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National Album Day: Why the Tactile Nature of Music Is Ever-Important and Cannot Be Undone by Digital Methods
MAYBE that heading is a mouthful…
IMAGE CREDIT: National Album Day/BBC Music/Getty Images
but my latest National Album Day-related piece – I will not post too many more before Saturday; maybe a couple more – looks at one of the most important reasons for celebrating the day: studying albums in their physical form and bring present with others who love the physicality of musical tradition. One cannot engage in a National Album Day and solely look at digital methods and what is being played on the Internet. Of course, we all rely on the Internet and many of us get our music that way but that is not to say Saturday’s album celebration is a retro thing that harks back to past times – a nostalgia trip that we engage in and will be forced to shell money over to afford vinyl and albums on hardware. It is a non-committal day where we can mark the album as a format that is crucial and, in this digital age, been reduced and overlooked somewhat. This, like my last article, is something I have addressed before but one reason why people will always long for the album and love what it is about is the tactility and physical side. I have just been sent an album for review on cassette and it may provoke laughter and snorts. Cassettes are still a big thing and, as Mixmag highlighted earlier this year; we still have a definite hunger and love for the humble cassette:
“According to Official Charts, cassette sales account for a minuscule 1% of music sales in the UK, with just 22,000 copies sold in 2017. This low number is staggering when one thinks how cassettes were the leading format for audio 27 years ago. While that is far from the case today, in recent years, there has been a strong resurgence, with sales close to or more than doubling each year since 2015. Now in 2018 there looks to be an even stronger increase with 18,500 copies sold in just six months. At this time last year, only 9,753 copies had been sold. So it looks like another big comeback year is in store for cassettes, right?
IMAGE CREDIT: Music Week
“The reason for this huge jump in sales in 2018 is due to a large amount of mainstream releases that appeal to the larger market of listeners and collectors. The leading cassette sold this year so far is Kylie Minogue's new album 'Golden' with 2,847, that was released as a limited edition glitter-gold clear cassette around the time she played at Berghain. Next up is the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2soundtrack followed by Snow Patrol's new album 'Wildness' and the 30 Seconds to Mars album 'America'.
Similar to the current vinyl resurgence, it's the new mainstream releases that are yielding the resurgence rather than the culty, underground cassettes released by labels like Opal Tapes, 100% Silk, Awesome Tapes From Africa, Whities, Pale Master and Handmade Birds among others. That being said, the overall appeal of cassettes is attracting listeners and collectors”.
A lot of the sales can be explained by a nostalgic lust but, in a lot of cases, artists want something they can hold and actually give to people directly. Independent labels are among the biggest market for cassettes and it seems the public love the tactile nature of cassettes and what they offer. I remember experiencing them as a child and, although they were a pain in the arse at times – they would unspool and get jammed in the player – it was great to have something in my hand that I could swap with a friend and it felt like an actual purchase. If I went to a record shop and bought a cassette; it would excite me and I miss that rush and nourishment you get with a physical product. More and more, record shops are holding cassette days and there is an annual cassette day that is only a few days away!
IMAGE CREDIT: Lion Coffee & Records
It is surprising so many people are ordering cassettes and they have made such a comeback. I can understand it personally but the limitations of the format – having to rewind and forward the tape to exact points; having no way of jumping to a particular track; the fragility and capriciousness of tapes – but it is wonderful, as I say, having something physical to hold and swap. Maybe C.D.s are that awkward middle-ground between vinyl and tape – compact enough but there is not the same awe and cool as vinyl or the same appeal as a cassette. Vinyl is that consistent format that has endured and, in 2018, is as popular as ever. They will never overtake streaming services but we still have that desire to buy and hold records. There are many reasons why modern artists love albums and will not let them die. You get to tell a story and have a chance to flourish and expand – whereas singles and digital outlets are very brief and about being a bit unengaged – and there is the opportunity to properly engage with people. I feel the physical aspect of vinyl and cassettes are why we have that love of albums as a complete work. Think about the trouble artists go to when putting their music on vinyl: you have the sleeve notes and the album art itself!
