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3:32 p.m. - January 25, 2008
Are Albums Dead?
Out of necessity, the music industry started as a ‘singles’ world. 78 RPM discs could only fit one song (usually) per side, and the term ‘album’ was made when companies that released entire operas or symphonies (or other things that held together) constructed packages similar to photo albums to store the discs.

Even with the development of 33 RPM Long Playing records (hence the term LP) the real money was made on singles. That’s what the kids bought. LPs were more for musicals, or folkies, or for weird sound effect or genre records. Rock and roll albums were just collections of singles, or accumulations of sessions. Elvis sold a lot of LPs, but his albums were just a bunch of songs strung together without rhyme or reason.

As time went on, and more kids bought albums, record companies exploited the trend by assembling records with one or two hits, and then a bunch of hastily assembled gunk. So a popular rock song could have a whole bunch of cover versions that were first take affairs without any care put to them.

In the UK, things were better, because the consumers wanted value, and they really didn’t want albums to have the same songs as they had on the single. Or at least that was the lip service. At any rate, the UK had a tradition of non-album singles that continued for a long, long time.

But as the 60’s rolled on, and Dylan, Zappa and the Beatles released albums that were conceptually conceived, artists stopped the single + 11 other songs motif and started to really put together albums as a whole. But it took a while for bands AND companies to fully grasp the notion. (For example, even albums in 1967 by the Stones and Kinks were chopped up by the US record company).

Soon enough, though, albums were THE way to dispense your art to the masses. Bands started to think in projects that would allow for 18 to 25 minutes on a side, whether it be 2, or 4, or 6 sides. I think one failure of 8-track tapes was that instead of 18 to 25 minutes as a whole, it was only about 10 or so and that broke up any continuity.

Then, CDs burst on the scene, and the concept of two sides was thrown out the window. Now things were 50 to 75 minutes long, with hidden tracks, bonus tracks, skits, pranks, and all kinds of odd things to make the CD worth its asking price.

What that led to were overly long albums, and artists that thought everything they laid on tape (or digital medium) was worth releasing. Gone were the days of trying to catch the ear quickly and making a 20 minute statement. You were stuck sometimes with 65 minutes of goop for 10 minutes of glory.

But time and technology have moved forward, as they are wont to do. Now that music being delivered digitally is firmly entrenched, consumers are back to buying music one or two songs at a time.

So the question is this, is the rock album, as we have known it, dead?
When you buy a full album from iTunes, do you ever delete some of the tracks you don’t like? Do you even listen to it from beginning to end like a proper album, or is your player eternally on shuffle?

We’ve lost so much in the move to a digital medium. We’ve lost artwork, warmth, and even pops and cracks that sound homey. So have we lost the concept of the LP, too?

I’ll admit that I’m as guilty as everyone. It’s just a pain to set the iPod to play an album when you can just dial up a playlist and hit play and it shuffles it right through.

Face it, most albums weren’t really concepts that hung together. Yes, you got used to hearing the songs in a certain order (so that whenever I hear “Best Friends Girl” by the Cars I think “Just What I Needed” should follow right after) but only a few records compelled you to play the thing all the way through and didn’t make sense to chop it up. Heck, you can listen to 2112 as distinct pieces.

But artist still really cared about running orders and how the music flowed. I care about that when making mixes. But now, not so much. Just throw out the 15 or 20 new tracks and let the public choose what they like. They still go through the motions of constructing a running order for the tens of people that will buy CDs. Though now you can construct your own running order. You can slap together Abbey Road with “Her Majesty” in the middle of Side 2 – the way it was in the initial rough run-through.

I’m undecided, as you can see, if this is a good thing or a bad thing. The music is the thing, really. The delivery medium has changed, again, to something that’s quite convenient, albeit sonically limited.

 

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