Wednesday, 12 June 2013

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 even our phones. 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 so desire. But has this meant that the listening experience is now becoming something else? More importantly, does listening to "an album" of music, still have the same meaning?

On the way to the gym a few weeks back, whilst I was figuring out what  I was going to listen to whilst working out, I walked past a girl at a nearby bus stop who was merrily singing along to something on her mp3 player. 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 in an "auto tune" style, to something she was listening to. 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 stamp of approval on it. 

I´ve got over 900 c.d.´s, which should actually be closer to over 1000, 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 telling you all 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 plethora of albums in near  'as originally intended' track listing order, whilst working out. Does anyone else still do 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?
My c.d. 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 option of skipping tracks with cd´s, but my point remains the same; I don't think 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, he 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). In effect, he made a very valid point, in that an album has a start and a finish and is effectively a body of collective work. 

This was especially more applicable in the days of vinyl records, 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 body of work. So your concentration and resultant enjoyment would be based in or around this style of listening experience.

Many people feel that a vinyl record, sounds better than a c.d.

Now that music has become so transient and (almost) disposable, it follows suit that we can literally press a button on our smartphones/mp3 players and instantly grab a slice of aural goodness. This is irrespective of time, day, and more importantly, genre and any album it's originally from . Some might say that´s a great thing and to a point, I have to agree. Those moments when you´re waiting for a train, or stuck in a long queue for something, somewhere (place your own desired location here), now mean that all you need to do is stick some headphones on, or even the hands free kit you got with your phone, and soothe away some of those minutes in waiting , with a quick blast of your favourite song. 

Of course, using the built in speaker may have other side effects (i.e. removal from premises or environment), and unless you've ended up in a recreated version of an award winning advert for something, it's doubtful that all the other incumbents in the area will be nodding away or dancing in acknowledgement and gratitude at what was once your private aural moment of musical joy. 

This level of musical listening freedom extends to everyone being able to make their own playlists et al, which wasn´t uncommon in the days of cassette, portable cd player and also mini-disc. However, as there are no similarly immediate physical storage issues and limitations nowadays, 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. And it´s this level of freedom to chop and change, which I feel has taken away from the importance of an album, as it used to exist. 

The album as a product, has very little to do with an artist or record company exercising any kind of alleged pseudo-dictatorship over the consumer regards price and packaging, but in my  opinion has everything to do with giving the listener an experience they can savour more fully. I still buy albums on physical c.d. and download format, 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. 

Sure, the record label ( if one is involved), may have had something to do with the track choice and selection, but I cant imagine listening to Oasis´ 'Definitely Maybe', for example, on random or shuffle play, the first and every successive time I ever listened to it. 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.

And yet there is an entire generation, whom for various reasons may well pick and choose their favourites and just download them from an album, or need/want that extra flexibility to listen to an album on shuffle play, more often than not. I'm not one of them, although as mentioned I may skip tracks now and then. 

But for me at least, 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'd like to 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 should be best left alone, in my book. It´s almost the equivalent of chopping up a monet or mona lisa and looking at snippets of it to get an idea of what was going on in the fuller picture, as well of course as then possibly having access to the complete picture itself ;why would you want to do that to a finished piece of artwork?
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.

But that´s me, I guess. 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 lack of album sales and the marketing statistics & metrics which come back via sales feedback,( 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 9 songs (or more) 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 years on end, 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 precedence. 

The album is, in my humble opinion, like a sonic book or musical statement of intent. It´s almost like a collection of aural snapshots of the artist(s) life/lives at that time. That´s a very human thing to have in this technology-driven period of our lives, so may it survive as a format, as it has done already for well over 50 years, for as long as possible going into the future. 

(c)  S R DHAIN (revised & updated)

The original article was available via The American Chronicles  publication & website 

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