Alas, poor Album! I knew him, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Spotify
It’s all but official. The end of the album era is upon us and there seems to be little that can be done to avert its decline. Renewed interest in vinyl records provides only a small blip on the radar, a small uptick set against a downward sales trajectory that shows no sign of abating. Ironically, the beginning of this march to the dustbin of history began with what seemed like a boon to album consumers in the form of compact disc audio. Beginning commercially in 1982, the compact disc was smaller, lighter, cheaper, and able to hold 74 minutes of audio, as compared to 22 minutes a side on a vinyl record. Provided care was taken not so scratch the read-side, it did not suffer from use degradation like vinyl.
More importantly, it was the first widespread foray into digital audio, and as recording and mastering improved, it cut quickly and deeply into the market share of vinyl and cassette tapes. At the same time, another new technology was taking its first baby steps, beginning its own cultural revolution-the personal computer. Basic digital recording, editing and duplication processes became available to nearly anyone with a computer. Combined with the internet explosion, file-sharing flourished and eventually the music industry capitulated, ushering in the current landscape of iTunes, Spotify and numerous other subscription based services. Andrea Swensson, of The Current, provides some truly jaw-dropping numbers and visuals highlighting this metamorphosis.
While artists continue to make albums and even sell hard copies of them, albeit in far smaller quantities, the effects of this fast and dramatic shift are already affecting listeners and musicians alike. For consumers choosing the route of subscription services, one thing should be clearly understood; you no longer own the music. At a glance, this may seem like a small tradeoff considering the vast library and incredible convenience for a paltry ten dollars a month, and almost all of the time, it is. Just remember, not everything is included on streaming services. Legal issues, rotating catalogues and decisions made by the powers that be limit what is available at any given moment. Taylor Swift has had her spats with Spotify, De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” is still missing, sample-heavy albums have run into difficulties securing the necessary rights, and if you want to hear Moby Grape’s first two albums you’ll be disappointed, as most songs have been cut due to decades-long ownership battles. Even if you like a platform’s current offerings, beware. The content available, the ways in which you can access it, and the price that you pay are subject to change at any time…with or without your agreement. That’s the shorthand version of all the legalese a user must agree to by checking a series of little boxes when signing up for the service.
Hard copy transactions are a far less complicated exchange. Of course, the simple ownership of a recording doesn’t entitle one to use it for commercial purposes, sell it, or profit it from it, but once all the middlemen (recording/distribution company, publishing company, RIAA, music store, etc.) have been appeased and paid, they mostly disappear from the equation. A subscription service promises to constantly be in between you and the music. Think of it as an artistic analog to our health care system—the omnipotent middleman with one hand in the till and the other pulling the strings. If that depiction of streaming subscription services came off a bit heavy handed, it’s because it was. Providers have it their best interest to sell subscriptions and advertising, and to do that they mostly try to keep it fair, at least for the consumers. For musicians, the new era has been more of a mixed bag and deserves a far more in-depth analysis than can be delivered here.
At this point, one might wonder how and why any of this signals the demise of the album. After all, the vast majority of albums spanning the last five decades are now listenable within seconds, not to mention the endless supply of new releases available on a weekly basis. It is the shift in the way listeners consume that will in turn change their listening habits, adversely influencing the artists creating the music.
Not long ago, for some, the listening of an album was ceremonial, an activity to itself and not an ancillary detail thrown on top of another activity out of convenience. An individual, maybe with friends, or maybe by themselves, would peruse their options and after settling, begin the album and take their seat. Whether it was vinyl, a disc or a cassette—be it a simple turntable, or a multi-thousand dollar system—the basic ritual shared a few common traits.
Primarily, there was intent. Hearing, listening, and listening with intent are three distinct actions. Walking into a crowded bar, likely everyone will hear the music, some will let their mind wander, or perhaps choose to listen at certain points, but none will listen with intent, or at least they shouldn’t waste their time. A bar is a poor venue in which to listen to music with intent. I doubt many people would visit an art museum with a briefcase full of documents in order to do their taxes and enjoy the paintings. So, when one’s at home doing their taxes and listening to music, it is safe to say that the attention to the music is less than what is being paid to completing a 1099. There are times when a single pursuit requires singular focus.
It is increasingly common for music to be consumed as a second, or even third focus in a list of activities. Some of this is carry-over from the many forms of multi-tasking that we engage in on a daily basis, but a correlation also exists with the excessive convenience that streaming services provide. It wouldn’t be fair to fault the platform for doing its job and doing it well, but the dynamic that exists between ourselves and our music has changed, and its importance diminished. Forget about having to stand up and physically begin the playback process, today it’s not even imperative to make a choice. Simply click on any one of the infinite playlists Spotify will instantly create and get back to doing the dishes. If your hands are wet, a simple “Alexa, Spotify” will do. Convenience can be a double edged sword. When so little thought is put into the act of listening, is it any surprise that listening with intent has become so rare?
