Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Farewell To The Album?

by Rachel Surtees (@RVSurtees)

A couple of weeks ago I was watching a fairly brain draining programme whose name I have not only forgotten, but is also in no way relevant to this ponder. What I do remember is one of the plastic faces declaring that the growth of music downloads has changed the industry so significantly that producers and musicians alike are warning that they may be forced to give up on albums altogether, and instead devote their resources to releasing stand alone singles.

My immediate reaction: so what?

It goes without saying that illegal downloads and music sharing have had a role to play in this latest development but a) that’s not what I’m talking about and b) I think that rather than fundamentally altering the music industry, downloads have simply accelerated the inevitable.

What I am talking about is the way that our preferred way of consuming music has been altered to become more diverse, more dynamic… more flippant? And in fact, is that precisely the point? We’re now consuming music rather than enjoying it? Or is such a distinction simply pretention all dressed up with nowhere to go? It could well be both, but regardless, what drove this change wasn’t a clever marketing ploy dreamt up by the suits at Sony. It is technological advance that has enabled us to have more control over what we listen to and how we listen to it… and to be more flippant? So perhaps it’s the correct order that musicians and producers recognise the shift as well?

I fully understand why individual artists would fight a process that has made creating albums unprofitable. But, should the consumer really care? If artists are still producing blinding singles and consumers are enjoying them, should that same consumer show an interest in the artistic angst of the world’s next Hendrix? Sat alone in an airless bedroom desperate to create an album but finding that the taste for it, and so by default funding, is no longer there?

In a recent interview with George Michael, Simon Hattenstone writes that "he says he thinks albums are passé, that you have to work in a different way today for a market that listens to music by the song." Maybe he's right.

I’m not anti-album by any stretch of the imagination. I’m listening to this as I write, you should too – it’s beautiful. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very much a Beatles girl. I think that Revolver is the best album ever created. Not because it has the best Beatles’ tracks (it doesn’t), but because it is conceptually stunning. But that was a different age, an age when music and occasionally politics drove album creation, not sales. And sad though it may be, those days are gone. They were given their warning call when Britney hit us one more time and gave up their last gasp when Cheryl fought for her love.
There are plenty of musicians out there who are still making incredible albums. They’re the minority in the plethora of over-produced, over-commercialised discs being spun out every year, but there are nevertheless still a lot of good ‘uns about. And surely, surely those with real talent, real drive will sacrifice their profit margins for the sake of their art? Too romantic? Isn’t music itself our greatest romanticism?

Think of the image of a young writer desperate to publish his or her first novel, or get a front page headline. Somehow I very much doubt that you're imagining a literary equivalent of Britney Spears with her overnight fame and bags of cash. Art in any form should not be about the accumulation of wealth – if it happens then lucky you, but it shouldn’t be the driving force. By the same token if the monetary incentive of producing albums has been removed I’m convinced that we’ll still get the Dylans and Cobains of our time, but maybe Peter Andre wouldn’t have bothered. Do you know what I mean?

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  1. I'm not really sure what you're getting at here. I think the model for what constitutes "commercially successful" has changed hugely in recent years, and I think that change has been harmful to the quality of music that is out there.

    Music is an artform. Artists who produce exceptional work deserve financial remuneration for their achievements, so that they can afford to pursue their artform professionally. Ok so not everybody will get that financial remuneration, and many of the greatest artists in history (musical or otherwise) never did either, but that's not really the point here. If an individual doctor never got paid for their work, that doesn't necessarily mean they wouldn't be a good doctor. But if you never paid any doctors, then you'd expect the standard of healthcare to be much poorer - both because fewer people would decide to become doctors, and because those people that did would have to concentrate on other sources of income to sustain themselves.

