The Decline of the Album – Part I: “Other Bands”.

I made a huge mistake yesterday: I visited a band message board I had previously fallen out of love with.  Not the band — who shall remain nameless — the board.  “The B. Board”.  I got my money’s worth out of the relationship: I have Chicago and Detroit and Texas and Ohio friends now, who I’ll see at certain shows and they’re very nice people.  Most of them fell out of love like I did, for several reasons (not a single one interesting enough to mention here).

Like most artist-based message boards, The B. Board features a section titled “Other Bands” for discussing and sharing music other than the hosting artist.  And, like most artist-based message boards, no good comes of this.  I wish I was exaggerating, maybe I am a bit; but I cannot remember being told of one single other band that I both hadn’t already heard of, and enjoyed so much they’ve become a band I listen to (This could be the nature of the B. Board fan however, not a representation of all “Other Bands” sections; if there is an “Other Bands” section out there that is open-minded and tasteful, I apologize.).

Yesterday I was browsing the main page for updates on an album and swung by “Other Bands”.  It baffled me to read this statement:

“… among the best songs they’ve ever done. It’s rare for me to find a record where I don’t skip at least one track.

Context here is important.  This guy was arguing how said album (the thread topic) is the best this particular band has ever made based solely on the argument that he can listen to it straight through without skipping songs.  HULKCONFUSED…

My response seemed, not only predictable, but plain to see (this is verbatim):

“Also, if it’s rare for you to find an album you can listen to straight through you’re either not finding the right music (maybe expand your horizons a little?), or you just don’t like music very much.”

He didn’t think so.  He thought, “How dare someone even think I don’t like music as much as I do!  I’m posting on [The B. Board] aren’t I?!!?”  I wasn’t trying to be hyperbolic, or a dick.  I was being serious.  If it is honestly difficult, a challenge, to find an album you can throw in and listen to in its entirety, what other options are there?  Especially, like in this case, if this applies even to one of purportedly “favorite” bands of yours??

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this.  I compared the notion to other forms of media: “If I said I find it difficult to sit through an entire movie without skipping parts would I be considered a person who enjoys movies?”, I thought to myself.  Especially if that was my “favorite” director??  Well… no.  Maybe I should try some documentaries or some silents or some Kung-Fu?  Surely, if I like movies the way I think I do, I could find something worth my two hours.  Without skipping scenes, or fast forwarding at all.  Then it hit me.  This entire thing wasn’t about whether or not the guy actually enjoys music, it’s about the ALBUM.  The movie is the album.

It’s isn’t because he’s not finding the right music, or he doesn’t like music at all… this relates more closely to what has happened to the notion of album.  Can I blame him?  What has happened to the album, anyways?

/s/Sonny

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Sonny Wilkins is a dead jazz musician.  Sonny Wilkins is a guy named Dan.  He posts regularly at THE SONNY WILKINS CHRONICLE.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Decline of the Album – Part I: “Other Bands”.

  1. Very nice first post! Hope I don’t hijack your next. Here are my two cents as to what happened, or what is happening to the album.

    Think back prior to the existence of sound recording, to classical music. There were lengthy compositions intentionally created along some line of thinking that tied different movements together into one larger artistic work. The music had to be performed to be heard, so the only constraint on the length of works was the audience’s attention span (and theoretically the musicians’ endurance). There are also always costs to consider. Beethoven isn’t going to secure use of a concert hall or public space for a concert and hire and rehearse dozens of musicians so he can show up, have a five minute song performed, and then call it a night. Live performance of symphony music lends itself to an hour or two or three’s worth of music, more or less what a live audience would be willing to sit through, so fully developed classical works tend to run about so long. The symphony is sort of the proto-album.

    Then comes recorded music. Anytime audio is mechanically reproduced, some balance between the quality of the recording, the maximum length of a recording and cost must be struck when a format is chosen. Pick any physical format (records, reel-to-reel, eight track, cassette or CD) and a time length gets imposed.

