Do albums matter anymore?
The first album I had that was all mine, that I didn’t have to share with my sisters, was Madonna’s Like a Virgin on vinyl. It was a gift for my fifth birthday, and I remember countless days lying on my bed, staring at the big cardboard cover, listening to the album. I’d only be able to do that for a half-hour or so at a time before I had to get up and walk across the room to turn the record over. I miss that whole experience. Waiting for the release date, ripping off the plastic wrap…when CDs became the norm, there was that big awkward box they came in. It was hard to contain the anticipation as you ripped away the packaging and put the album/cassette/CD into its player, following along with the long accordion-folded book-o-lyrics.
(I, of course, loved to read the acknowledgments, imagining the ways in which all these people came together to make an album possible.)
But, as we have well established, things are different now. I can purchase one song at a time from a digital store without even knowing what the artist looks like. It allows artists some modicum of anonymity (I wouldn’t recognize Coldplay on the street, forget that they’re the most popular band in the world), which probably helps with the whole creative process, ensuring sanity is held onto a little longer and ideas get the opportunity to free-flow. (Maybe?)
I’ve had this conversation a lot lately, though. Why are people still making albums? I reckon a lot of it is some leftover idea that this is how the recording industry works. With the industry going kaput, though, do we really need to keep making albums? I agree that, for the sake of marketing a product, it’s good to set a date, make the fans look forward to something, build some buzz. But then what about dropping four extraordinary songs on your website on that date? What about building into that date a special on-your-site-only video performance? A special track of outtakes for people who show up that date only to download the new music?
There are so many other ways to do things than to continue the whole album thing. Especially when so many of the albums released these days are not cohesive units of artistry. They’re just collections of random songs, tossed in a bucket and handed to the world. There’s a sense that 12 songs make a record, regardless of how much sense they make in one place at one time, or even if they’re all good. As a result, I wind up feeling bad when I go to a show and don’t buy an album from a band, when I forego my local record store to download the three songs from the disc that I love, ignoring those other misses that served a time and purpose but didn’t translate well to tape.
On the flipside of that, I wonder about the desire to only listen to great music. Without those throw-away songs that drag an album down, how can we conscientiously appreciate the really good ones? Is suffering through the bad songs on an album in order to get to the good ones something we need to do in order to really appreciate the career arc of an artist who works their way, album after album, toward The Great Work? Don’t we need the throw-away tracks in order to remember the whole humanity of it all?
I don’t have any conclusion here; just bringing another recurring conversation online. There will always be those who embrace the multi-media artistic expression that comes from making an album – the cover art, the liner notes, the songs, the umbrella meaning of 12 songs that come together under one title, etc. But there will also continue to be artists who make records for no reason other than to keep a record of the songs they write – for better or worse. I wonder if, for those folks – the great majority of artists who continue to feel like making an album is something artists are obligated to do – the album is even necessary anymore.