Saturday, July 21, 2007

Album or Mixtape culture?

I was thinking today about the change that I see happening in music listening. It seems like a band has to work even more hard these days to hook a listener into an entire album.

Radio musicians and "artists" (or non-writing pretty faces, for long) know all about this from back in the day of us taping their stuff off the radio, but for the "indie" or even the "rock" genre (anything not considered pop), this is somewhat of a iTunes-created phenomenon.

Since we are now in the habit of celebrating SONGS rather than ALBUMS, this is probably something we need to discuss.

The first question that comes to mind is, "Is the music industry changing or are we?" I look back at my music collection (mentally) over the years and the things I remember are the great ALBUMS (Pedro's Winners Never Quit, Jawbreaker's Dear You, Nevermind, Weezer's Blue Album, The White Stripes' Elephant, etc). These are the albums where the Gestalt stands out - These albums in particular have the feel of being crafted when listened to, rather than sounding like an assortment of songs by a band. Not that we couldn't pick songs or hits off of these albums, but something is lost along the way. With recent subpar released from great bands (Stripes Satan, Killers Sam's Town, Interpol's new one) it seems like things may be changing to a more song focused culture.

The second thing I think about in respect to this topic is, "What is the purpose of the single?" In pop music, the single sells the album, and oftentimes is the only song listened to before the album is shelved. In the new iTunes culture, a "rock" band's hit will be downloaded exponentially more than the other songs on the album, depending on how "popular" the song becomes, especially if this song is featured on a TV or movie soundtrack (I'm thinking of The Fray's How to Save a Life which shot up iTunes' most downloaded chart after being featured on Grey's Anatomy, and many others). Music is becoming more pop culture influenced.

With 17 is Prime, the single (or chosen song) represents a band someone hasn't been exposed to, in order to give them something new to listen to. I think this represents the mixtape culture of yore as well. Instead of having a nauseating 30 minute conversation that consists of only questions ("Have you heard x?" "No...have you heard y?") like you're on freakin' "Whose Line." You hand them a mix CD, they listen, and they buy (or steal, or burn your copy like that's something different) what they like.

I'm beginning to ramble but I wanted to start the conversation of where you guys (and our reader) think the music scene is heading - especially in relation to iTunes and other song-centric downloading services.

I'm taking the side and defending the album. This is because not only do I want to listen to an entire album of a band, but I also want the bands that I listen to to record and compile more thoughtful albums.



us said...

tim, i am in the category "reader" but i would like to briefly take issue with your position. i agree with you on account of average, everyday music listeners being focused primarily on singles and "hits." however, i don't think this is a new phenomenon, since for years, casual listeners have said "oh, i just bought (insert name of significant or insignificant album of the past here) for that "one that's always on the radio." the issue is the same because the root problem is the same. you know his name... the Man. so, you're right, in a sense, those few casual listeners who have become thrifty downloaders are maybe cutting corners and filling their ipods with Blue Orchid, How to Save a life, and the latest masterpiece from Fall Out Boy. this doesn't mean, i would contend, that bands, even a few who's paycheck is drawn off "First National Bank of The Man" are allowing their creativity to be completely subverted. not only do i disagree in thinking The White Stripes are proving this, i cite another example, and hope not to be shot down regarding this: Death Cab for Cutie. i'll agree that Plans is overproduced, and songs are cut short, The Photo Album and Transatlanticism are better etc. etc. however, there's good songwriting on that album, it's a complete thought (even with a theme) and it doesn't revolve around either of the two hit singles. sorry to ramble. love to hear your response and others' comments. thanks for letting me invade.

Jason Heron said...

