In an attempt to put recent discussions I’ve had into writing, I thought I’d kick this blog off with an article on the dubious fate of album. Music is an incredibly important part of my life and the ever changing face of how we consume it affects us all. With the influx of digital music and the inevitable change it has bought to our listening habits, I’m interested to look into whether the album has any real relevance today.
Primarily, it’s the album as an artistic entity that I am looking at. It’s worth noting that physicality (or rather, the lack of) never killed it before, so to simply point the finger at the iPod is shortsighted. Albeit in vinyl, cassette or CD – music has always adapted to the shifts in technology. That said, who exactly listens to a full album today? Who has the time?
If anything, it’s the art of listening to the album that I feel has changed. It seems we’ve become so accustom to picking specific songs, shuffling and streaming through our favourite tracks, that the structured format of the record has been lost. In fact, the idea of listening to an album in isolation, from start to finish, seems somewhat alien. No doubt Smartphones have made public transport more bearable, but seeing music as merely an accompaniment to our daily lives demonstrates a clear change in attitudes today.
Interestingly enough, Noel Gallagher commented on how these attitudes have changed in a recent interview about Arcade Fire’s Reflektor:
“Anybody that comes back with a double album, to me, needs to pry themselves out of their own asshole. This is not the ’70s, okay? Go and ask Billy Corgan about a double album. Who has the fucking time, in 2013, to sit through 45 minutes of a single album? How arrogant are these people to think that you’ve got an hour and a half to listen to a fucking record?”1
In true Gallagher fashion, the LP is ripped to pieces. That said, it does open up an interesting angle for this debate. The Double-LP represents a slightly pretentious era of music, but certainly demonstrates how much time was once devoted to the listening to music. Does this fit in with our on-demand approach to music today? I can’t help but think that 75 minutes of The Who’s Tommy would be lost on the average iPhone or Spotify playlist. Cynicism aside, it’s a great lost to see these ambitiously crafted albums die out. In fact, Some of my favourite albums of all time, (London Calling, The Fragile, The White Album, Melancholily & ISS’), are double albums. Gallagher may disregard the relevance of the double LP today, but there is no denying that some of the most influential albums of all time were presented in this format.
Likewise, what about the concept album? Ziggy Stardust or The Wall – albums that really come into their own when listened to as a continuous narrative. Has this art form died for the sake of specific songs? I’ve always liked to raise the discussion about Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt here – a song that whilst depressing in isolation feels like a peaceful ending in the context of its album. (The Downward Spiral, 1994). Once more – I look towards how we listen to music today and ask if all this construction is lost. Artists devote a huge amount of time to meticulously order track listings, hell, they even cut incongruous tracks from records all together. But perhaps this is entirely redundant – as continuity and fluidity is irrelevant when listening to specific tracks.
Bizarrely, some efforts have been made to counter this. Kaiser Chiefs released a (frankly underwhelming) record in 2011 where fans could ‘create their own’ track listing from track samplers on their website. Similarly, ASH released their ambitious A-Z Series, a digital subscription service that provided fortnightly singles via download. Of course, maybe this could be the evolution that the album needs, a sort of blend of artistic construction and digital flexibility. That said, neither were truly successful and it’s worth nothing that both bands have returned to making conventional albums.
Moreover, I should probably take a moment to stop romanticising the album. Modern listening habits reflect a wealth of advantages that were alien in the era of the double LP. We no longer have to buy a record (that’s assuming music is still payed for) only to find a handful of enjoyable songs. Likewise, making playlists allows us to make our own personal greatest hits, a sort of tailor-fitting that no record will ever provide. In fact, the sheer convince of digital media is unparalleled. I can can access an unlimited amount of songs on my phone with an internet connection – you sure as hell couldn’t do that with a walkman in the 80’s. Similarly, Spotify and YouTube offer a platform for discovering music that would normally go unheard. The ‘try before you buy’ ethos of streaming services gives us access to more music than ever before. However, I can’t help but feel this is is the harmartia, or tragic flaw for the album all together – accessibility will eventually kill it.
Ultimately, this is this is the argument I have building towards. I recently debated my own thesis of ‘entertainment abundance’ in light of how we consume film and TV. Netflix provides more shows on-demand than any physical form of media, to the point where we have no idea what to watch. How this happens is actually quite remarkable and I feel it spawns from the fact we’ve never had so much choice before. Whilst listening and viewing habits are totally individual, to be overwhelmed with options inevitably leads to a less engaged relationship with records or films. The idea of passive and active engagement is useful here as it seems music is seen as less of a major source entertainment and rather a subsidiary to something else. (i.e. listening via an iPhone on the bus, rather than in the dark listening/crying to The Smiths etc)
And that’s really the point I’m really trying to make. Through such an open access to music we haven fallen trap to superficiality in our listening habits. Maybe we need to go back to listening to albums again. Sitting down with a tea or gin, listening from start to finish and enduring all those painfully shit filler tracks. Because that is *listening* to music is it not? Warts and all? Browsing through specific tracks whilst undoubtably convenient, ultimately undermines the artists’ creation.
Above else, what I’m calling Musical Abundance , you may well consider the greatest thing to happen to music. This increase in accessibility will continue and no doubt the relevance of the album will slip away. Ultimately, this piece has been intended to reassess how modern habits have changed, for good and for bad. Of course, I’m not denying the marvels of recent media forms, and I admit I enjoy handpicking songs as much as a fluid concept album.
But I’d still try to encourage that we give the album another chance. I like to see music as much as a narrative as any book or film and a way of conveying an artists thoughts and feelings concisely. Whether or not you agree with this view is perfectly understandable, and I intended this to be contradictive article for the sake of provoking thought. Nevertheless, I for one am going to sit down and listen to London Calling… and you’re more than welcome to follow suit.