    Now think about records, specifically. For singles there were 45s and for albums LPs. 45s are straight forward. A hit single gets put on one side and a B side takes the other. If artists aren’t releasing just a single and a B side, they might as well compose enough material to fill an LP as opposed to paying to produce an LP but not filling it. Here is the birth of the album as we know it at around 25 minutes a side, so around 50 minutes total. For rock and jazz, an album is now a collection of songs totaling around 50 minutes. Cassettes pushed this closer to 60 minutes. Compact discs brought it to 72 minutes. Length of albums certainly vary. I owned punk albums that didn’t quite cross the 30 minute mark in high school, but still, from the time records gain popularity up until music goes digital and hits the internet, an album is a collection of songs totaling between 30 and 60 minutes, roughly.

    A lot of great artists ran with this and composed songs based around a central theme or idea and arranged them in a specific order to turn the whole of the album itself into an artistic work instead of it just being a collection of separate artistic works. Those that successfully did so achieved a consistency of quality that ran the length of their album. No one song could be dismissed entirely just as no one movement of a symphony could be dismissed entirely, otherwise the listener would miss out on a piece of the larger artistic work, be it the album or symphony.

    When you encountered the person in the forum complaining, it had to be about the lack of consistency in albums to which they were listening. I like Osker’s Idle Will Kill album. I don’t think it’s a great album by any means, and if you took any of the songs from Idle Will Kill and put them on a great album (say Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer) I’d probably want to skip them (not only because they’d be out of place and wouldn’t fit the larger artistic work but) because there would be a noticeable drop in quality. But! Keep them all on Idle Will Kill and I’ll listen to them all straight through because the quality remains consistent.

    Consistent albums can also develop naturally. Weezer’s Pinkerton was written when the band was dealing with the success their debut “Blue” album brought them and the songs on Pinkerton are largely written as an attempt try and sort out their new-found fame. When I listen to that album, there isn’t a fully developed narrative running from start to end, but similar themes tie the separate songs together. Pinkerton is a collection of songs, but it is a collection of songs about learning to deal with fame. Hence, a consistent album.

    Then comes the internet. At first, connection speeds necessitate low quality MP3s with sample rates and compression that produce a sound quality worse than CDs, so it is nothing more than a means of trying to distribute the contents of CDs less expensively. Then comes DSL and broadband, and all the while Moore’s Law is chugging along (Moore’s Law states that any given amount of computing power will cost half as much in 24 months). Storage continues to get cheaper and cheaper, and digital audio continues to gain fidelity even while the cost of storing it goes down.

    Technology has now given us a format with no real built in time constraints. We can move data fast enough and store it cheaply enough that the real constraint is the audience’s attention span and expectations. There is no longer a reason for new musical works to be at least 30 minutes long, or be less than 72 minutes long. However, the last several generations grew up with 30 to 60 minute albums. They grew up with top 40 radio and music videos. The last two generations consume blog posts, YouTube clips and Twitter updates. iTunes allows users to purchase individual songs off of albums that were never released as singles. Things are getting shorter and more fragmented.

    I wonder if this hasn’t impacted how musicians are producing new works. Why not make mix tape after mix tape and fire off shorter and shorter bursts with increasing frequency? Stimulus is addictive. Even when today’s artists save up enough material for a lengthier collection of songs, are they focused enough to arrange them into a single narrative, or around a common concept?

    The great thing about the internet is that the costs involved with distributing new music to people all around the globe are approaching zero. We now have access to a greater number of artists than ever before.

    Add the good and bad of the way technology is shaping the creation of music today, and my off the cuff guess is there is probably a greater percentage of inconsistent albums being created, but given the growth in the number of artists able to get their work out, there should be more than enough consistent albums available that can be enjoyed start to finish. Maybe these days it just takes a bit more digging to pull the signal from the noise?

  2. Welcome aboard, Sonny! A truly excellent debut post. In fact, maybe too excellent. I have a feeling I’ll be diving back into my drafts to exchange sweary bits and dick jokes for insight or stolen quotes from better writers.