It helped that physical copies of albums came with a sleeve, liner notes, or extras that contained lyrics, credits, photos and sometimes even original art! On a few releases, a great deal of thought still goes into these aspects of production, but as habits shift and less people purchase them, it is unlikely that the majority of artists will be able to afford these incidentals. And with less care paid to the packaging, there is less incentive to purchase hard copies—around and around we go.
The second trait of the album experience was a commitment of time. Time’s importance in music cannot be overemphasized. The art is based upon it. Pitches, rhythms and timbres only have meaning when carefully placed against one another upon a canvas of time. An opinion can be quickly drawn about a painting, sculpture, or nearly any visual art, but this is not the case for music. Some of the best albums and compositions require a large temporal investment before their brilliance manifests itself, and perhaps more than other mediums, repeated exposures are required before fully understanding and appreciating an aural masterpiece. Moreover, for some musicians the album format could be seen as a larger study into what they were exploring during that period, how their tastes had shifted, and even how they were changing as people. Great stories can be told through singles and individual songs, but to get a complete look at an artist’s place in time, there is no substitute for an album.
Unfortunately, modern life is very fast-paced and it has become a bit of a luxury to afford oneself a stretch of 40 minutes to an hour for music and nothing else. Hectic, nonstop lives could be part of the drive towards this new single-based, album-destroying era of music, or perhaps it’s the preponderance of at-your-fingers services that facilitate this way of living. Chicken or egg… Regardless, it appears that albums will decline, if not in number, certainly in quality, as the single is primed to resume its place as king of the popular music medium. This is not a condemnation of radio and streaming friendly songs, but rather an acknowledgement of the losses the decline of LPs will portend: good music will fall further into the background of our lives, ideas will become smaller as songs become shorter, and music overall will become less diverse and interesting.
I’ve already touched upon music’s slide from feature attraction to scenic backdrop, but in fairness to streamers, it is a movement that began with The Walkman. Sony’s precursor to The Discman (and really even the iPod) allowed people to listen to music as they were doing other things in other places. Please don’t misconstrue this, it was a wonderful concept, but like the compact disc, it inadvertently started the march towards the infinite playlist in a pocket. Instant music without even the effort of choice. Even if one doesn’t make a choice, that in itself is a choice, and here it signifies “I don’t care.” Nothing is as damaging to an endeavor’s success as apathy, even one as humble as listening to tunes. Lack of caring will push good music farther into our cultural background, while bland, cookie-cutter sounds will become so ubiquitous as to be unnoticeable.
Larger ideas that stretched across an entire album will also become progressively rare. Songs that don’t function as well outside of the greater idea likely won’t function at all on the streaming platforms of the future. It seems to follow that new artists won’t embark on vast concept projects if they know a sizable portion of their songs won’t find ears. If you happen to be someone who says, “good riddance,” to overwrought theatrical art, it should be mentioned that ideas within individual singles are likely to shrink as well. A musician seeking to capture 15 minutes of a listener’s attention is better off accomplishing this with a three-minute song than a five-minute song, since albums are no longer the unit of sale, having been usurped by “the click.” Three clicks good, five clicks better.
Length of songs, methods of delivery, not to mention shifting artistic tastes, are nothing new to music. Some might even see these trends as a return to the days of radio, where songs were free, brief and largely selected by a small cadre of businessmen. Natural as this may be, it is still disconcerting for future creativity and breadth of choice. To some degree, it has always been about the money—some of the time for all involved, and all of the time for some involved. However, with the hard copy, album format, there existed a distinct point in time in which the middlemen (to whom it was about money all the time) were excised, and the endpoints of musician and listener were all that remained. The enduring presence of Spotify mandates that business-only actors not only remain in play at all times, but also wield inordinate and never-ending control of what is consumed, and thus ultimately created. This does not bode well for the artistic, creative side of the music industry. If one doesn’t believe this statement, compare the relative homogeneity of music during the radio single era of the ’40s to mid ’60s with the supernova of creativity both within and between genres since the late ’60s. Not surprisingly, analogous concerns are being raised in the film industry about companies like Netflix.
So, by all means, grab your albums and nostalgia, and sit down for a listen with your pals. It is still the second best way to enjoy music (Live music will always reign, and thankfully that will never change), and can be a quasi-religious experience for us heathen, but save yourself the delusion of thinking that purchases alone will bring back the soul of the LP and the good that came with it. What good are albums if there aren’t musicians to fill them with quality music?