Tuesday 5 April 2022

Please Lord, Don’t Let The Album Die.

Music is now playing (and available), everywhere. From the lounge, to the hall, to the mall, to the lift, to our cars, and last but not least, out of our our smartphones into Bluetooth speakers or wireless headphones. This level of availability is great, cause we can all dip in and out of our collections or some archive somewhere in the electronic ether, as and when we want to. Invariably, this has changed the listening experience forever. 

Does listening to an album of music still have some meaning attached to it? And will the album survive? 

On the way into town, I walked past a girl at a bus stop who was singing along to something on her smartphone . Nothing unusual in that, but I actually slowed down as I walked past her and stopped for a few seconds, because it dawned on me that she was singing along in an "auto tune" style. I couldn´t place the song, but I wondered whether she was singing along in emulation of the actual song, or whether she was just putting that on as an effect, in order to make it totally her own and put her personal stamp of approval on it. 

I´ve got over 500 c.d.´s, which should actually be closer to 700, but over the last 20 or so years, I´ve had people borrow them and not return them.  Of course, some of them have broken, become damaged or been mislaid and weren´t replaced for whatever reason. Other than make my c.d. rack sound like some kind of warzone ( it isn´t, I promise you), I also have over 300 slabs of vinyl in 7 and 12 inch form. 

Why am I sharing this? Well, it dawned on me that each time I go to the gym, I must be a bit of a luddite, insofar that I end up listening to a lot of albums in 'as originally intended' track listing order from my smartphone, whilst working out. And maybe I'll skip an occasional track, depending on the energy of the session . Does anyone else do this or something approximately like this ? 

No, Not the 'going to the gym' part, which is a long, relatively pleasant drive there and back. What I mean is, does anyone else still listen to an album worth of music as the artist intended it to be heard?
Some of my CD collection. There are currently over 100 or so that are "missing in action" ( i.e. borrowed and not returned, misplaced, etc)

Naturally, I do this in the car as well. Obviously, one has the same option of skipping tracks with CD'
s & downloaded albums, but my point remains the same; I don't think so many people bother with the album 'experience' anymore.

Recently, I saw Johnny Marr in a snippet of a documentary called LAST SHOP STANDING on YouTube, talk about how an album is an experience in itself. For those who don´t know who he is, Johnny Marr is one of the greatest guitar players to have come out of the UK in the last 30 years (have a search on the internet for further details), with a multi-faceted career. In effect, he made a very valid point, in that an album has a start and a finish & is effectively a body of collective work. 

This was more applicable in the days of vinyl, where you had no choice but to flip the disc over after approximately 22 minutes ( or less), in order to listen to the rest of the songs and conclude that body of work, as a listening experience.

Furthermore, you'd repeat the aforementioned if it was a double, triple or even quadruple album. In effect, your attention span, the ability to concentrate and your resultant enjoyment would be based in and around this style of listening experience.

 Some prefer the sound of a vinyl album to a CD. Nonetheless,  the intent is the same; you're embarking on a sonic journey. 

Now that music has become so transient, it follows suit that we can literally press a button on our smartphones and instantly grab a slice of aural goodness whenever we want it. This is literally irrespective of time, day, location and more importantly,  the album or genre it's originated from. 

Some might say that´s a great choice to have and up to a point, I agree. Those moments when you're waiting for a plane, bus or train, or you're stuck in a long queue for something else, now mean that all you need to do is stick a pair of headphones on. You can now soothe (or gently sway) away some of those minutes in waiting , with a quick blast of your favourite track(s). 

This level of listening freedom also extends to everyone being able to make their own playlists, which wasn´t uncommon in the days of cassette, portable CD player and mini-disc. However, as there are no similarly immediate physical storage issues and limitations (e.g. extra costs of the storage medium, limits on running times & the physical bulk),  then umpteen playlists can be made within minutes of each other, which more importantly can also be shared en masse over the internet, using the various social media tools available. 

it´s the availability of complete freedom to chop and change, which I feel has taken away from the importance of an album, as it used to exist. There's simply no hard-wired consumer stipulation, to keep it as it was originally pressed, burned & track-listed. 

