New Year 6 – “This week, I are been mostly listening to David Bowie.” : The Death of The Album

Bowie
Today, Lee Broughall contributes his own uniquely ordered thoughts on The Death of The Album…

“This week, I are been mostly listening to David Bowie.”

Conclusion

Every time I return to the following collection of sentences, questions and notes on this topic, I find it less clear to understand what the aim is. To summarise, it seems that I have only listened to four albums this year – none of them for the first time. So I couldn’t fully participate in Spokes’ request to advocate an album first heard in 2009. As a result, I appear to be attempting to outline how the format of the album has changed and is changing. Firstly, I have asserted that albums are borne of technical restrictions such as the size of discs and lengths of tapes requiring a certain number of tracks to be heard in a certain order. Then, I go on to assert that some of these technical restrictions continue to apply to digital music production and distribution in the form of limited connection speeds and physical storage capacity. Whilst such limitations gradually recede, it is individual tracks that will ultimately flourish in the legal download distribution model.

Online distribution methods such as iTunes naturally compete with more physical forms of music. Most of my music listening is now accomplished via Spotify, to expose me to unfamiliar albums – primarily mainstream offerings that I have not wished to purchase. At some distant future point, CDs will likely be replaced. By physically smaller, higher storage capacity USB Flash drives, or by 10TB memory cards, or by an all-encompassing Internet. Without the comforting restriction of 74 minutes on a shiny silver disc, will albums evolve?

The whole topic is too vastly multifaceted for a complete argument to be addressed. It needs discussion and a comprehensible train of thought.

Introduction

For a (former) musician, my listening habits have become stagnant. I stopped purchasing CDs around the time Napster, Soulseek and Bit Torrent started gaining momentum, though that’s not to say my downloading habits have been particularly virulent. The concept of the ‘album’, as a curated collection of music, has become less essential.

2009 avoided furnishing my ears with new music. Four albums rotated consistently:
Elbow’s ‘Seldom Seen Kid’
Kings of Leon’s ‘Because of the Times’
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals’ ‘Jacksonville City Nights’
David Bowie’s ‘Hunky Dory’

Rather than engaging with a new album, this article converses on the death of ‘the album’. I am neither inclined nor willing to advocate either side of a potential argument. It’s the possible death of ‘the album’, rather than The Death of The Album, in categories of popularity and quality.


The Rambling Saggy Middle Nonsense

The distribution of music is hierarchical. A variety of materials are brought together in varying configurations to create instruments. Instruments are played in varying configurations with varying structures to create songs, tracks and tunes. Tracks are structured in varying configurations to form albums. Albums themselves are established conventions.

Rules do not exist to qualify the content of an ‘album’ beyond a collection of tracks. Rather, technical restrictions have shaped its accepted face. The physical format of vinyl discs, tapes and CDs indicates a particular order for the tracks and defines a finite length. Similarly, the process of music digitisation and Internet distribution relies on physical storage and connection speeds. The connection speeds in 1999 restricted music downloads from the Internet to individual tracks and singles. Whilst infrastructure improves to enable album downloads, increasing regulation of the download market to defeat an acceptance of the ability to download for free may suggest that the digital download/purchase of individual tracks (the best tracks on an album) will prevail.

Albums epitomise a battle for power and control between producers and consumers. The production of a music collection with inherent technical restrictions gives the artist the ability to control how the consumer listens to the contents. The continuing development of consumer technology and affordable equipment, from reel-to-reel and cassette tapes to recordable CDs and mp3 players, enables the listener to carve up and curate their own collections. The same technology that has restricted, and therefore created, the album could be employed by artists to retain specific features whilst space, quality and speed issues become less of a burden. Technology could be developed in order to force a collection of individual tracks to play in a certain order without a Playlist.

Supposing albums are becoming less relevant as a format, what are the alternatives?

Is the issue of sound quality relevant when considering if albums will continue to be popular?

Are mix tapes and CDs classed as albums?

Does it really matter?


Largely Ignored Outline

1. Intro.
Have only listened to three albums
‘death’ in certain senses: popularity, quality, sales, listening to as wholes
2. What is an album? What is its appeal?
a. Curated collection of music, designed to be heard in a specific order.
b. Physical collection of music, accompanied by other artforms/artwork
c. Defined by technological constraints, eg. Size of CD/Vinyl/Tape
3. What are the threats to the future of albums?
a. Dilution as a result of availability of music via the Internet
b. Internet radio and ‘shuffle’ function and Apple’s ‘Genius’ shuffle mode
c. Balancing control of the album between listener/artist/record company
d. Mix tapes/CDs
4. Why will the album continue to be popular?
a. Mix tapes/CDs – self curation
b. Question of the audio quality of mp3 compared with CD or vinyl
c. Internet provides new approaches to the album concept – curated collections of music not subject to physical and technological limitations. Future technology could force certain tracks to play in order.
d. Longer individual tracks could create mini-albums or EPs
5. Summary
a. Why have I only listened to three albums in 2009?
b. How are / Which of the above points relevant?

Other Notes

– Dilution of the concept of ‘the album’ via mix tapes, mix CDs, mp3 players, and downloads
– Does dilution = death?
– Other forms of dilution – Polaroid film… Now no longer in production.
– Photo film generally being phased out in favour of the convenience of digital technologies.
– Quality of film still far greater than that of similarly priced digital devices…
– Does the quality question affect the debate on audio generally? An acceptable trade off in quality/price?

Tomorrow’s largely unrelated final contribution, will not be a review or discussion, but Silk and Dog’s January Provinces contribution, this time focusing on Tibet

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