    The fact that the internet has changed things was inevitable, and the record companies made the situation worse by playing hardball with the filesharers for so long. But in many ways music has always been vulnerable to "illegal" activity, since cassettes were invented in particular. However, the internet(and specifically filesharing) has has an impact on a much larger scale. There is now a whole generation of kids who have never paid for music in their life - who have no concept of such a thing. It's got out of hand and attempts to introduce legitimate downloading have really come a bit too late to save a lot of artists. Maybe in time it will start to address the situation, but as long as torrents and the like are around, it will be difficult.

    We are currently in a situation where the possibilities for new artists are limited. Some might plow several years of work into an album of lovingly crafted music, only to find that they don't even make enough money from the sales to cover the cost of recording the thing. And it's not that the music's poor - it might even get critical acclaim - it's just that nobody is paying for it.

    For most artists, live shows have become the key. This is a reliable way of getting income, but you have to do a lot of these to a lot of people before you start getting to the level where you can actually sustain yourself. And then you still have to find the time to write some more music. Plus you have to have a show that can actually be performed live in the first place... (at gigs, people want to be entertained, which in commercial terms tends to involve a different sort of music). All of this is limiting in terms of the music which is being made and heard by "the masses".

    I'm not saying that innovative music isn't being made, or that there is no variety any more, I'm just saying that it's become much harder to find the true "nuggets", partly because there genuinely are fewer people taking risks, and partly because the "industry" has stopped investing marketing money into such risks.

    These days, if you are such an artist, your best chance of making it is to exploit the internet - virals, myspace, word of mouth, gigs, etc. The problem is that a zillion other acts are doing the same thing, and often the ones that generate the most buzz aren't the ones with the most talent. The A&R departments of most of the big labels are only interested in the next Black Eyed Peas, Shakira, Beyonce etc, and the A&R departments of the smaller labels don't exist anymore because the labels have gone bust or they can't afford to hire one.

  2. The success of the 'single' has taken over from the critical acclaim of the concept album. Pop music today is now being aimed at a much younger audience and is terribly over sexed. All this has coincided with the technological advances of the internet and the rise of the iPod.

    For me its the change of attitude amongst the Labels & Artist to a quick fix solution based around (like you mention, consumption & saturation). Their response to the new 'Internet downloading paradigm' is severely lacking in creativity. They have not yet developed an innovative way to maximise sales at the same time as producing thought provoking music. I must throw in the fact that a computer manufacture has single handedly hijacked the music industry...**Cough cough** hats off to iTunes. WTF!!!

    I do believe that there are some great albums out now...its just that they are not mainstream anymore...(because of the change in attitude I mentioned above)

    I'm a avid HIP HOP listener and In some ways I have been raised by the culture and it now is synonymous with my lifestyle. So...i'll leave you with a few albums worth checking out. Albums that have creatively challenged conventional ideas and carry the 'Good concept album' flag.

    1) Outkast - The Speakerboxx/The Love Below
    2) Kanye West - 808's & Heartbreaks
    3) Nas - Ni**er/Untitled
    4) Mos Def - Ecstatic
    5) Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2
    6) Oh No (Madlib's Younger brother) - Dr No's Ethiopium
    7)Jay Z - American Gangster

    All of the above were released in the last 5 years and in my humble opinion....they all represent in some way why good music concept albums are still alive...I just think we need more brave artist's first, then the labels will have to change, then maybe we can start listening and enjoying music again???


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    Peace, Love and Music

  3. So the music industry has become somewhat skewed. There's oodles of formulaic tat out there, not pushing any boundaries, recycling the same old tried and tested ideas, milking every last drop out of the ever drying teat. Meanwhile there's countless artists trying new things who are on nobody's radar, fighting to get noticed and in many cases forsaking their artistic ideals in the pursuit of some recognition.

    I still think great music will continue to be written, I just can't be sure that I'll ever get to hear it - or that the artist who writes it will be in any way inspired to continue putting out amazing material once they realise there's little financial reward for them. I think a lot of artists can plough everything into their first album because at that point there's still the possibility that they might get some money out of it - when the reality hits home, it must be quite disheartening.

