As the digital age ushers recorded music into ever more fractured configurations, Rhiannon Parkinson stands up for the time-honoured long- playing album and explains why she believes the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
A recent conversation with a good friend confused and unsettled me. Both self-described music enthusiasts, I assumed we shared a similar attitude to collecting music, to the primacy of the album, and other related issues. He told me that he’d “chucked away” all his CDs and now only used the internet music database Spotify to keep up with what was ‘hot’ and ‘new’. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was particularly confused by his total lack of emotional connection to his favourite albums, and his readiness to rely entirely on an online system for his music library. Sure, he agreed, there were albums he’d owned (and loved) that hadn’t found their way online which he may never hear again, but the allure of simplicity in the digital age was too much for him to ignore.
Format and ‘platform’ arguments amongst music fans have, until now, generally polarised into a CD-versus-vinyl debate (although cassette tapes still have their champions), but since the advent of iTunes, MP3 downloads, file-sharing and Spotify, more attention has been turned to the impact of the digital age on music in a physical format. The big issue being the liability of MP3s in exacerbating the financial black hole in the production of physical music. But, the real shock to me as I spoke to my friend, was his assumption that single tracks, removed from any ‘pre-determined’ context (he admitted to listening mainly to individual songs, rather than full albums) were just as valid as those on a sequenced album. It got me thinking about the function and history of the LP, and how it’s continued existence might be more parlous than I had previously believed.
As far as I am concerned, the album as a collection of songs, be it in physical or digital form, was always a given. Although the history of the album was rooted in technological necessity I, perhaps naively, felt that this shouldn’t change the way an LP is produced today. From the phonograph cylinders of the 1870s to early 20th century shellac discs and, from the 1950s vinyl LPs onward, the evolution of recorded music was restricted or guided (depending which side of the debate you’re on) by the available means of production. Sonic reproduction on the once popular ten-inch, 78-rpm disc was deemed optimal at about three minutes of music, hence the ‘classic’ three- minute pop song. Similarly, twelve-inch, thirty- three-and-a-third rpm discs are most efficient when the grooves disgorge approximately 20 minutes of music per side, giving us the archetypal album running length.
The general concept of a set number of songs, with a set amount of time, played in a set order, seems to me to be part of the creative authorship of the artist and producer, allowing each song, along with artwork and liner notes, to work as pieces of a jigsaw, slowing revealing a bigger picture. But the impact of digital music changes all this. In some ways digital formats create greater freedom. Songs (and indeed albums and digital collections) can be as long or as short as required. Album artwork, while no longer immediately tangible, can be more inventive, using all manner of interactive components. And yet, it is often said that it is the limitations which increase creativity, forcing the artist to work around a ‘problem’ in a more imaginative way.
It would be absurd to read one chapter of a novel before moving onto another book, or to read all the chapters but in a random order, alongside all the other books by the same author. However, this will be the route of musical outputs in the digital age, as audiences grow ever more comfortable with instant gratification and as attention spans inevitably diminish.
So why is it important to have albums as a set musical discourse? For one, there are narrative based albums that rely on a body of songs that intentionally unfold in a fixed sequence. Lou Reed’s Berlin, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and The Antlers’ Hospice are examples of concept albums that purposefully introduce characters and themes to create a strong narrative arc. Even albums without such strict sequential structures offer so much more in their entirety. Pet Sounds, the seminal 1966 LP by the Beach Boys, is a perfect example, while many of its songs are well-known individually, their full brilliance can only be appreciated when experienced as part of that whole. The arrangements, and lyrics of the songs on Pet Sounds evokes a specific era that embodies a kind of older teenager/ young adult Californian melancholy that can be accessed simply by listening to it. To hear Pet Sounds on random, or worse, as a series of unconnected MP3s that crop up in an iTunes library catalogue, could surely only dilute the potency of the music. Pet Sounds is just one of many albums (other obvious examples are The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Loney Hears Club Band, Ys by Joanna Newsome) that rely on structural direction, recurring musical elements and lyrical themes, not least the ‘time’ and setting of when it was laid down. It’s this mix that creates a chemistry and guides the listener’s reactions to each element as the relative of another.
Rightly or wrongly, I always attached a lot of importance to the first and last songs that ‘book- end’ albums. The opener puts down a marker, where the artist ‘is’, or how they have (or haven’t) developed; it hints at what is to come and grabs your attention. The closing track can consolidate the key creative decisions of the band or artist – a decisive representation of what the group of songs as a whole is trying to convey.
Without these types of roles within the parameters of the album, songs can aimlessly float without any context, devoid of their full meaning. Of course there are stand out single tracks like Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’, or life-changing, cultural landscape-altering 45s like ‘Anarchy in the UK’ or ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ so this is by no means a hard and fast rule, suffice to say it’s not always about every song on an album being a stand alone hit single.
Similarly, the role of mix-tapes can also illustrate how important context is for appreciating music. While home-made compilations are constructed from songs removed from their original contexts, they are thoughtfully placed in a new over-arching framework – the tape maker turns curator, controlling how songs relate to each other in their new listing. The notable difference between the mix-tape and iTunes shuffle, say, is that this is a personal method that retains a consideration of the outcome of the compilation as a whole: it’s a ‘big picture’ exercise, like making an album always has been.
Aside from the structural and creative debates, the potential loss of the album format is for me, akin to losing a close friend; rediscovering an album or artist can be like reconnecting with someone close. The feeling, as each song bleeds reassuringly into the next, reawakening memories and stirring emotions, is like no other. In this way music claims part of my life, one that I do not want to see relinquished by the quick-fix digital alternative. The age of Spotify and the single MP3 track may allow a perceived increase in control for the listener, but it fundamentally limits access to the full available impact of what the best music can achieve. Potential is lost from the removal of those five second gaps of dead air, the pre-determined listening structure, and all the other features that make up the ‘traditional’ LP. An album is a room, set in a certain time and in a real or imagined space. It is somewhere that exists outside the physical world, providing not just an escape, but, at it’s best, a journey.