Between the Grooves
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Why the Album Can Never Be Considered ‘Dead’
SOME might say…
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they listen to great albums like Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? all the way through and they are beholden to the album as a concept. Many, slightly older listeners, have always bonded with vinyl and do hold much stock in the digital takeover. The reason I bring this subject up is because there is that never-ending talk about the album and whether it holds much weight. The Hyundai Mercury Prize happens on Thursday and it is a rare occasion where we get to celebrate an album in its whole. Award ceremonies commemorate and nod to great records but I wonder how much the public actually takes notice of the L.P. I myself have been dipping into a lot of recent albums but I go back to older records and listening to them in full. I am not sure whether it is the way artists make albums – a few singles and then some weaker tracks – or if it is a sign of the times. I love putting on a vinyl and listening to the complete thing. Great albums are a story and narrative that grip you from start to end and it is harder to draw yourself away than you’d imagine. You sit there and let the music wash over you and it is a wonderful thing. I wonder whether we have the time and patience to sit through albums and whether we have that same passion.
Focusing on an album requires patience and time to concentrate. Many of us are busy and going about our business and, when we get a moment free, we go onto streaming sites and pick tracks we want to listen to. The album turns seventy this year and it is a good occasion to look at the format and whether it is really in full decline. This article from The Conversation (published in July) looks at the figures and how albums are faring at the moment:
“The album – or at least, the 33rpm vinyl record that spawned the format – turns 70 years old this year. But it isn’t ageing gracefully. Even five years ago, Bob Lefsetz declared that “the album is dying in front of our very eyes” – and given how comprehensively streaming services are decimating record sales, that still seems a reasonable observation.
In 2017, UK revenues from subscription streaming platforms rose 41.9% to £577m, while physical formats dropped 3.4% and online downloading dropped 23.1%. Album sales – as hard copies and digital files – have halved since 2010”.
You can argue award ceremonies and special days – National Album Day on 13th October is a special day to mark the wonders of the album – help boost the importance of albums but I fear many people are picking singles and there needs to be that sort of revival.
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Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the album was at its peak, you had those wonderful statements that have stood the test of time. Whether it is The Beatles creating cultural milestones on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or huge commercial success like Thriller (Michael Jackson) and The Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd) selling millions – it is clear the album is important and has changed music. That article from The Conversation noted how some acts toured entire albums – Paul Simon for Graceland and Lauryn Hill for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – and fans can revel in their favourite record coming to life, in full, on the stage. The piece looks at the current state and how streaming has affected the market:
“Notwithstanding a resurgence of vinyl sales, albums are still suffering when compared with streaming, which has steadily ratcheted up the value of individual smash hits. But while some songs end with a sudden cut-off, others slowly and gradually fade away. It’s been a long time since the album was defined solely in economic or physical terms. Culturally and socially, the album’s carefully choreographed tracklist could run for a good while yet”.
This Forbes article looks at the expense of making an album and asks whether it is worth buying them considering the fact many of us pick a track or two:
“Albums are expensive and time consuming to make and, for the most part, amount to a lot of wasted effort as consumers only listen to one or two songs (the singles) anyway even if they buy the album. Most people that get their music from a streaming service will end up cherry-picking the most visible songs (again, the singles), and will never experience the rest of the album cuts anyway. Even if they do, chances are they’ll only listen to each a few times at most, and in most cases, not at all. That’s a lot of wasted effort for so little in return”.
This phenomenon of the dwindling album is not a new thing. Ever since artists started filling C.D.s with as much material as possible, many have eschewed the notion of the album being noble and omnipresent. There was that trend, especially in the 1990s, to make sure the consumer got value and, as such, artists crammed every ounce they could into a C.D. It meant a few filler tracks and, as such, people were only listening to the big hits. It seems rather pointless and sad for artists to make albums at all if we are less concerned with the whole work. I know the facts out there are shocking but I do not want to see the day where artists are more interested in getting their music featured on playlist and can’t be bothered to record whole albums. The reason we have these classic artists and music has come this far is because of the album itself! We will not see evolution and legendary artists of the future based on singles – there needs to be the album and, if it is expensive, then artists need to up their games. Attention spans are short but we cannot let the album die because people cannot be bothered to listen to them. Album artwork and images are still playing an important role for some artists. Now, we have thumbnails and artists are required to submit a cover art as a formality. Many artists are using images as branding and can create an identity based on an album cover.
Streaming is good for those who want to grab a few tracks but the tactility of an album and that complete package is important. Most of my greatest musical memories revolve around hardware and me having that tangible and personal bond to an album. I love picking up a vinyl and having this finished product in the hand. The sleeve has that great detail and art and it feels like you have a much greater attachment to that artist. I maintain a lot of albums, classic or not, have a couple of weaker tracks but you still listen to the whole thing because it is that album experience. If you skip over tracks – harder to do on vinyl! – then you miss out on something pure and cohesive. I think this mentality has formed that says the album is pointless and plays no role in the modern day. This great article states how you can hear a complete statement and story through an album:
“Albums still matter because they tell the unique story of who a band is at a specific moment of time that one or two singles just don’t have the ability to do. Imagine if the songs from Nick Drake’s Pink Moon or The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were released one at a time over the course of a year. Yes, the songs would still be incredible, but the meaning of these hugely important albums would be far less impactful. Whether it’s a concept album or not, good albums feature some sort of story or larger narrative whether it’s in the lyrics or instrumentation. Singles can’t tell the stories albums can”.
It goes on to say how albums do not need to be masterful works of genius and comprehensive – there is great logic releasing an album:
“Albums don’t need to be deep, meaningful or political in order for the world to take notice. Rather than being some grand artistic statement, it’s sometimes as simple as a music listener thinking, “Hey, a band I like just put out ten songs.” You’ll get far more mileage out of releasing your music through albums than you will from spreading out your releases song-by-song no matter what kind of music you make”.
I know there will be a decline and formats like the C.D. will be phased out. It is important we keep hold of the album because, without it, music cannot survive. That is not hyperbole: if we celebrate singles then artists releasing now will be overlooked and it is a case of washing away one generation and forgetting what came before. If we do have short attention spans then we are only listening to what’s out now and, in years to come, aren’t going to recall the singles we are streaming now. Albums are the natural source of new music and have to be preserved. Whether it means looking at the cost of making them or enforcing the pleasures of artwork, the physical format and classic albums we all love – accepting the album is dead is something a lot of people are not willing to let happen.
We can never get rid of the album because, whether you like it or not, there is still a passion among musicians to release them into the world:
“No matter how it arrives, the hoops people jump through beforehand, or how it’s labeled, it’s clear that everything relates back to one simple truth: Bands still make albums for people to consume. Somehow, some way…
The fact of the matter is that no fiscal, artistic, or cultural change could ever make a lasting difference. You can release an album on human bone and distribute it via tornado, and people will either treat it like an artifact of pure value or ignore it outright — just like most folk do already. Nothing of this most venerated institution has so much changing”.
We need to stop bleating about the album being dead and look at ways to balance its importance against that of convenient streaming! If we get too complacent then music is going to suffer hugely. As we look forward to the Mercury Prize and mark the album more passionately next month; I hope people will realise how special albums are and the role they play in modern music – none of the artists you all love and listen to would be in the business were it not for the albums they grew up around! Against cost, attention spans and the rise in streaming; if we get rid of albums and accept singles are all that matters then the future of music as we know it is…
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IN dire straits.