Private Viewing: Does rise of the download spell the end of the album?
- Credit: AP
The rock album is on the decline say music experts. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke says albums make music far more varied
Is it a sign that you are a music fan or merely an indication of being out of touch with the modern world to admit that you still listen to albums?
CDs and album sales are declining and the world is now accessing its music on a track by track, artist by artist basis from soundclouds and virtual music stores. Web-based radio stations which allow you to shape the music you hear don’t allow you to download it. Streaming technology basically allows you to rent a song for the time it plays and then it has gone. It reduces music to the status of ephemeral wallpaper.
After all these years of struggling to ensure that rock’n’roll is taken seriously as an art form in its own right, it seems that the arbiters of public taste are falling over themselves to make popular music as culturally insubstantial as a cloud of dry-ice on a stage.
If the current controllers of the pop music industry had their way, there would be no after-life for a song or indeed a band once they had their 15 minutes of fame – or probably 3 minutes 30, the length of an average hit single these days. They would be replaced by the next packaged commodity to be sold via television to a compliant public.
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The internet age promised the public more control, more niche markets, more access, the ability to hear a far wider range of music but sadly the choice seems to be narrowing rather than expanding.
The single market has always been a teenage mainstream market. That was fine. I have no problem with that. Everyone deserves an outlet and it’s a great way to explore a diverse musical landscape – or at least it was.
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For me I quickly moved into the world of the album because, for me, the music was much more interesting. I liked rock music. I liked roots music. I liked guitar, bass and drums and maybe the odd fiddle or two. I liked exploring the influences of my musical heroes. Albums are great to really get to know an artist. They allow you to have a relationship with them – to have a deep conversation with their work. You glean information from the liner notes and the album credits. If there are cover versions on the album you can take yourself off and discover the originals and open up a whole new world of musical wonders.
Albums work well in the niche worlds of rock, jazz, folk or singer-songwriter. These are also genres which traditionally have had a long shelf life. Classic albums have sold steadily for years. You can still pick up timeless artistic statements by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, Genesis, Led Zeppelin. The contents of their albums were as considered and as relevant to their age as any book or work of literature. Should classic books no longer be stocked? Should books no longer be written? Should we merely content ourselves with short stories and magazine stories – the literary equivalent of the pop single?
There would be an uproar if this were ever suggested and yet earlier this summer Radio One’s head of music George Ergatoudis made a provocative statement when he declared: “Make no mistake, with very few exceptions, albums are edging closer to extinction.”
It’s a bold statement and to some degree its backed up with statistical evidence about the rising number of downloads but I am frequently on the side of Winston Churchill when it comes to trusting statistics. “There are lies, damn lies and statistics,” he maintained.
If the album, the considered collection of thematic or musically cohesive tracks, were to truly disappear then the world of popular music would be a far less interesting place. Streaming and downloads are vehicles for the quick pop hit, the catchy melody, the repetitive chorus and the musical hook. They are not so good at launching songs which have a slow burn. They take a while to sink into your brain but once there are your musical companions for a lifetime while the catchy single usually fades as quickly as it appeared.
Many classic tracks like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven, Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, all of Pink Floyd prior to The Wall and all Peter Gabriel Genesis wouldn’t exist without the album. Also bands that make albums also tend to play live and audiences love to take home an album as a keepsake of a good night out. Albums, with the sleeve notes, booklets and lyrics, help give popular music the cultural clout that it deserves. Also it feels good to have something tangible in your hand. It makes you value it more.