    The commercials have become everything now. The music used to be equally as important - maybe not at the top level, but there was always a healthy scene of genuinely fantastic music that was having commercial success.

    But at the end of the day, I guess it depends what you want out of music. The whole reason why stuff like Peter Andre is successful is because the people who listen to it don't care about artistic merit - they just want to sing along to a catchy pop song. Those people who live in the karaoke generation probably couldn't care less if music goes stale. But those who are interested in it as an artform are increasingly finding it more difficult to find those "nuggets" - there just isn't the same quality control there used to be.

    The internet means that everybody can scream for attention - only those who scream loudest will be noticed, not those who scream the most beautifully....

  4. Candice Carboo-Ofulue12 January 2010 at 17:40

    I hope that we don’t have to say farewell to the album.

    Personally, I’ve always preferred albums because they allow me to get intimate with my chosen artists. From track to track I am a witness to their artistry, their imagination, their evolution.....an active listener sharing their voice. Different from simply consuming music.

    Perhaps I’m being overly romantic, or worse intolerant, but I’m not convinced that downloading singles facilitates the same intimacy or relationship.

    Of course, there are many that would fiercely disagree with me. They would argue that having the opportunity to download the singles they want, rather than being forced to buy expensive albums bloated with the ‘filler’ songs that they dislike, has liberated the way they engage and enjoy music. Technology has made the album model redundant. Possibly. But redundant for what?

    If it is simply about consuming the singles we like, then the album is indeed redundant. But what about the essential discovery that the album facilitates? The songs within the albums that we come across in our own time that don’t make the singles, or the ones that we rediscover from an old album.

    An album is more than a collection of tracks, it’s a process. And music is more about consumption.

    My fear about the inevitable takeover of single downloads is that we will only consume the tracks we’re looking for, and will no longer stumble across the gems that become our favourites, but never make the charts.

    That just seems so two-dimensional.

    Hmmm. Very interesting piece Rach.

  5. Pete and Strivehighindi, I couldn't agree more that what the industry as a whole needs now is someone to be brave and bring something innovative and exciting to our ears. After all, that's exactly how albums became so big back in the day. Creating an album gave recording artists more space to be experimental and push their boundaries.

    But, I do think it clouds the issue to bring illegal downloads into it. Of course it's a problem and has had a huge impact, but it's not the only thing to impact and I think to hide behind the issue doesn't acknowledge that people the world over are saying that they prefer to access their music in a different way. A way that gives them more choice, more control. People steal music because they can but I'm sure that if measures were introduced to stop them, they would continue to buy singles online rather than albums in a shop.

    Pete, art should absolutely be valued and a fair measure of value is obviously subjective, but, sufficient remuneration to be able to devote their time exclusively to their art form seems reasonable to me and would be a genuine luxury for the thousands of worthy novellists out there struggling to get by. And as I said in the piece, if someone gets rich doing what they love then great - but the riches shouldn't drive it.

    Candice, I agree with you too. Albums should be so much more than just a collection of songs, but my worry is that that seems exactly what many new albums have become. They've just become a different vehicle for selling a single rather than something with value in its own right. Again, not all musicians have taken this track but many have.

    That said, I remain undecided in my own mind!

  6. Very interesting piece Rach. My own view for what it's worth.....
    Albums are beautiful things. My vinyl collection is treasured, as are many of my CD's. Personally I will always prefer having a physical artefact rather than some binary digital code in the form of 0's and 1's downloaded into my machine. As a former archivist I also worry about the potential loss of the historic record in physical form. What happens when technologies move on and iTunes resembles the Commodore 64 level of software? Will recordings be transferrable or lost? Worrying…

    Studio albums capture the essence of a band during a particular phase, attempting to record their current songs at whatever location they choose. This is historically extremely valuable and also entertaining to read about for ours and future generations. I'm thinking Radiohead 'OK Computer', The Stone Roses 'Second Coming, Oasis 'Definitely Maybe' and of course The Beatles' final recording sessions for 'The White Album' 'Let It Be' and Abbey Road' all of which have wonderful stories and capture snapshots in time. Don't even get me started on the recording of PiL's 'Metal Box'. Insanity personified. Artwork, the order of the tracks (I remember hearing Brett Anderson relaying on radio how much he agonised about the order of Suede’s eponymous debut album), lyric sheets, song writing credits: all of these things capture the beauty of an album.