As an aside, perhaps, I want to add something Hannah and I were talking about the other day. The tension we're feeling here, some more acutely than others, isn't helped at all by the de-physicalizing of music. One need not go down to the local record store (does anyone still have a local record store? I have one. ONE.) to buy an album. One need only click a few times, and the digital booklet iTunes provides does not make up the deficit here. We may or may not be moving into a single/hit obsessed era, and away from an album era...I don't know, and who can say? But not being able to hold the album, in the physical sense of the word, I think contributes to the dislocation album fans might be feeling right now. I'm going to join eMusic next month, and I'm excited about their varied selection and great prices, but I'm sketched as hell about saving the files on my hard drive, my iPod, and on a burned disc labeled with Sharpie. When I think about that process, despite the money I'll be saving and the clean conscience I'll be enjoying, I'm right with Tim, whether he's providing an accurate assessment or not.
Now as far as singles/hits vs. albums go, I think I agree with the previous comment, because when it was Sinatra, some folks listened to the radio in the car or in the home, and some people trudged down to the record store and bought the LP. So with the Beatles. So with Zeppelin. And with the advent of college radio and whatnot, I'm sure there were even scene kids in the 80s who didn't bother with albums as much as others. That said, it seems to me that part of the anxiety here is a recent phenomenon. What I mean is, perhaps during the 80s we saw something unique happening: a large, and I mean large, body of music was ignored by the mainstream media, and so people relying on hits/singles may not have even been aware of what Galaxie 500 was doing, or whatever.
Then again, this isn't unique. While Sinatra was crooning, there were plenty of poor musicians turning out white hot jazz, and getting next to no recognition for it.
By now, in this comment, it must be clear that to try to quantify this relationship between hits/singles and albums is pretty difficult.
Thanks, Tim, for a provocative post, though you're dead wrong about Soltero and (Smog).
My opinion trumps all opinions. Mwahh, ahh, ahh, ahh, ahh.

JohnLDrury said...

Even though there has always been and always will be a casual radio listener vs. serious purchasing listener distinction in pop/rock music, something did happen around 1967 with Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper that moved rock from a singles-oriented genre (with albums serving as "song books") to the "album era." The casual vs. serious distinction during this era corresponded loosely to the single vs. album distinction. Perhaps even the pop vs. rock distinction fell along these lines too (esp. with the rise of the AOR format). This album ear has been is crumbling in recent years following the dawn of digit access to music. One can be a serious purchasing listener and still only acquire preferred songs rather than albums. Furthermore, the issue is not just a matter of the manner of acquisition but (perhaps more importantly) the mode of listening. The iPod and iTunes makes possible a radio-like shuffling of one's own music as well as other ways of organizing music than just by album. This clearly changes one's mindset toward rock music as a "song-genre" and marks a radical shift as significant as what happened in 1967 and following. Whether this will damage rock or usher in a new era of focus on song-writing is too early to tell.

Tim Horsman said...

To our reader: I definitely agree that Plans isn't as bad as everyone initially thought, and not even as bad as I have hoped at times. It's a good ALBUM. The Stripes "Get Behind Me Satan" is definitely not. It is well below the standard that Jack has us listening for, and the strength of Icky Thump shows "Satan's" weakness. You have to at least concede that some of the extra thought that goes in to crafting an album has been rendered unnecessary due to iTunes.

Jason, I agree with the physical aspect missing from record buying these days...but that physical experience is absent from almost all buying experiences - from Hardware to electronics to food (restaurants)... I went to Luna Music one of those "great record stores" here in Indy and I didn't know what to do. It had been two years since I've been to a record store, and I flipped through a couple racks of used CDs and left. It was wierd.

John, I like the thought about the iPod shuffling. I was going there, I think, but I didn't get there. It's certainly easier now to get access to those "songs" rather than albums.

PS - (Smog) sucks.

Jason Heron said...

John,Thank you for bringing up Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's. I think that helps me out a lot in thinking about all of this.
I wonder, does the hit/single vs. album relationship have to necessarily be oppositional? Could there be great album artists and great songwriters? Is there a certain reason we must prefer albums? To be sure, albums are very important to me, and I'm not sure what I'm asking here, but that last comment you made, about the possibility of a renewed focus on songwriting in the future, made me wonder whether or not there might be a better way to talk about this. Are there instances of great songwriters, not bound by the drive to put out a top hit/single, but also seemingly not set on constructing great albums either? After all, if the album as a coherent statement was simply an innovation in the late 60s, aren't there other possible innovations? And why does the album trump these?

Tim, I know you bought Pet Sounds. Do you have Sgt. Pepper's yet? Or do the Beatles suck as much as (Smog)sucks?