Last week I posted my thoughts on the music album’s place in an era of ubiquitous access to music – The End of The Album as The Organizing Principle. I concluded that there was no such place. Early technology for music playback, such as the vinyl record, had created restrictions for artists without ever consulting them; even the CD is a flawed piece of technology on many levels and once again artists were never consulted on whether they felt a move from analog to digital was a worthwhile endeavor. The running time of an album was therefore artificially fixed by well-meaning technologists. [Of course artists soon released double and triple albums which was one way around the restrictions.] I argue now that those technological restrictions have been lifted – artists are free to do whatever they like in the new mediums available to them. Only nostalgia and a lack of imagination will hold them back.
My friend Casey Jarman, music editor at Portland’s alternative news weekly, Willamette Week, left a rather long and prosaic comment in defense of an album-length piece of work. He agreed to let me post it in full. I’m glad he did as he draws attention to why albums work. Here is his comment –
Casey Says: April 6th, 2009 at 1:50 am
“Sorry this is long. Putting off writing a WW story.
I think that the album still has a place in popular culture because itâ€™s the litmus test to find out if an artist is really worth following or not. No, not every album is going to be an O.K. Computer or Graceland or Prince Among Thieves, but fans still use albums to decide how much enthusiasm they should invest in an artist. You can freak out over a single, but I donâ€™t think a single (or even two singles) gets butts in the seats when an artist tours through town. We all have our specific tastes, and to any of us, 90% of what we hear is white noise, 10% gets us excited and maybe 5% resonates with us enough to make us fans. I think that people are always going to want to make connections with their favorite artists, and that means listening to more than just the singles. It means reading liner notes, looking at artwork and hearing what an artist can do when theyâ€™re not limited by three or four minutes for a single.
I donâ€™t think that any artist ought to be limited (in either direction) by the 70 or 80 minutes a cd can get them, and thatâ€™s a neat part of the digital thing, but when youâ€™re really a fan of a specific artist, you want more than just a few minutes or the same song on repeat, and to me, 45 minutes of a pretty good band winds up being enough to quench my initial thirst. I like live sets that last about that long, too. I think itâ€™s more than just the oppressive album format, itâ€™s sort of a natural thing. Spoonâ€™s Girls Can Tell is like 36 minutes and itâ€™s a perfect 36 minutes that I can still throw on to this day and enjoy it front to back. I know Iâ€™m old guard, but I know an awful lot of web-savvy people who feel the same way about their favorite bandsâ€™ albums.
You see more interest in straight-up singles in the hip-hop world than you do in indie rock, but i think thatâ€™s because a) so much of hip-hop is co-opted and the consumer knows full well that the album wonâ€™t live up to the single anyway, and b) the hip-hop mentality is to pack a disc to the brim, which usually means unnecessary filler and skits. Iâ€™ve been railing on the culture of never-ending rap albums for years but no one listens to me. Put your 12 best songs on a disc instead of releasing an unnecessary double-album with 36 bullshit songs and 12 good ones and maybe hip-hop fans will start buying full albums again.
I donâ€™t know why Iâ€™m still blabbing, but there are ideas here that I agreed with and a couple that I really donâ€™t:
â€œFirst, communicate openly and ask your fans what they want from you/ Listen to what they have to say. Really listenâ€
Most of my favorite records wouldnâ€™t exist under this credo. Fans usually think they want more of the same, and I think thatâ€™s often what theyâ€™d ask for. Not many people would have asked Bob Dylan to go electricâ€”they wanted him to write a hundred variations on â€œBlowing in the Wind.â€ Whereas everyone wanted more of the Blue Album from Weezer, and we got like four consecutive albums of half-hearted bullshit.
Then again, in both those cases, the artist had more commercial success when they stayed on the straight and narrow path. Metallica is a blueprint for moneymaking (and despite all the napster stuff, reasonably good at communicating with their fans), and they havenâ€™t done anything original in 20-some years. They know exactly what the fans want, and they regurgitate it to them until their fans are no longer functioning members of society. Good for the bandâ€™s bottom line, sure, but I think when you give the people what they want, you rob them of what they havenâ€™t experienced yet. Great artists need to be willing to say â€œfuck what you want, this is where Iâ€™m taking you.â€ Thatâ€™s when the the art progresses. Thatâ€™s when Kanye hangs out with Daft Punk and Lilâ€™ Wayne picks up a guitar, too. And shit, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesnâ€™t, but itâ€™s something the arist wants to try, and they have to be willing to let the fans sort out whether the experiment worked or not. Thatâ€™s when the fans should come into the equation, in my opinion. They are the critics. Not the writers or the band managers.
And the juxtaposition between â€œInvite them to share, join, support and build goodwill with youâ€ and â€œstart to monetize the experience around your musicâ€ is troubling to me.
Yes, artists need to make money, and yes artists should be respectful of their fans. But I really believe thatâ€”unless youâ€™re fleecing 13-year-old girls with a shirtless emo bandâ€”the fans can smell a ruse. If you start off answering MySpace comments and hanging out at merch tables and keeping a blog when youâ€™re a blossoming artist, then retreat when the money comes, you might still make money but youâ€™ll lose your soul. Youâ€™re either D.I.Y. for life or youâ€™re destined to be forgotten.
I really do get that music is a commercial endeavor. I just think that, if your artistic goals come after your social networking and fanbase-building goals, everyone suffers. Especially your friendly local music critic.
However, the call for inventing your own new organizing principle is well-recieved on my end. If R. Kelly had serialized â€œIn the Closetâ€ as a series of 7-inches, Iâ€™d have been the first in line to get each week/month/whatever. Ok, bad example, but yeah: Blow up the album if you like, just donâ€™t assume that a single is going to give you a career in music, especially in this day and age.
The world needs real, thoughtful artistsâ€”in every genre, even the ones that donâ€™t exist yetâ€”more now than ever. But I donâ€™t think you have to kiss fansâ€™ asses and go crazy on Twitter if you make great music. Because if you make great music, someone will take it upon themselves to be more bloggy about your art than you could ever be.”