    I am aware however that many people, our brother for example, go on iTunes, see a song and download it for 69p or whatever. I can see the temptation behind that and when i was recently compiling a compilation CD found it very useful to be able to do this. I needed for example 'Unchained Melody' but NOT an entire Righteous Brothers album! The availability of mp3 downloads was also the reason RATM got to xmas number one. This would not have been possible in the past when singles or albums required huge marketing campaigns accompanying their release.

    With regard to the commercial vs. artistry argument and Pete's point. Whether it’s in the present day or in the past glory days of the album, bands only make 10% of any sales revenue. So, e.g. £1 out of every £10 album sale. Albums have fallen in price meaning they get considerably less than £1 for every album sold now. You can clearly see from this that to make a commercial success they would need to sell millions of albums. I TOTALLY agree musicians should get every penny of their deserved recording contracts but to enter into the music biz with dreams of making a million is delusional. VERY few bands in the past or now ever make huge amounts of money. Echobelly's former guitarist, Debbie, now works in The Vinyl Exchange record shop in Notting Hill, the guy who wrote the string instrumentals for Nick Drake albums somewhat unbelievably then went on to work in a telephone call centre for a market research firm, Terry Callier became a computer programmer before Gilles Peterson revived his career 25 years after his initial success.

    So, yes sadly we live in an age where music composition and artistry is not as highly valued by many people anymore, and the album even less. I think the only solution is that it’s up to us (the people who appreciate the beauty of an album and the thought, effort, time and money that has gone into it’s production) to keep going out and buying albums. I do. I’ve bought at least 10 albums in the past 6 months or so. I’ve only downloaded one (The Raven by The Stranglers – hard to get hold of as I don’t think it’s been re-issued yet). I will continue to. I support artists and I want to see the album survive. I am sure we will see formatting change quite drastically but there will still be a place for those of us who value tradition and romance.

    Just for the record, I know your blog is not about this, but I have personally never illegally downloaded any piece of music. It’s wrong and it’s stealing.

  7. On a slightly different note, if you are robbed you can claim CD's and vinyl on the insurance however all of those downloaded albums from itunes are unclaimable on the insurance....very random point just wanted to put it out there

  8. Its very possible that SOME musicians/bands will just produce the 'big' single songs. A lot will come down to the bands, their management and the label owners. But I think the death of the album is not close. Whilst we have such great young bands as 'The Artic Monkeys' making brilliant albums. With their adoring fans more than happy downloading the whole album, there is much hope for the album yet. Whilst we have big bands/artists with big followings, there will always be a desire to buy all that they produce (provided its all 'good') Both the smash hit ''Bet you look good on the dance floor'' as well as their ''Dangerous Animals'' lesser known songs, as part of the album purchasing.

    This Artic Monkeys example of the relationship between, bands/musicians and their fans (the buying 'consumers') in my view represents why albums will not die anytime soon.

    Whilst there are 'serious' fans of particular bands/musicians, (irrespective of genre) the buying public will still, like me, be prepared to download the whole album. It may and probably will just mean a far cheaper album price, down the line. So let us not worry ourselves too much. The future is bright the future is albums.

  9. Interestingly, just checked my emails and Amazon have given me a £1 mp3 credit as a reward for spending more than £5 on music. I don't think I can buy a whole album for £1! So I feel a one track download coming on. This is definitely the shape of things to come I fear... Buying random tracks. If this is the case, why would record labels continue to fund the production of whole albums?

    By the way, I have absolutely no idea which mp3 to buy with my solitary one quid! Any ideas???