The album as a product, has little to do with an artist exercising any kind of alleged pseudo-dictatorship over the consumer. I.e the cynical. 'I'm putting out a body of work,  and you'll buy it even if it isn't choc full of music you'll like and grow to love' routine. 

Even for arguments sake that wouldn't work anymore, as consumers are more well informed & can listen to most (if not all), of the album before buying it,  via the various social media portals. 

Bearing all the above in mind, why does an album exist?

In effect, it's about giving the listener an extended experience that they can savour (and cherish), more fully. It's akin to taking a long trip or journey into the artist's thoughts & feelings at that period of time, whilst looking for (or picking up on), correlations into your own state of being.  

And that's why I still buy albums on physical CD and download formats, simply because I want to get into the whole 'arc', so to speak, that the artist intended for me to listen to his/her/their work in. On a personal note, this also extends to artwork & packaging design, but that's a different conversation for another time. 

It goes without saying that the record label ( if one is involved), may have had something to do with the track choice, artwork/photography selection and even the producer (i.e. the finished product & its marketing), but I cant imagine listening to Oasis ´ 'Definitely Maybe', for example, on random or shuffle play the first and every successive time I listened to it. And I cannot ever imagine listening to Brian Eno´s 'Music For Airports' on shuffle either.  Although some may argue that it would be a good idea, i'd find it defeatist and almost sacrilegious, in terms of retaining the artistic merit of the work, as it was intended to be presented 

And yet there is an entire generation, whom for various reasons will pick & choose their favourites and download them from various albums (or even just one album), as they want/need that full flexibility to listen to their own playlists, all the time. I'm just not one of them, although as mentioned earlier, I may skip the occasional track. 

I´d rather buy the album and listen to it in the order in which it was arranged on the final released product, because I think (or at least i'd rather believe),  that the artist(s) involved wanted it that way. 

It may not cure any illnesses or ailments, it may not fix the world´s ills and socio-economic problems, but some things are best to be left 'as is'. It´s almost the equivalent of viewing a monet or mona lisa via looking at snippets of them to get an idea of what was going on in the concepts,  as well as having access to the complete pictures themsleves and making your own versions. That renders the whole thing into a makeshift sliding puzzle ;why would you want to do that to a finished piece of art? 
Listening to an album in full sequence, as the artist intended, can be like taking an audio journey that represents the artistic intention behind the work.

Maybe I´m in a minority who feels that the musician should always have the opportunity to present a fuller, richer experience to the listener, so that the listener has a greater ( and relatable) idea of the vision behind the product. 

Because if the same musician isn't going to have the reciprocation of that, which can be evidenced by a lack of album sales ( I'm not including the loss of sales due to piracy and illegal downloading, as that's an entirely different issue altogether), then why bother to compile several songs for an album? Is it solely to propel sales for yet another tour? 

Surely not, as groups such as The Rolling Stones have proved for countless years that you can tour without releasing a new batch of songs each time. Furthermore, established artists seldom play every selection off a new album in concert, as its usually the hits and favourites that get first dibs. 

The album is, in my humble opinion, like a sonic book. It's a musical series of chapters of intent, bound together as a cohesive, sequential whole. 

And as already mentioned, It´s akin to a collection of aural snapshots of the artist(s) life/lives at that point in time. That´s a reassuringly human thing to have in this technology-driven world we're living in.

And that's what makes it essential. Music is a universal language that negates so many social barriers and boundaries. You might not always speak the language being sung, but you just know what the intention is, by the feelings evoked in the tracks themselves

Even when listening on headphones, you're taken somewhere else, to a place that is usually easier to feel than describe; now that's powerful. And the cover art, with the inner sleeve booklet(s) with lyrics and credits..it's all part of the picture. 

I hope the album survives as a format, for as long as possible. It's already been around for over 70 years,  and countless collections of albums show up at auctions, as historical artefacts. That's a snapshot of artistic lives, lived within the context of another human life that cherished them.

Wouldn't you want a collection of albums to be part of your life's story?  

(c)  S R DHAIN (revised & updated)

The original article was available via The American Chronicles website 

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