Albums Aren’t Going Anywhere Just Yet

19 Dec

Too big for retail? Naah.

So I’m sitting here, and I keep going back and forth, back and forth, till I’m kind of tearing my hair out.  I’m trying to make a decision about the song order on this record I’m making, whether to put the atmospheric track with the weird narrator fourth, or to put it fifth.  I’ve been struggling with this for days.  If it goes fourth, it transitions nicely out of the end of the third song, and since it lays out the theme of the album (the song is called, after all, “Theme”), it would be a good fit for the over-arching album concept.  However, if it goes fifth, the song that would go fourth in its place is nice and jumpy and brings up the energy after the slower third tune.  Aah, hell. I think I’m going to put it fourth.

Ask anyone who’s made an album – this kind of thing requires a ton of thought.  I recently heard about a pianist I know out in Boston obsessing over the distance between the tracks on her album, writing the musicians who played with her to ask about whether the break between track six and track seven should be a second shorter?  Maybe a half-second longer?  I totally know how she feels.

A couple of years back, I started seeing and hearing music writers going on and on about how the “Album is Dead.”  There have been pieces all over the place, most notably in the New York Times, as well as on Mark Cuban’s Blog, and the gist is always the same: Kids these days listen to their songs one-at-a-time (true), playlists and iPods are the rage (also true), no one’s buying physical CDs (true again), ergo, the album is becoming obsolete.

Not so fast, boys.

There’s one thing they’re overlooking – the artists themselves.  Whenever I or the thousands of other musicians out there sit down to plan a release of our music, we still plan on releasing it in album form.  We spend endless amounts of time planning the flow of the thing, charting peaks and valleys through the forty-five to sixty minutes that we’ll share with our listeners, attuned to the transitions, weighing the impacts, timing the fade-outs.

As long as that is the case, all those who care about getting a full sense of the artistic intent behind the music must listen to it as an album.  It therefore stands to reason that, as long as there is artistic intent to be found in the album format, there are those who will choose to experience music that way.

This assertion comes with a couple of qualifications.  Perhaps this one sounds obvious, but though they are both musical in nature, “an album” is not the same thing as “a song.” There are indeed artists who create the latter yet do not concern themselves with the former.  Plenty of musicians focus simply on writing tunes one at-a-time, and view their album releases more as compilations of singles than as extended works.  There is certainly nothing wrong with this; it’s but one method of artistic expression through recorded sound.


Just fine on a playlist, but incomplete.

What’s more, even though many of us do concern ourselves with making albums, there are plenty of people who don’t care, and prefer to download and listen to individual songs without any thought to their place in a larger context. Countless times have I seen students download a single track from, say, The Wall or Kind of Blue without buying the album.

This type of cherry-picking happens across the board, and has for decades. Just as there are those who would read and learn The Road Not Taken without bothering to go through the rest of Mountain Interval, and folks who read (and get the bejeesus scared out of them by) The Mist while skipping the rest of Skeleton Crew, these listeners would concern themselves with the information on the single track – be it David Gilmore’s solo on Comfortably Numb or the modal harmony behind Flamenco Sketches – and need only the one recording to get the information. For whatever reason, their interest stops there.

But just as poetry collections and books of short stories have not faded from the publishing word, neither will larger collections of recorded songs. There will always be listeners who want to experience the entire scope of an artist’s intent, to hear not only the individual songs, but also how they are woven together.

Trend-watchers in the media and rockist critics can write about the death of the album as much as they’d like, but as long as artists continue to devote their energy not only to the composition of individual songs, but to the painstaking process of fitting them together, there will be listeners who meet them in the middle, seeing the forest, hearing the trees.


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

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