Sunday, May 24, 2009

Back to the Future

The Gang of Four's Dave Allen wrote an interesting take on the relationship between the Web and music, taking up the thought that "The browser is the new iPod." As a consequence of that, he foresees the death of the album as the organizing principle for salable music. In the comments section, he writes;

Music recorded on analog 16 track machine, and not dumbed down to 44.1khz to accommodate transfer to crappy CD, pressed direct to a metal mother from 1/2″ tape and then pressed to vinyl which comes with MP3 and Lossless files, is the future I look forward to..or rather a reversion to the past…

Whether he realizes it or not, the future he envisions is more retro than he writes. The album became the dominant musical mode in the 1960s; before that, the single was the dominant mode, and albums were often collections of singles padded with a few extra songs. The Beatles did a lot to advance the album as the mature expression of an artistic vision that couldn't be contained by a single or EP, and the industry became so invested in the concept that it phased out the single in the early 1990s, in effect forcing people who only liked a song or two to buy the album. That short-sightedness in effect forced the creation of a music underground so people could get what they actually wanted.

The return to singles and EPs as the dominant mode of music production makes a lot of sense, moving the artist from an industry-dictated production schedule to a creativity-oriented one - cut songs when you've got them - but it doesn't necessarily mean the album is dead. There were at least two different kinds of consumers in the '60s and '70s - those who wanted the songs they liked to sing and dance to, and those who thought of the album as art (to simplify the terms, perhaps unfairly) - and there's no reason to think the latter audience will disappear. Albums cost more than singles and required a greater investment of time to hear, so they were never the easiest, most efficient way to consume music. They provided a different experience than a single did, and that difference will continue to exist and be addressed. But artists who don't have album-length thoughts or album-oriented aspirations will no longer have to pollute the market to have a place in the market.

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