The Death of the Record Album

OK, so the blog I wrote about pieces of music that inspire me in the gym the other day must have set off something else in my brain about music.  Because I’ve been thinking over the death of the record album.  I’m not the first to lament this unfortunate turn in the world of music and I won’t be the last, but it’s what I’m thinking about right now.

Now I’m not so foolish as to think that the music industry has been about anything but turning a buck by and large.  But while money greased the gears of that industry, there were workers who turned the machine into the means for true and lasting art.  Some were by design and others were just by virtue of the fact that a well-formed group could be take the time and energy to produce something that acted as the soundtrack of lives.

In today’s iPod McWorld™, people are all about what they want in the moment.  We accept information in sound bytes and watch shows that are collections of punch lines (Family Guy, Robot Chicken, Scrubs, et al.) instead of cohesive stories.  If it can’t be condensed to palm size and absorbed in moments we don’t want to consume it.  Who do you know now who sits down and listens to an entire album over the course of an evening?  For God’s sake, we don’t even want to sit through 2 minutes of commercials, so we let them build up on the DVR for 20 minutes just so we can zip past them.  (I don’t exclude myself from that last one, but largely because when you have two young children you have to be able to condense LOST into as quick an experience as possible because I’m not missing a blasted second of the latest episode.)

Would Pink Floyd’s The Wall survive in today’s climate?  It wouldn’t even get made.  For that sake, neither would Dark Side of the Moon2112 would be a pipe dream of some small band that would catch on with the hipster set that would post links to it on their Facebook profiles.

Albums have often been cohesive in theme and feel even when they were arguably “singles collections.”  I’ll point to one of my personal favorites, 5150.  From beginning to finish, each one of those songs belongs on that album — even the questionable “Inside.”  Or let’s point to one that’s not so divisive as Sammy Hagar’s first foray with Van Halen.

Try Thriller.  Listen to that whole album. Every song individually works as a single, but when put together as an album, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

I realize the territory I’m in on this one.  I’m in danger of coming across as a curmudgeonly dope who swears everything was better ‘back in his day.’  But I swear that’s not my point.  There are flashes that pop up still of the well-constructed “theme album” if not concept piece: the band Cake is exceptionally gifted in this area.  But by and large, albums now are collections of singles – if you’re lucky.  In an era when people buy songs piecemeal at 99 cents as a rule and entire albums are an exception, this is an inevitable turn of events.

But instead of 45s and then cassingles (‘cassette singles’ if you forgot or never knew that term) which were used as leverage to sell the album as a whole, or included B-sides of songs that true fans would love and so give them impetus to purchase a single from the album a second time, the singular download now is the whole goal. There’s hardly a point in releasing an entire collection of songs.  Why not just release one or two tracks every few months and then for kicks release a collection every so often to hook the older folks who still want to purchase a physical disc?

It’s not that I’m all that upset about this, but I just remember how many afternoons in the summer you could put on an album and listen to it in its entirety and feel like you’d gone on a trip.  And albums came to be soundtracks to entire seasons and years, girlfriends and first loves, happy memories and that time you really needed something to pick up your spirits because it had been a perfectly bad day.  There wasn’t just a song for that, there was an entire album you could sink into and by the time it was over you had moved to the place you needed to be.

It’s a damn shame that’s not around anymore.

I’m sure there’s someone that will glance past the part where I said that the music industry has always been money-driven and used singles as leverage.  But I maintain that singles were marketed differently pre-download era and even through the use of B-sides provided treats for the true fans in the form of excluded tracks and rarities.

And a part of it is, for me, the indicator of a larger reality: that the world has palpably changed and not so much for the better.  We’re segmenting ourselves, turning inward and taking input that is so selective that we’re losing the ability to communicate in an era that claims to be connecting us as never before.  It’s a real Tower of Babel sort of feel – we can all talk to each other but it’s just breaking down into a cacophony of  individual taste.

Or to stretch the metaphor to make it fit into the theme of the blog: We don’t have to hear anything but the single track and never risk expanding our tastes by hearing anything else on the album.  Again I say, that’s a damn shame.

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