makes sense. kd lang’s Drag album, or the pairing of a specific singer with a special musician or group of players, Peggy Lee’s Mirrors — hell, even Dark Side of the Moon and such. I can’t imagine Bitches Brew as a single. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent too many hours of pleasure listening to recordings alone in a car. Maybe not – a friend just called me and said that he had spent the evening listening to my last CD and felt like it was like an hour of good conversation. So go figure.
(This e-mail comes from one of my favorite singers, by the way.)