Given that my last few pieces have touched on the coronavirus pandemic in some way, I’m determined that this piece will not do so. Unfortunately, the subjects I tend to focus on and write about on this site are all shut down at the moment. The sports season has been put on indefinite hold, politics is now dominated by the various reactions to the crisis. But what I’m going to write about today is how sad I am that the idea of album as a suite of songs to be listened to from beginning to end seems to have disappeared forever.
In the age of downloads and streaming, I don’t know why artists are still compling the material they create into albums. Because ultimately, what’s the point? Individual songs are so much easier to get a hold of. Simply search through iTunes or Spotify for the song you like and voila! You have the song you want to listen to without having to wait or skip through the songs you don’t like as much. You can just release them as singles on iTunes or the streaming services. Unless the songs actually fit together under a certain theme or if they came during a focused period of creativity inspired by the same source, it makes little sense to me in the modern music market to release albums. I suppose for anyone who might still be buying physical copies, be it CD or vinyl, it makes sense to have all the latest material together in one place. From the marketing side of things, it probably makes sense to have artists continue to produce albums rather than simply singles, because it makes the tour easier to market. Unless you are in an aging rock band that doesn’t really record anymore, like the Rolling Stones, you promote your album and yourself as an artist by performing your music live. In the case of the Stones, they haven’t written a properly good album for about 30 years and all their best material was written in the 60s and 70s. They aren’t creative anymore, but they can still crank out the old songs brilliantly.
I suppose what I miss is that slightly antiquated idea of sitting in a darkened room, putting a record on and absorbing the album completely as a whole, listening from beginning to end. But in the modern world, that simply isn’t how a lot of listeners actually take in music these days. Music is used as background for exercise, for work, ambient noise in shops, something to have on on the train or on the way to work. It’s not something that you sit down and absorb anymore. You’re almost always doing something else while having music on. An album like Dark Side of the Moon wouldn’t be released today. It is designed to be listened to from front to back and you’re supposed to almost ruminate on the subject matter. There are no love songs on that album. It’s supposed to stimulate a debate about the materialistic world we live in.
I just miss the idea of an album being a cohesive work, kind of like a novel or a film. That’s not to say that there are not albums which flow well together as a suite of songs. I just feel it’s a bit of a wasted exercises, since the average music listener doesn’t listen to entire albums. They cherry-pick the songs they like and rarely just put the album on and listen to the whole thing. To me, the continuing existence of albums is as either an almost catalogue like system which makes it easier to keep songs grouped together or as an easier way to market a tour. Albums are not written today as something which flows together or focuses on one theme. And that is more than alright, not every album has to be a serious thought provoking piece.
It could also be down to how many of us listen to music. Vinyl has made a comeback in recent years and many classic albums are being re-released on vinyl and new albums are also being pressed on vinyl. But you need to have a good setup at home. Many of us, me included, simply have songs downloaded or subscribe to streaming services for the convenience. And when it is so easy to access individual songs, it just makes less sense to me to have them grouped together when every song now needs to stand on its own. In the past, you took the weaker songs with the strong because that completed the album, and you couldn’t skip them easily. You had to sit through them to get to the stronger tracks that you liked. Nowadays in the hyperspace world we live in, that isn’t the case. And with the focus being on each individual song, the album might be less cohesive as a result.
Ultimately, what does it matter? Having time to work on a collection of songs rather work continuously on song after song throwing them out, might make it easier to get a product an artist is happy with. And if the fans like it and listen to it, and pay to go to the shows, who cares what format they listen to it in? I guess I’m looking back with rose tinted glasses at a musical world I wasn’t around to see. But I think we’re all doing that with regards to pretty much everything we took for granted just a couple of weeks ago.