Student Outlook: The Case For Killing The Album

Guest post by Philip Vachon (UG ’16). We encourage feedback and commentary on all Student Outlook contributions. Leave a comment below or tweet us at @NYUMusicBiz.

From the minute the music industry started tanking, experts along with decidedly non-experts have decried the end of the album as though it were the end of a slightly larger rotating circle. The separation of albums into essentially twelve “singles” stemmed from the file-sharing of Napster which sent mp3 files individually, as well as iTunes’ $.99 per song model. Critics often say, “an art form is dead” and “today’s ‘now culture’ doesn’t have the attention span for true artistic works.” But if I may be so bold, I’d like to propose a question that seems too simple to yield any results: so what? Yes, yes, I know that jobs and profits have been lost and in The Great Restructuring of the Industry times have been dismal to say the least. But somehow music has survived, thrived even. So, is it possible that the death of the album as-we-know-it was needed to save music? Before the axe falls I will gladly read the charges against the accused.

Imagine there is a new painting by your favorite artist (you may need to imagine first that you in fact have a favorite artist). Not just a painting, but also an entirely new exhibit. You’ve heard from art critics that this exhibit received anywhere from four to five out of five stars, yet all the critics offer are broad descriptions of the works as a whole, maybe only showcasing one painting. Would you buy all of the paintings without seeing them? No. This blind purchasing model is essentially the situation album buyers in the past were faced with. Now of course this metaphor is imperfect because the cost of all of those paintings would probably be substantially more than the average album cost, and for some the full price is worth the risk. The fact remains, however, that in the past albums were one of the few, if not the only products that were bought with essentially no knowledge of the product the consumer was putting money down for. Today, individual tracks that can be previewed on iTunes, uploaded onto YouTube and Spotify, and posted in blogs allows the fan to assess based on more than blind faith whether they will buy.

The characteristic inherent of the album is that the foundation of the argument for its survival as a complete and comprehensive work is singularity. The album, as those on that side continue to see it, is a monolith incapable of being divided or taken apart. The problem with this is the incentive for artists and record labels alike for each song to be good on its own didn’t exist. Many cynics in the industry feel that an album is often a few great songs tied to useless “filler” tracks. True, not all songs are attention-getters from the start and perhaps the necessity of buying the entire bundle encouraged listeners to devote time to those less flashy songs, but today with the ease of listening on YouTube or Spotify listeners and fans still have the access to explore to any degree they want. As listeners are now free to buy or not buy each track, there is a financial necesssity to make each one quality rather than merely album padding, leading inevitably to more carefully crafted songs. This change will affect the creation of music, but how has it affected how we listen?

One seldom-heard topic in the debate over the separation of tracks is the rise of the playlist. Today all of us are able to combine individual tracks to build our own stories and messages in the same way that mix tape makers and DJs have. Creative liberation from the blocky and bound album format has made music listening a more creative and expressive endeavor. Rather than passive consumption of music, listeners today are active and interactive while enjoying their favorite music. By categorizing playlists by mood, genre or activity, we are forced to examine the subtle similarities and differences that make those songs able to interact well inside of that playlist. We can see the positive effects of this increased examination in the rise of “mash up” culture. Artists like Girl Talk and Super Mash Bros. engage in national tours off of their style of music in which components from sometimes dozens of songs all reside on one track. These songs’ origins span decades and genres, re-contextualizing the music they know and breathing a new life into what they do not. This new context has affected not just how we listen, or the music creation process; it has changed how we discover music.

In the past, unless you had a 6-disk CD changer you were stuck listening to one genre, one artist, one at one time. Today with the separation of tracks we are able to jump from Mozart to Motown with a click. This allows for further analysis of the music through comparison, but also breaks down preconceptions that serve as barriers to whole forms of music. Yes, music A.D.D. is very much a reality to a generation that has grown up with that kind of ease of switching. It is entirely possible that being trapped within one work at a time makes listeners devote more attetion to the music, but the diversification of styles and genres on the iPod of a Millennial today is already making for more open-minded fans. Ask a group who grew up with the individual track being the dominant musical format and you’re sure to find many who are fans of Radiohead, Kanye West, and that weird old band their dad told them to look up. This opening of tastes comes with the breakdown of preconceived ideas of what certain grenres sound like and, along with this, what type of person listens to those genres. The significance of breaking down these stereotypes cannot be understated, as completely new forms of art are now open to groups of various types that would never have experienced them otherwise.

All this notwithstanding, there is one argument for the pardon of the non-separated, non-digital album that is a much simpler and literally concrete concept: people like to hold it. It’s tangible. There is a simplicity in giving money and receiving a physical object that appeals in a deeper way that people think to human nature. I may be overcomplicating, but there is a sort of conceptual crisis around the loss of the tangibility of music in the digital age. Throughout its existence music was the tangible: sheet music, wood and metal seats, instruments, vinyl, plastic tapes, 8-tracks and CDs. Today, music is left to this abstract concept of a file that flows throughout the infinity of the Internet and the world with a transience that is unsettling to grip. Many of the problems today in the music industry lie in this renegotiation around “what is music now?”

I am not here to solve the problem, at least not yet. All I’m saying is, this question needed asking. Maybe we have to put it in perspective that music existed before there was a language to write about it in. It is an art based in feeling and no matter how much humans attempt to make it so, it never was tangible. It’s on the edge of its expiration that music always dodges death and mystifies us again. So as the axe falls maybe we will be able to embrace the saying I’ve found to be increasingly appropriate in today’s industry: Music is dead, long live music.