Where is ‘the album’ heading?

Matty Lear shares his thoughts on the direction of the Album in light of modern technology.

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The album is, according to BBC Radio 1’s Head of Music George Ergatoudis, “edging closer to extinction”. How utterly depressing. Whilst I don’t agree entirely, there is no doubting the fact that the LP’s popularity isn’t exactly thriving. The ‘digital revolution’ shook the format to its core with streaming services offering the possibility to show only the cream of the crop and compile individual hits onto personalized playlists; in doing so, disposing of the rest of all the albums from which the tracks were taken. Though, it is not just the playlist that is to blame. It could be attributed to the new generation of music listeners and their attention spans, or rather lack of such. So what is lost in denying the album its glory, if anything? Can this dire situation be reversed?

 

Streaming services (deriving from the trend of Napster) such as Apple Music and Spotify are also largely responsible for the LP’s demise. Evidence of the power these components of the so-called ‘digital revolution’ hold is plain to see; streaming made up over 67% of the US music industry’s total revenue last year– a neat 7.5 billion dollars. Amongst Spotify’s own playlists, their Global Top 50 perhaps best demonstrates the poisoning of the ‘album’ in its very concept combined with a remarkable influence, having 7.5 million followers. While there has always been charts, if you liked a single on the radio or ‘Top of the Pops’ you’d be encouraged or inspired to go and purchase the artists album in order to listen again. Alternatively, Spotify (and Apple Music) both offer their services for free or for very little – depending more on advertisement options, and so the album is not required to purchase anymore. The single song of the artist that the service has put on their playlist is consumed without any obligation to explore the artists’ other work. Instead Spotify, with its wide arrange of playlists, simply gives the consumers of the said playlists what they want you to hear, which in effect is now what you think you want to hear. This consumer behavior creates not only docile listeners (if they choose not to go further than what is given to them), but also a ‘single’/45 orientated culture.

 

Harry Styles recently released his debut album. Its opening week resulted in a respectable 57,000 copies shifted, however compare this with the Spotify streams of his questionable single ‘Sign Of The Times’ – near 100,000,000. Why on earth would any musician seriously concerned about wide public recognition or personal finances prioritize their album(s) over their singles? I became a fan of both Bipolar Sunshine and after working my way through their respective ‘Extended Projects’ and album. However, since then, both have gained so much money and popularity in featuring on collaborating singles instead, the latter on ‘Lean On and ‘Don’t Leave’, and the former on ‘Middle’. It seems that the album doesn’t hold enough power or promise in this digital age to be deemed as desirable or to thrive.

 

But there is something so romantic about albums, something that an array of compiled singles cannot hope to achieve. A key reason in people’s justification for the LP is that it “takes you on a journey”. For me, Death Cab For Cutie’s highly acclaimed ‘Transatlanticism’ and Arcade Fire’s debut ‘Funeral’ certainly do such a thing. The pace and layout is controlled by the band, it is a journey created by the artist’s deliberate intentions – the album format is a mark of respect and adherence to these values. The album is a gallery with its intentional order and presentation, whilst the single is a singular painting. The audience can begin to understand the artist and their intentions in only one of these forms (no guessing which one). Perhaps I’m being too severe. After all, singles aren’t exactly musical treachery – I do love Alabama Shakes’ ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’, but listening within the context of its album, the overall stylistics of the project begin to establish themselves as a beautiful mutuality. The relationship between the artist and the listener is more intimate and elevated in consuming in this manner. We cannot lose this to the influence of streaming services; it should be guarded and cherished.

 

Playlists cannot be guarded in such a fashion. They are so dispensable and weak, and I for one change and delete my own by the week. However an LP is absolute concrete. It is a format that lends itself well to longevity. Artists sometimes choose to play a whole album live in its totality – warts and all, neglecting their other hits in doing so. Take The Wombats and their forthcoming 10th anniversary of their debut album being done in this manner. It is a soundtrack to so many people’s youth; a soundtrack that was always there and will always be there. Although a single will survive just as a long, it is not anywhere near as substantial –  it is enough to claw at, but not enough to grab and hold.

 

But perhaps this is just the problem. In the emergence of the ‘short attention span generation’, maybe we should accept the fact that the L(ong)-P(lay) is just too long nowadays. Tinie Tempah labeled the youngsters in question as the “shuffle generation” in reference to their habits of flicking through playlists and compilations. I am not completely exempt from this by any means. In listening to ‘Hard Times’ by Paramore through suggestion, it did feel like a bit of chore to navigate myself to their album and give that a listen. But I did, and quite possibly that is what can revive the LP: interest, obligation and effort. In applying this attitude onto LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Sound of Silver’, I found the result was indeed rewarding. With four songs breaching the seven-minute mark, it is not just the length of the album but its contents. However, to be completely uninterested or bored for the whole time in listening to this would really be difficult, and if albums are ‘too long’, well that makes ‘Abbey Road’ dreary and that surely cannot be. The LP will always have a place as a result of this fact, but the gap between those that produce them and those who cater to the single-based fashion of playlists may proceed to widen.

 

The smooth transitions between and into songs are exclusive to the LP’s format. The radio commentary beginning of Queens of the Stone Age’s ‘You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar…’ and Kendrick Lamar’s entire concept album ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ are dependent on fades and transition to produce a ‘flow’ and allow a chronological order to be established smoothly. In order to enjoy such a creation when done in this manner requires patience. This seems to paint listening to an album, or checking it out in its entirety, as a ‘commitment’. It is certainly not as dreadful as this makes out if we factor the so-called ‘Vinyl Revival’ into this. Vinyl records promote the physical aspect of music and the consequent experience. Fleet Foxes self-titled LP features stunning album artwork and when blown up to accommodate vinyl discs, appears even more so. Vinyl in its function entails effort and normally upholds the notion that it should, as a result, be enjoyed in considerable chunks, thus lending itself to the true values of an LP. Whilst this is uplifting in considering that vinyl record sales are at their best since 1985, the vinyl charts seem to be engraved with Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac works rather than offering modern day redemption, in what would be quite comically, in the form of DJ Khaled or Katy Perry’s latest releases. This may not be due to the distinction between the ‘short attention span generation’ and older patient consumers, but rather a matter of money. Records are expensive, too much so for many young adults or teenagers to collect. An enthusiasm for modern releases is indeed there though. Ed Sheeran and Kasabian’s new album can both be found (at the time of writing) in the ‘Top 10 Official Vinyl Charts’. Surely this, on an uplifting note, demonstrates a resurgence of support and respect to the LP.

 

The significance of this seeming promise lies within the true intentions that the younger generations actually buy vinyl records for. Whist it undoubtedly demonstrates a level of support towards the artist, are they buying because it’s ‘cool’ to like it? This distinction between genuine artistic appreciation and mere aesthetic appropriation could be crucial in confirming or destroying the longevity of the album. I hope it is not a hipster fad that James Murphy describes as simply “borrow(ing) nostalgia from the unremembered eighties”, but a show of patience and sustenance. The emergence of the ‘post-album era’ may very much depend upon this. With vinyl records by nature supporting the album’s concept, and the seemingly antithetical streaming services devastating it, perhaps turntables and patience are our only, albeit rather expensive, hope for the LP’s longevity.

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