November 08, 2004

The Musician's Era: Do We Still Say 'Album'?

We use the word, album, to mean several things. We are describing old style vinyl records as in physical media, a metaphorical little box with songs poured into it and packaged for sale, a collection of artistic musical expression, and a particular musician's style and mini-era.

You know it when someone mentions, say, The White Album. They are speaking about a grouping of songs, maybe the idea that they actually purchased it when it came out which would mean they really were referring to vinyl, but they are also talking about the Beatles at a particular time and place in their musical odyssey. And maybe they are also alluding to the Grey Album (BTW, Chilling Effects posted my C&D for that...) that came after. In fact, I would say the Grey Album is an interesting mix of sensibilities: digital music that can be mixed, but with an understanding of 'album as complete musical work' that can somehow coexist in our collective minds right now, in the simultaneous era's analog and digital. So when JayZ put the Grey Album out last spring, we all understood both metaphors of album as a work, and digital remix work. In fact, it is one of the things I found so delightful about the work.

So, now that we've ditched the idea of the little box full of songs, instead buying one song at a time, and we listen to 10,000 song on the biggest remix tape you can imagine via our iPods or phones or whatever, and we don't think about physical media except in relation to the speaker/player system, how will we refer to the musical development and era transitions an artist goes through?

Before, and often still, artists go to the studio (or maybe just crack open their powerbooks) and create a body of work. The assembled songs, in the album format, if successful in terms of an album, would often be similar to a visual artist's gallery show, or a book or movie, as an all encompassing work. The set of songs would be variants, sometimes, or associated in some artistic way. But the concept of the album, the label of it, was what could mark it in our collective minds as a placeholder label that was about the creator as much as the music and time.

When we talk about Brian Wilson in terms of Good Vibrations, verses Pet Sounds there is the meaning of the Beach Boys and Wilson's development artistically. I suppose we could talk about "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" verses "Little Surfer Girl" and it would evoke the differences in the work over time, but the album reference encompasses more. It's richer, marks a lengthier time of development and breadth, conveys a kind of beginning, middle and end to a particular stage of musical meaning, art, style, fashion, references to older work, influence on newer work, etc.

So will musical development change as more people download by the song and musicians know and work with this new way of interacting with music? Or will both musicians and listeners maintain the convention of the reference to an album, even though we don't have them for the other reasons mentioned, to describe an associated grouping of music as a complete work?

Also, could someone, Adam Curry, or maybe a podcasting protégé, please start podcasting on what music is about, styles, eras, musician's works and eras? And could they comment on the shifting interactions between the loss of physical media, musical development, listeners and the art of making music? I would love to listen to a show that was about the history of pop music, from the 50s forward, that played examples and exposed me to new stuff. I really only get new stuff from friends or by listening to KALX (the UCBerkeley station) but no one really tackles the lineage of the music, the history, the relationships between styles and eras. I'd subscribe to that RSS feed in a second.

Posted by Mary Hodder at November 8, 2004 07:57 AM | TrackBack

Sadly, you really can't practically podcast music. The show you're requesting would have to limit its use of music to fair use, which might turn out to be unpleasantly restrictive.

Because it's a fixed copy, not a streaming transmission, the section 114 webcasting statutory doesn't apply; one would have to negotiate with each record company for the right to podcast the music. This makes no sense, of course; there's no good reason a podcast should be treated differently from a webcast or a radio broadcast, but there you have it.

Posted by: Joe Gratz at November 8, 2004 09:56 AM

Mary, the 10,000 song mix doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of where things are going. Larger hard drives mean not 10,000 but the 100,000 or easily the 1,000,000 song mix. 100,000 will be considered amateur... chump. This is one area where the software is lagging the hardware. P2P is irrelevent compared to sneakernet. It's very easy to ship a 250 gig drive in the mail these days.

When looked at in a library of 100,000 the custom album takes on new meanings and new relationships are explored by the music collector. With this kind of library one can, for instance, build the 14 CD Neil Young tribute collection in about 35 seconds.... or the 4 CD set of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," or 87 live bootleg versions of Bob Dylan's, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright."

Joni Mitchell said that songs are like children and the digital parents, Adam and Eve, are propagating in strange and mysterious ways.

Metadata though is where the real power of music still lies. Well, there and with the little guy in the chair with the shattered glass and the speaker from the Memorex ad.

Posted by: Thomas Hawk at November 8, 2004 09:15 PM

For another perspective on how people are using music online these days, you might want to take a look at what's going on in the MP3AudioBlog world. Lots of people sharing and writing about their favorite tunes; it's like a whole new generation of music criticism and fandom. And a great way to discover new and obscure music.

Posted by: Nick Francis at November 9, 2004 06:52 AM

Musical forms did change to match the album format (and, even more so, the earliest 3-minute phonograph formats). Musical forms are continuing to adapt to the circumstances of how people listen to music.

Artist popularity changes too around how their music fits the format--formats have "made" arists (e.g., Caruso with the phonograph, Pink Floyd with the LP).

Digital audio files and playlists are a new format--or are evolving into a new format.

One fantasy of mine is: once I decide I really like a song, every time I hear it, I'd like to hear a different recording / performance. That will be possible with playlists, but is basically impossible with the album format. For an artist, such a playlist listening pattern might encourage the artist to release 100 variations of a song, rather than one or just a few.

You might find interesting my series of posts, ending with "The future of music playback":

I also think the physical appeal of albums are going to find some way to evolve into the media-less music age.

Also, a good book, recommended: "Playback: From the Victrola to Mp3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money", by Mark Coleman.

Posted by: Jay Fienberg at November 9, 2004 02:22 PM

It always cracks me up when someone talks about how the word "album" is inappropriate for today's music distribution, saying it belongs to the era of vinyl.

Actually, it belongs to the era of shellac.

An "album" of music was a hefty thing in the days of 78 rpm singles. The ones I have have spines measuring about two and a half to three inches. There are maybe five or six record jackets bound into this hardcover album, each one holding a shellac 78 rpm record with one song on each side.

If there was a time to discard the word "album" to mean a collection of songs, it was when the world moved from actual albums of 78 rpm singles to 12 inch 33 rpm records that contained all of the music on those heavy records on to a single disk. The word has been metaphor for decades, no more so now than 40 years ago.

Posted by: ralph at November 9, 2004 03:52 PM