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Look back through time and we will all have our views regarding the best album covers ever. There are polls that narrow down the best album covers but even today artists are spending time getting the images right. Artists need images for thumbnails and streaming sites but I am hearing so many musicians talk about releasing their music on vinyl and why that is vital to them. It is not about nostalgia and doing something quirky. They have the same passion as artists did decades ago and love to see something full and illustrative on the shelves. You cannot beat the pleasure of skimming through records, looking at cassettes or having a C.D. with you. So many of us spend our time skipping through tracks and not really engaged with music on a physical level. We all can appreciate music on a sonic front but many are ignoring physical formats and why they are so important. Cost is an issue but I think the time needed to go and buy something and take it home puts some off! That seems extraordinarily lazy but I can understand how we have got comfortable and resigned. It is not only vinyl and the actual records themselves that should be preserved and celebrated. Many artists have their own merchandise and stalls at gigs.
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They can make their own T-shirts, keyrings and other products and it means they get to engage with their fans. From the other side of the table; it is great having that unique product in your palms and getting to show your love of a particular artist. I know merchandise and posters are all part of the necessary promotional cycle but artists could rely on the Internet and market themselves digitally. The reason why a lot of them do not is because they want to directly reach fans and love the actual process of putting something together. I feel National Album Day doubters should change their views and understand why the album, and its physical gooey glory, is something that will never die. This article from The Guardian irked me when it came out. There were some good points in the article but its opening words, rather weird at that, caught my eye:
“Humour me. Imagine you were a greengrocer, and that your most popular item was strawberries. Your preferred way to package them is by the punnet. Your stall has a beautiful display of punnets of strawberries, each one fully labelled with provenance, type of fruit, date of picking, sell-by dates, and so on. A couple of times a year you do a special promotion – call it Fruit Store Day – on which you sell people special punnets of rare strawberries. You sing the virtues of punnets of strawberries all day, every day. But when the punters come to your stall, what they do is hand over a few pence and walk away with an individual strawberry from a big basket at the side of the counter. They like the punnets well enough. They just don’t want a whole one, regardless of the efforts you put into selling them.
That is, roughly, the situation the music industry finds itself in with the album. Almost everyone in the conventional music business – let’s call it Mainstream Music, or MSM, for convenience – fetishises the album”.
PHOTO CREDIT: ukehaley/Unsplash
First of all; I do not think the album is dying in any way! Maybe sales are tapering a bit but there is always going to be that desire for a complete album – whether people are buying them in a shop or streaming them online. I think it is the effort artists put into their music and physical promotions that mean we want to conserve albums and are still curious. Unsigned and mainstream artists alike are releasing their music on hardware formats and expending huge energy regarding merchandise, artwork and something the consumer can actually hold. I am seeing so many acts release cassettes, vinyl and use their imagination concerning the physical. For them, it seems more of an achievement having something in their hands and the fans, in turn, get that same buzz. I agree with the assumption that music sounds clearer and more pleasurable when played on physical forms – there is something a little vapid and empty. It may seem tangential but cinematic releases are a way of keeping the visual side of music alive. A Star Is Born is out and features Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Whilst it is not directly related to physical formats; it is another way of viewing music in a more physical, visual and social way. That interaction with other music fans and cinema lovers (in this case) is vital. National Album Day is not about sitting behind screens and sharing your stories; it is about getting to record shops and actually engaging with albums in their physical form.
IN THIS IMAGE: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images/Unknown
I have talked about the best albums ever – and will explore albums from different angles – but the tactile aspect of albums is something that cannot be downplayed. Musicians and fans alike treasure music that is fulsome and tells a tale; a complete work that engages us and provides something extraordinary. It can provoke you when you hear it online but I feel music hits deeper and has more resonance when we have that physical product and marry artwork/visuals alongside the music playing. It is a more sense-inspiring experience and artists realise this. Spotify and other sites might be convenient and inexpensive but how much pleasure and memorability do you get when you listen to music that way? I get a real rush and hum when I have a cassettes or record and, strangely, I remember the music longer because of that. Maybe it is the artwork and inserts you get or the fact you have a more physical and tangible connection with the music itself. In any case; when National Album Day arrives (on 13th October), do not only think about your favourite albums but get them out and play them – or go out and buy that album. Many claim albums are dying and digital platforms are the only way to experience music but, from what I am reading and seeing, albums are still vitally important and the physical side of them is…
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ESSENTIAL for so many artists!