Friday, December 7, 2007

Is ITunes Killing the Album?

When I started buying music, I would skip through the tracks to get to the singles. I know I'm not the only one guilty of such behavior. A running joke between Backdrifter and I centers on the fact that he owned OK Computer long before I did, but he only listened to "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android." (I argue the latter is a bigger crime.) It's no surprise that people who listen to mainstream radio would seek out albums based on radio-friendly singles. Yet as Sakah Akhtar notes in a 2003 Rolling Stone article, "How many times have you bought a band's album for an overplayed song, only to discover that the more gratifying tunes are the ones you've never heard before?"

Surprise, surprise -- an album's single isn't always an artist's best work. Many of you reading already know this to be true. This fact is dismaying considering, in the day and age of ITunes, each individual track (single or otherwise) suddenly has to bear the brunt of an artist's vision.

Allow me to present an example. There's this guy at my husband's office. He's been getting into more obscure music lately. He tells my husband he loves the Arcade Fire. Only problem is, because of ITunes, he only has the track "My Body is a Cage." Don't get me wrong, I like the song, but it's hardly representative of the Arcade Fire's work (and I'm left wondering if he bought the track only because of the title, expecting to hear some sort of Nine Inch Nails-type tune). So what if he did, you're probably wondering. What's the problem? The guy gets to choose the tracks he wants, the Arcade Fire profits (I suppose). Freedom of choice! Music for all!

ITunes definitely has its benefits. My concern is that, as the distribution of music becomes more and more online-driven, artists may begin to focus on individual tracks rather than a "concept" album. This has been a popular topic of discussion amongst us Range Lifers, ever since Thom Yorke stated in a pre-Hail to the Thief interview that the band was done with LPs. In an even more recent interview, Yorke said:

I'm into the idea of singles and EPs. Jonny and I were never convinced about that whole thing with Kid A; "We don't release singles. This is an album, and that's it." What gets me down is the emphasis on the LP. It's one of our strengths. You can create a more exciting picture with lots of different things that you put together. But I want something that gets you on the dance floor. I always have. But we never do that.
So Radiohead surprised us by releasing an LP, despite the fact that In Rainbows was first released online. In many ways I see the album as creating a palette of many different songs, however, rather than a solidified whole like Kid A (perhaps the rainbow metaphor is a fitting one here). This fragmented effect is not necessarily a bad thing, as In Rainbows is an incredible achievement. Still, one can't help but wonder if Yorke's drive to create a range of sounds was a response to the evolution of the album (further suggested by the band's unusual distribution choice).

As Ahkhar points out, this type of experimentation can be beneficial: "Armored by the tried and true, musicians can take a crack at the risky in a market where loyalties are shiftier than the Bush administration's stance on Iraq's WMD." He goes on to argue that, on the downside, artists might "throw in some junk" to test the reactions of fans and critics. I don't see that as being an issue, as I don't think serious artists would ever set out with the intent of producing subpar work, just for kicks.

Will the album "die," as many have suggested the newspaper or novel have died in response to evolving technologies? All I can say is that this listener cringes at the idea. No more Soft Bulletins, Black Foliages, Aeroplanes, Kid As. Music for all -- but at what price?


Comely said...

Hey, I like the article. It's a good look at the way people are buying music today. Now I hate doing this, but I thought you might be interested in a similar article I wrote that can be found here:

I don't usually like hypeing my own work, but the subject matter is similar.

SonicRyan said...

Did you know that you can erase a 5 paragraph comment by accidentally hitting two keys at the same time. I'm not sure which keys they are; I'm still in shock that I just accidentally erased a 5 paragraph comment. Fuck.

Sorry gang, I'm not going to re-type it, at least not right now. First I have to go punch something...