    It’s certainly true that having access to an infinite amount of music at any given time has undone the previously-forgone-conclusion that the album is a sacrosanct whole and shouldn’t be divvied up into singles, etc. That’s what supposedly separates the true music fans from the pop kids: attention span. (That, and the fact that non-pop generally avoided the 1-3 hits + 60 minutes of filler that pop icons [other than, say, Prince] were inclined to manufacture.)

    I know that I have trouble listening to an entire album these days. For one, the amount of time that I have to listen to music is a small percentage of the time I used to have, back in the heyday of the CD. Between multiple jobs, writing gigs, kids and other time-sinks of adulthood, it’s tough to dedicate 60-70 minutes to a single artist. That I have decided to Blog About Music only exacerbates this problem. In order to make the most of my limited time, I find myself dumping a cross section of genres and artists into my mp3 player and letting it run on random until something grabs my ear.

    Is this fair to the artists, especially those who have actually put some sort of effort and forethought into producing a cohesive whole? No. It absolutely isn’t. But does the blame solely lie at the feet of society’s collective ADD? I doubt it.

    Today’s “market” isn’t necessarily looking for a whole. It may make for a shallower experience but the pool is infinitely bigger. Are today’s music fans (and I mean this in the sincerest way — not in the “I like all kinds of music” obviously-no-you-fucking-don’t sort of way. If you’re unable to nail down a few favorite bands or at the very least, genres, then you don’t like “all kinds of music.” You just don’t know what you like.) less discerning than those in the past, with the past’s limited options? Good question. I would say “yes” with a “but” and that “but” is the fact that most music lovers would exchange yesterday’s limited selection (but studious appreciation) for today’s amazing breadth of artists, even if most artists will only be known for a handful of tracks, rather than a handful of albums.

    As for the point about “skipping songs:” every classic album has a few you’d skip after listening to it x number of times. I don’t think this is an affront to the artists. I think that’s just the way it is. Even my all-time hypothetical desert island discs wouldn’t be welcome without to option to skip tracks. I don’t think it does any disservice to an album, unless that album is some sort of inseparable “song cycle” or “concept” that falls to pieces when tracks go missing. But I highly doubt any such album would fail to entertain the listener if he only listened to his favorite tracks.

    There’s duds on each of the first three Pixies albums, undisputed masterpieces all. I pass on “I’ve Been Tired,” “Gigantic,” “Here Comes Your Man” and “Silver” every time I listen to those. (That being every time past the first 15-20 listens.) Love & Rockets is one of my favorite bands and, with the exception of Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, every album of theirs features tracks that are just not as “essential” as the good stuff, and even Seventh Dream itself has the eminently skippable “The Game” on it.

    That being said, Old Man Internet, the Wily Gamechanger, has made it nigh impossible for a band to crank out entire albums without having “teased” the shit out it all the way up to release, so that by the time it hits, it’s like going out on a first date with someone who’s naked: goodbye mystery, surprise, etc.

    On the other hand, music feels much more participatory. As MChang pointed out, bands (especially ones I like, apparently) are dumping finished work into the public sector the moment the ink dries on the 1s and 0s. The awesomely-named Thortron, purveyor of mondo-aggressive breakbeats (like Atari Teenage Riot without the Che Guevara t-shirts and Germanic bombast) goes one better: he routinely dumps chunks of unfinished (and unmastered) tracks onto Soundcloud for some quick “road testing,” which also functions as sort of a clamorous, overdriven status update.

    I like this shit. I won’t ever claim to be a better music fan than anyone else, but I do know I love music. And to have music turning into a collective, collaborative, insta-share form of how-communism-works-in-theory is a very refreshing change from the previous “top-down” distribution system.

    (END RANT THING)

    Not that most of this comment even addresses what you were getting at, although some of it does and the rest is connections only I can see (but can’t properly explain).

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful post. I’m looking forward to Part 2 and (hopefully) beyond.