The Death of the Album

June 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

A friend and I were discussing the iTunes phenomena a couple weeks ago, where you can pick and choose the songs from an album you want. Essentially, you can create your own custom albums. Now, don’t confuse this with the idea of a mixtape/mix cd, because those are usually made from already well-acquainted songs. In reality this, we concluded, is a doubled edged sword, while you are allowed greater choice, it is also the death of the album and the death of “the grower” (songs that you don’t like at first but slowly become favourites later). I think it also means the end of musical taste expansion. Why get something new when you can get more of the same?

The death of the grower is truly a sad subject. Some of my favourite songs by groups are ones that I initially didn’t like and months later came back to, only to suddenly get the song and love it. Nearly every band has these, but who will listen to them if nobody is buying albums anymore? It is as though the culture has accelerated to such a degree that we don’t even bother listening to something more than three times before moving on. Musical taste has turned into a realm where we’re essentially putting on blinders.

Honestly, this really explains the current functioning of the music industry, which is to primarily to create bands and artists who will produce a series of singles and that is it. The death of the album is also the death of artist development. It is well-documented–the effects of Napster in the mid 90s. CD sales have dropped, labels want to make quick sales with little investment. There was a brief flowering in the early 90s of major labels supporting smaller niche bands in hopes of artist development and flourishing, and hopefully monitary returns obviously. This short-lived age mostly came out of the grunge scene, when Nirvana hit it big and all these other copicats hit the record shelves, however, many labels also began searching for the next indie rock hit, which is why there was an interesting mixed bag of albums widely available in chain stores, in contrast to today’s selection. I think this is why there’s no real such thing as a 90s indie band, most of them ended up on big labels. Come the CD crash, these bands were mostly dropped and thus in part why indie music exists in such a big way today.

The internet has led to this strange combination of big singles on iTunes and an excess of access to smaller unknown bands from all over the globe. The problem is how exhausting of an activity it is to slog through the myriad of crap tangled in with gems. Myspace is a breeding ground for impulsively created profiles subsequently abandoned, and underdeveloped artists are now on the same playing field as mature, quality groups. This is unfortunate in that it becomes more tiring to find something good and exhausts listeners who end up returning to what they already like, but the benefit to good unknown bands is technically being allowed to play on a bigger field with bigger bands, but I still feel that they’re getting lost in the mess of shitty unknowns. It’s diluting the nature of artist development and exposure.

Of course the labels were just as shrewd back in the 90s then as they are now. In Black Postcards by Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500, Luna, Dean & Britta), he writes about Luna’s deal in the 90s with the now-defunct Elektra. The band received a decently large record deal, (I can’t remember how big it was, $250,000 maybe) and while that sounds pretty good, the label would charge the price of making an album to the account. So really they didn’t make much if anything at all, once you count the price of a polished album and the miniscule percentage received by album sales to pay it back. Expenses like touring and equipment go against that account of $250,000 and the band is lucky to get anything at all.

I’m only describing this well-documented history in order to back up the central point, the death of the album. An easy example of what I’m really discussing here is for you to listen to the early Beatles recordings–they weren’t that good. I mean, they could sing, but half of the songs were covers. If nobody ever invested in The Beatles, later monumental classics like “The White Album” and Sgt. Pepper would never have had a chance to come into fruition. I fear the future of the music industry will consist of just “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do”, but will never get around to the growers like “Rocky Raccoon” or masterpieces like Sgt. Pepper.

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